Sunday, April 26, 2009

Combating Botchan rule

The Japanese political establishment is debating how to combat an infestation that has penetrated Nagata-cho and is allegedly gnawing away at the foundations of Japanese democracy.

I'm speaking, of course, of Japan's hereditary politicians, who constitute roughly a quarter of the members of the two houses of the Diet.

The debate has grown out of an internal LDP debate. Earlier this month, Nakagawa Hidenao and Suga Yoshihide announced the creation of a new study group with the stated purpose of issuing recommendations for the LDP's electoral manifesto — but triggering speculation as to whether Nakagawa is once again looking to undermine the Aso government. The twenty-member group, composed mostly of younger reformists, met with journalist Tahara Soichiro on 16 April to discuss visions of Japan's future and its "national strategy," which is a typical enough agenda for this sort of group. (Nakagawa's activities led to a rebuke from the Machimura faction leadership, which suggested that if he wants to undertake these cross-factional projects, he should leave the faction.)

One of the group's goals is introducing restrictions on hereditary politicians into the LDP's manifesto; conveniently, Suga, the deputy election strategy chairman, is the prospective chairman of the project team responsible for drafting the manifesto. Not surprisingly, the prospect of restrictions has been poorly received by LDP members. One third of the party's Diet members are hereditary members. Eleven of seventeen ministers in the Aso cabinet are hereditary representatives. Whatever the merits of restricting hereditary politicians, for the LDP to include such a proposal while fielding such an extraordinary number of hereditary politicians would be both the height of absurdity and a gross insult to the public. The Aso government has criticized the motion. The prime minister himself said he wasn't sure how is defined for legal purposes.

But Nakagawa has pressed on, declaring on Thursday that he will not pass his seat along to his two sons. (This strikes me as an easy promise for him to make while alive and not close to retirement.)

At the same time, the DPJ, sensing an opportunity, has stressed the importance of restricting hereditary politicians. A survey of DPJ Diet members conducted last week found that nearly sixty percent favor restrictions on hereditary members and Okada Katsuya, head of the DPJ's headquarters for promoting reform, has moved to include the issue in the DPJ's manifesto. The DPJ is rushing to ban candidates from running the same districts as political relatives within three degrees of kinship. Okada has gone so far as to suggest that the issues of contention in the forthcoming election will be "hereditary politics and donations."

This last quote from Okada speaks volumes about why this issue is emerging to the fore now. Okada appears to have finally decided to act like a possible successor and rival to Ozawa Ichiro for leadership of the DPJ, and with the hereditary politics issue he has an issue that enables him to undermine Ozawa while attacking the LDP (while encouraging divisions within the LDP by reaching out to the embattled Suga). It is an obvious means of attacking the LDP and its core of hereditary members, while putting pressure on Ozawa to go, because after all wouldn't it be hypocritical for the DPJ to campaign against hereditary politics while headed by a hereditary politician? "Hereditary politics and donations" might be Okada's vision of the general election campaign, but it could just as easily be his slogan in a battle with Ozawa. Ozawa, after all, inherited his seat some forty years ago. Okada has already questioned publicly Ozawa's explanation for the Okubo scandal, and he and others in the party may be getting ready for Okada's triumphant return to the DPJ leadership as the face of clean government.

Meanwhile, for LDP politicians pushing this plan it is an obvious attempt to reinvigorate the Koizumian "new LDP," with the irony being of course that at the center of this debate is Koizumi Junichiro's son Shinjiro, who is expected to run for the seat being vacated by Koizumi pere.

But despite this growing tempest, I remain unconvinced that banning hereditary politicians will make the slightest bit of difference in how Japan is governed. I still don't see how such a ban would be constitutional, given that Article 14 prohibits "discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin." As I remarked previously, banning hereditary politicians from running in the same district as relatives — arbitrarily defined — sounds like political discrimination on the basis of family origin to me. I do not doubt the intentions of Okada, Suga, Nakagawa, and others when they state that they support restrictions in order to lower barriers of entry to new candidates. But it seems that there are other steps to take that might be even more effective (and constitutional) means of enabling new candidates to run. Okada recognizes this, and argues for voluntary restraints in the nomination processes of the parties.

But why not talk about lifting the restrictions on campaign activities which strictly curtail political activities, the laws that limit when and where political speeches can be made, where posters can be placed and what can be placed on them, which technologies can be used and when, etc.? Japan's campaign laws naturally favor incumbents who get free publicity thanks to be sitting Diet members and also encourage hereditary politicians to enter politics, family name being one of the critical assets from candidates.

I frankly fail to see why dealing with the "hereditary politics" problem is so urgent, aside from the aforementioned political benefits to those pressing for restrictions. I am still unconvinced that hereditary leaders are any better or worse than non-hereditary politicians. And if it is a problem, it is certainly not a problem that should be at the center of the forthcoming electoral campaign. Japan has simply too many problems to waste an election campaign on the question of whether Japan is governed by botchans. Fix Japan's broken institutions and shine more light on the policymaking process and I suspect people will be amazed by how much better the system works, even without swapping the current crop of politicians for a new one untainted by inheritance.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A perfect storm for security policy change?

The great puzzle in Japanese security policy is why despite the consensus within the LDP in favor of a more robust, independent security and persistent worries about North Korea and China among the public at large Japan has failed to spend more — or the same — on defense and made legal and doctrinal changes that would enable Japan to meet threats originating from its neighbors.

Will 2009 be a turning point at which Japan opts for a new security policy?

The response to North Korea's rocket launch has been revealing. As I have already discussed, LDP conservatives have responded to the launch by dusting off old proposals and pushing for them with renewed vigor. Abe Shinzo is back in the spotlight. The conservatives, marginalized when public discussion focused solely on the dismal state of the Japanese economy, have been experiencing a bit of a surge going into the Golden Week holiday.

Prime Minister Aso Taro is revisiting plans from the Abe administration to revise the constitutional interpretation prohibiting the exercise of the right of collective self-defense. On Thursday, Aso met with Yanai Shunji, who headed a private advisory group under Abe to consider the question of collective self-defense, to revisit the question in light of recent events. Aso has previously expressed his desire to tackle collective self-defense, but it appears that North Korea may have given him the opportunity to move forward with it.

He will have plenty of help from his conservative allies. On Saturday, Abe spoke in Aichi prefecture, where he stressed the importance of collective self-defense and called for including reinterpretation of the prohibition in the LDP's election manifesto this year. As is the standard line when talking about collective self-defense, Abe stressed that if Japan is unable to engage in collective self-defense, the alliance will be finished the moment North Korea fires a missile in the direction of the United States.

Of course, it is still an open question whether Japan would be able to shoot down a missile. And in the Obama administration's defense budget proposal, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will push for cuts in research into boost-phase intercept technology, in part because, as Nathan Hodge notes at Danger Room, Gates believes that midcourse and terminal phase missile defense systems are sound. In other words, at the same time that Gates has shrugged off the North Korean missile threat, Japanese conservatives are using the supposed threat to the US and the US-Japan alliance posed by North Korean missiles to move their agenda.

Meanwhile, other conservatives are using the US response to argue that instead of collective self-defense, Japan should be more focused on acquiring the capabilities necessary to defend itself. A recent Sakurai Yoshiko article from Shukan Daiyamondo, reprinted at her website, is a classic of the genre. Sakurai looks at Gates's nonchalance towards the North Korean launch as a signal to Japan that it is on its own. Therefore, "For defense procurement, Japan has until now consistently cut its defense budget by two percent a year. This must stop. We should quickly change course and increase the defense budget." This is a been a consistent theme in her writing, especially of late. Another article, this one in Shukan Shincho, covers much of the same ground but focuses more on how the US is moving closer to China and, by shifting its defense priorities (i.e., by cutting orders of the F-22), will leave Japan vulnerable to China's new model fighter jets. Japan, she argues, is in a tough spot as it picks a new fighter for the ASDF, this despite Japan's having no option to buy the F-22 in the first place — Japan would be in a tough spot regardless of US budgetary decisions. (Sakurai actually backs away from the argument that the US is somehow weaker militarily and focuses on the dangers of Obama's naivete.) Yet another article by Sakurai, this one in the current Shukan Daiyamondo, picks up where her Shincho article left off, castigating the Obama administration for its "unrealistic" China policy and complaining about nuclear disarmament and the F-22 cuts.

(Yes, the conservatives are obsessed with the F-22. This article by Noguchi Hiroyuki, a defense reporter for the Sankei Shimbun, lavishes praise on the F-22 in a manner surely unmatched by all but the US Air Force and Lockheed Martin. Noguchi's article contains many of the same complaints as Sakurai's articles, in particular complaints about the threat posed to Japan by the US government's love for China. Noguchi's article is also of note because he chides Gates for talking about the F-22 as a cold war program; the cold war in Asia, he says, never ended. Which is precisely how Japan's conservatives see Asia, despite economic interdependence with China that dwarfs anything seen during the cold war.)

This is all fairly typical coming from these sources. The difference is that now these calls for a more robust, autonomous Japanese security posture dovetail nicely with the push within the LDP, which in turn has benefited from the emergency drill conducted courtesy of North Korea earlier this month. We are seeing a concerted push by Japan's conservatives to make the case for bigger defense budgets, and, in the case of some of them, greater autonomy from the US. Surely China's fleet review this week will provide more grist for their mill, not unlike the current debate over defense policy in Australia.

The DPJ, it seems, does not want to be left behind in this discussion, and so Asao Keiichiro, the defense minister in the DPJ's next cabinet, on Saturday called for conventional capabilities that would enable Japan to strike North Korean launchers preemptively. (Full disclosure: I previously worked in Asao's office.)

I have no problem with Japan's having this discussion — at this point any discussion about security policy is meaningful. But there are a number of questions that none of Japan's jingoes have answered. For example, to Asao, Abe, Yamamoto Ichita, and the others who have used North Korea's launch to call for preemptive strike capabilities, what specifically do you envision for this role? And, as Jun Okumura asks, can Japan actually find and hit North Korea's mobile launchers? Have you at least considered the consequences of an independent preemptive strike capability for the alliance? By how much should the defense budget be increased? The Japanese people deserve to hear their answers to these questions. It's an election year, after all. It's also the year of the drafting of the latest National Defense Program Outline, which this debate will surely impact.

But I wish the debate wasn't so one-sided. I do wish there was someone willing to argue against the idea that East Asia is in the midst of a new cold war with China, with North Korea's being a sideshow to the main event. I wish there was someone of sufficient stature willing to flood the Japanese media space like Sakurai, except with nuanced arguments about the nature of the East Asian security environment and the "co-opetive" relationship most countries in the region have with China.

Nevertheless, I hope Japan has this discussion, and I hope that public pays attention to it. I'm skeptical that it will produce dramatic changes — there is that whole economic crisis after all — but the conservatives now enjoy the most favorable conditions in which to advance their arguments that they've enjoyed in years.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Benign neglect at work?

After President Barack Obama met with Prime Minister Aso Taro at the White House in February, I suggested that " the administration may be prepared to follow through on an unstated policy of benign neglect: having given Japan its assignments (civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan, progress on realignment, etc.), the administration will now turn its attention elsewhere."

In recent weeks there have been several more indications that this is the Obama administration's preferred course of action on Japan policy. It is increasingly clear that the new administration will place less emphasis on the prevailing agenda of alliance transformation that pressures Japan to revise its constitution and play a more assertive security role regionally and globally, an approach to the alliance that requires more effort than the Obama administration will be capable of mustering for the foreseeable future — effort that would be wasted on a Japan in the midst of political transition and uncertain about what role it will play as a security actor, if any.

The first sign comes from Asahi, which reported last week that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Japan in February, Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu suggested that the US and Japan should issue a new joint security declaration like the declaration signed by Hashimoto Ryutaro and Bill Clinton in 1996. Hamada argued that a new declaration would be "a good opportunity to reconsider the alliance's ultimate significance and the way the alliance ought to be," particularly in light of new security challenges and the alliance's fiftieth anniversary in 2010. Clinton, Asahi reports, avoided saying anything in response to Hamada's proposal. Hamada plans to raise this idea in a forthcoming meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates while visiting Washington during Golden Week.

It is possible that Clinton's non-response is reflective of the state of the administration's Asia policy team. The nomination of Wallace Gregson as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs was only sent to the Senate on Monday of this week, Kurt Campbell has been cleared to succeed Chris Hill as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific but his nomination has not been submitted to the Senate yet, and while Mainichi has become the latest Japanese newspaper to report on Joseph Nye's appointment as ambassador to Japan, there is still nothing official on Nye's appointment. But that said, there are few signs that the Obama administration will be devoting political capital to drafting a new security declaration when the old one is serviceable and, more importantly, when there is so much uncertainty regarding who would be signing the declaration on behalf of the government of Japan. Why spend the time and energy drafting a largely symbolic document only to have a Prime Minister Ozawa come into office and demand substantial revisions or oppose the declaration altogether? For the foreseeable future the Obama administration will be doing all it can to fix long-standing problems (cf. Cuba) while containing newer and more dangerous challenges — and the US-Japan alliance is neither broke nor in danger of breaking.

That explains the neglect.

The administration also showed the "benign" portion of benign neglect last week when Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said unambiguously in an appearance at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo that the US does not want Japan to send troops to Afghanistan, but would rather Japan devote its efforts to shoring up the Afghan government and economy. The Obama administration will not be ignoring Japan — far from it. Instead it will look to Japan to help the US solve urgent problems within Japan's constitutional limits, much as Secretary Clinton said in her speech to the Asia Society in February. The result will be a relationship that is perhaps less "special" than it was when George W. Bush was escorting Koizumi Junichiro to Graceland, not least because, as David Rothkopf writes, the US needs "to cooperate with China on everything." But it will be something more than Japan passing. The Obama administration appears to be simply lowering the bar in light of both Japan's short-term political constraints and its longstanding institutional constraints.

I do not think that this approach will be temporary, for reasons that I will outline in a future post.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Fresh from his trip to Washington, D.C., Abe Shinzo has thrust himself into the debate over how Japan should respond to North Korea's rocket launch this month.

On Tuesday he delivered an address to the new study group led by Yamamoto Ichita (discussed in this post) that calls for an "investigation" into the development of conventional deterrent capabilities that would enable Japan to strike at bases in North Korea. Abe endorsed the group's aims and stressed the importance of permitting collective self-defense for the sake of strengthening the alliance. Of particular interest is that Abe argued that acquiring the technological capabilities to strike North Korea and the legal framework that would enable Japan to use its new capabilities would strengthen the alliance. I suppose it is possible to argue that any improvement in Japan's capabilities would strengthen the US-Japan alliance, but I find that argument fallacious. It is easy enough to imagine how Japan's having the ability to strike North Korea directly would undermine the alliance by posing the risk that Japan might entrap the US in a shooting war not desired by Washington. After all, look at the differences between the official US and Japanese responses to this month's launch.

It seems unlikely that Japan would actually use conventional strike capabilities to attack North Korea, but then again, if Japan actually acquired said capabilities, it seems conceivable that the government might feel pressured to use them if presented with evidence of an imminent North Korean attack (which raises questions about the Japanese government's ability to discern an imminent strike, and whether it would shoot first and ask questions later).

There are other questions worth asking. Would an independent Japanese conventional deterrent make much of a difference in the alliance's ability to deter North Korea? What capabilities does the US lack when it comes to deterring North Korea from striking in any direction? More importantly, how will Japan be any less deterred from launching an attack on North Korea than the US, especially without nuclear weapons in its arsenal? (Over to you, Nakagawa Shoichi!) At the same time, by calling for independent strike capabilities, Abe and other conservatives may be raising doubts — intentionally or unintentionally — about the US security guarantee where fewer existed before, which could in turn...lead to more support for precisely the policy called for by the conservatives.

As far as I am concerned, the biggest difference between Ozawa Ichiro and his conservative critics on defense policy is that at least Ozawa is frank about his desire for a more independent Japan capable of saying no to the US.

This speech by Abe is another sign that far from having softened his image following his fall from power, Abe appears to have learned nothing and is no less obsessed with remaking Japan according to his vision, a vision that in security policy entails barely veiled disgust with postwar Japan as it exists and a view of international politics that belongs more in the nineteenth than the twenty-first century.

Perhaps Abe believes that he will get another shot at the premiership without adjusting at all after his disastrous first at-bat. But in practical terms Abe's recent activities may be more about Abe's reclaiming his position as the LDP's leading conservative ideologue than about his scheming for another run for the LDP presidency, which for the foreseeable future is unlikely to be an option open to him. If Aso Taro manages to lead the LDP to victory, his position will be cemented, forcing Abe to wait, perhaps indefinitely for another chance; if Aso and the LDP lose, it is unlikely that the LDP would turn to a man who would bear much (indirect) responsibility for that defeat to lead the party in opposition.

Abe may be better off as conservative-in-chief. Even as prime minister Abe preferred pontificating about the future and musing about how Japan ought to be than coping with Japan as it is, warts and all. As chief ideologue, Abe can give speeches to LDP study groups and Washington think tanks to his heart's delight, leaving the hard choices and compromises of governing to someone else. He will face little competition for the job. Aso, for all his shortcomings, is far superior to Abe as a politician; whatever his ideological predilictions, he has not forgotten that his job as prime minister is to govern on behalf of all Japanese and his job as LDP president is to help his party win the next election. Aso certainly has his predilictions — his fervent belief in Japan's latent power — but unlike Abe he has tried to square his beliefs with public insecurities, instead of ignoring the insecurities to focus on the ideology. And besides, Aso is a bit too much of a maverick even among conservatives to fit comfortably as the conservative-in-chief.

Abe, without question a true believer, is a better fit for the job. Lucky for him he has plenty of time on his hands.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The conservatives undaunted

Abe Shinzo, former prime minister and favorite of many alliance managers in Washington, was in Washington, D.C. this past week, meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and delivering addresses at the Brookings Institution and the Ocean Policy Research Foundation's US-Japan Seapower Dialogue.

Chris Nelson, eponymous author of The Nelson Report, concluded from Abe's visit that "he sure sounds like he intends to try and come back into power." In other words, consistent with how he became prime minister in the first place, Abe is beginning his comeback tour in a place where he may still enjoy some support.

His Brookings speech may seem like a response to the global financial crisis and a vehicle to soften his image, but Abe said little different from what the Aso government is trying to do, using the economic crisis to promote investment in technological innovation. Abe is still more focused on the distant future than on the dismal present: "However, statesmen also have an obligation to tackle tomorrow's problems. Statesmen have to build systems and projects that will allow their citizens to enjoy benefits over the long term and invest in those systems and projects." He talks about his "Innovation 25" program, but it is unclear what the Japanese government has been able to do to make Japan more innovative and productive. When Abe and others talk about fostering innovation, it strikes me as bordering on technofetishism, a belief that Japan's problems will vanish with technological innovation, which at the same time gives the impression of a certain degree of callousness to the Japanese people who are struggling in the present. Abe is still dreaming of his utsukushii Nihon to come, while the Japanese people continue to live in an increasingly kibishii Nihon.

Nelson noted that Abe came across as more internationalist in his Brookings address, which I guess is true, but for the most part I read it as the same old Abe. The same uneasy balance between a belief in the need for a "mutually-beneficial strategic relationship" with China while stressing the dangers of China's military modernization program. The same blindspot for South Korea, Japan's democratic neighbor. The same uncompromising position on North Korea and the emphasis on the abductees, although with the bizarre modification that the US can talk directly with North Korea as long as it continues to support Japan on the abductions issue. (This was, in a sense, precisely what the US was doing at the end of the Bush administration, pursuing a nuclear bargain in Beijing while the president and other officials assured Japan that it would not forget the abductees. And we saw how well that went over in certain circles in Japan.) He said nothing about constitution revision, although not for lack of belief in its importance.

He also did his part in the campaign to paint Ozawa Ichiro and the DPJ as dangerously irresponsible. Answering a question at Brookings, he said that only if Maehara Seiji becomes prime minister will a DPJ administration not undermine the alliance. As many of his fellow LDP members — and all too many people in Washington — have done, he singled out Ozawa Ichiro's remarks about the US presence in Japan as indicative of some sort of fundamental incoherence on the part of the DPJ, a point which I've previously argued overstates the case. Meanwhile, I find it a bit rich for an LDP politician to bemoan the diversity of opinions within the DPJ, given how consensus has eluded the LDP on numerous policy questions. One day some LDP politician criticizes the DPJ for being Ozawa's personal fiefdom; the next day another criticizes the DPJ for being too diverse in its opinions; the next day another criticizes the party as a reincarnation for the old Socialist Party. Which is it?

Earlier in his trip Abe met with Biden to talk about President Obama's plans for nuclear arms reductions, delivering a message from Prime Minister Aso stating his desire to cooperate with the Obama administration on arms reduction and non-proliferation, although, as Ralph Cossa argued recently, Japan may be less enthusiastic about nuclear arms reductions than meets the eye. To put an exclamation point on Cossa's argument, back in Japan Nakagawa Shoichi, another conservative exiled from power, was delivering a different message about nuclear weapons. Continuing the argument that he and other conservatives have made since North Korea's rocket launch earlier this month, Nakagawa stressed that the only answer for North Korea's nuclear weapons is for Japan to have its own nuclear weapons, an argument that Nakagawa says is "common sense" and not unconstitutional. The nuclear umbrella is apparently not porous, it's non-existent. Why else would Japan need its own nuclear weapons? Can Nakagawa conceive of a situation in which North Korea would strike Japan with nuclear weapons without the US being drawn into the conflict?

Presumably Nakagawa realizes that Japan's acquiring nuclear weapons would be a grave, if not mortal blow to the alliance, and yet he continues to make the argument — how is that somehow less detrimental to the alliance than anything Ozawa has said? There may be no quicker path to an independent Japanese security policy than the acquisition of nuclear weapons, as it is hard to see how the US could maintain the status quo arrangement were Japan wielding its own nukes. Nakagawa may be a disgraced former cabinet member, but he is not alone in making this argument, and the persistence with which conservatives make this argument make it more worrisome. They have a long-term project of making the case for a Japanese nuclear deterrent, and the more their argument goes unanswered, the more respectability it will acquire.

If Aso meant what he said to Obama, he ought to criticize Nakagawa and others publicly and unambiguously for their remarks. This isn't a matter of taboos — they should be able to say whatever they want — but their arguments should not go unanswered. They should be met not with an irrational outcry, but with cool, rational arguments that illustrate the many dangers associated with the policy they are advocating.

Is there no one in the Japanese establishment willing or able to take up Nakagawa's call for a debate on nuclear weapons and then proceed to destroy the idea?

As both Abe and Nakagawa illustrated last week, Japan's conservatives are undaunted in their quest to remake Japan. They continue to wield considerable power, their ideas go largely unchallenged in the public sphere, and they have no shortage of the will to power despite setbacks.

Has Aso made up his mind about an election?

In recent days Komeito has upped the intensity of its disapproval of the government's calling a general election following the passage of its proposed stimulus package.

The LDP's junior partner is still concerned about an overlap between the general election and the Tokyo prefectural assembly election in July, but it has added a new argument against an early election: this past week both Ota Akihiro, the party president, and Kitagawa Kazuo, the secretary-general stressed that the government should prioritize important legislation over an election, arguing that there is more work for the Diet beyond the first supplementary budget, especially the piracy countermeasures bill, budget-related bills, and the revision of the national pensions law. In fact, the Diet has enough work to do that Komeito called for extending the ordinary Diet session until the end of July, presumably to ensure that the government will have enough time to get the budget-related bills through the Diet and have them pass via Article 59 over upper house resistance. On Wednesday, both Ota and Kitagawa met with the prime minister to request an August election, suggesting a degree of urgency in the debate over the timing of a general election.

Prime Minister Aso Taro claims to be taking all opinions and insists that he is not leaning one way or another, but is the intensity of Komeito lobbying a sign that Aso has made up his mind already, that he is leaning to exploiting recent political gains and opting for an early election? His party has made its position clear. Hosoda Hiroyuki, the LDP secretary-general, said Sunday that a general election following the passage of the supplementary budget and budget-related bills, which would of course give the opposition a stake in determining the timing of the election. What Hosoda did not do was give any ground to Komeito. The two ruling parties are now on record as disagreeing on what may be the most important question facing the government. My question from last week remains unanswered: does Komeito have any leverage over the LDP in this situation — is it actually threatening to withhold Diet votes, for example? — or is it simply begging the prime minister in the hope that he'll be solicitous of the opinions of his junior partner in government?

Meanwhile, I think Komeito's desire to extend the Diet session to late July is a non-starter. It is easy to imagine the uproar from backbenchers of all parties if they were forced to remain in Tokyo with an election imminent. Are the LDP's backbenchers with the party leadership on an election sooner rather than later, or are they prepared to wait until August or September, preferably with the summer free for campaigning?

After initial signs that it might bargain with the government over the supplementary budget, the DPJ has opted for outright opposition, rejecting the government's stimulus plans as "merely camphoric baramaki" while deciding not to submit amendments to the government bill. This decision will force Aso to decide whether he will engage in a prolonged battle with the DPJ to get the stimulus package and related bills passed (ensuring that Komeito will get its wish of a delayed election) or whether he will opt for a snap election sooner rather than later. As Ozawa Ichiro said Thursday, there are only two options for the general election, early June or early August.

As for Ozawa's own preference, while he didn't say, I suspect he would prefer the latter, giving himself time to reintroduce himself to voters around the country and hope for another momentum shift in the DPJ's favor.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The end of values diplomacy

Prime Minister Aso Taro is a firm believer in "values-oriented diplomacy," the use of Japan's foreign policy tools to promote the spread of "universal values" like democracy and human rights.

As foreign minister under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, he spoke of Japan's role in creating an "arc of freedom and prosperity," a belt of what he saw as nascent democracies on the edge of the Eurasian continent that Japan could take under its wings and nurture to maturity. In his 2006 speech at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Aso argued that Japan had a long record of actions in support of democracy promotion, insisting that the Abe government was doing "nothing more than giving a name to the diplomatic achievements" that had characterized Japanese foreign policy since the end of the cold war and "giving it a new positioning within our overall diplomacy." Aso envisioned cooperation with NATO, the EU, and Asian democracies on behalf of the goal of promoting democracy.

The arc of freedom and prosperity resurfaced in Aso's January address at the opening of the current ordinary session of the Diet, using it to frame Japanese ODA in Africa, Japan's participation in the war on terrorism the overseas contingency operation in Afghanistan, its environmental, energy, and natural resource diplomacy, and, the most recent addition, its anti-piracy activities off the coast of Somalia. A short while later, in his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos Aso stressed his belief in "Peace and Happiness through Economic Prosperity and Democracy" and reiterated the importance of Japan's efforts to build the arc.

After Aso was chased out of Thailand this week — along with the other leaders of the member countries of the East Asia summit — it is difficult to see the value of "values-oriented diplomacy" as the central concept for Japanese foreign policy.

Aso hurried out of Thailand when demonstrations by supporters of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra forced the Thai government to cancel ASEAN and EAS meetings. The demonstrations marked the latest step backwards for Thailand, which until the 2006 coup that ousted Shinawatra had been making considerable progress towards more stable democracy since the promulgation of the 1997 constitution. As Tim Meisburger of The Asia Foundation explains, steps in the direction of democracy have been undermined by a political struggle that pits traditional elites against the urban and rural poor mobilized by Shinawatra, resulting in the back-and-forth battles among Yellows and Reds in recent years. As Colum Murphy of Far Eastern Economic Review argues, there are a number of steps that the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva needs to take if Thailand is to reverse its slide into disorder. Whether the Thai government will do so appears uncertain.

The upshot is that despite the Bush administration's emphasis on democracy building in Southeast Asia (see this review of the administration's "accomplishments") and despite Aso's "values-oriented diplomacy," Southeast Asia is less democratic today than it was a decade ago. Neither country has been able to halt Thailand's slide away from democracy. Neither country has been able to advance the cause of democracy in Burma. While Indonesia has just had a parliamentary election that shows that it is "strengthening of the processes of orderly, healthy competition within the Indonesian political system" — prompting the Economist to note that Indonesia "has a fair claim to be South-East Asia’s only fully functioning democracy" — it is doubtful that US or Japanese efforts to promote democracy would rank high on a list of reasons for Indonesia's democratic consolidation.

After Aso's abrupt departure from Thailand, it is time for the prime minister to jettison the promotion of univeral values as the primary goal of Japan's foreign policy. The US has already done so — recall Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech to the Asia Society in February, in which she not only did not mention democracy, but actually passed the values agenda off to Southeast Asia, saying "we look forward to working with our other partners and friends in the regions, allies like Thailand and the Philippines, along with Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam, to ensure that ASEAN can live up to its charter, to demonstrate the region’s capacity for leadership on economic, political, human rights, and social issues." Should democracy promotion remain a priority for the US and Japan in the region? Yes, but only one among several, and certainly not the most important.

What should take the place of values-oriented diplomacy? I think Fukuda Yasuo pointed the way last summer in his outline of what would amount to a new middle-power role for Japan in Asia. The new Fukuda doctrine may yet survive its progenitor. What other options are available to the Japanese government?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The LDP's window of opportunity

The Aso government and the LDP, confident due to polling numbers trending in their favor, are publicly mulling the timing of the next general election, raising the possibility that the government will not wait until the end of the current Diet term in September before calling an election.

Sankei reports that members of Aso Taro's cabinet are celebrating the government's new strength, insisting that the government has emerged stronger from its flirtation with single-digit public approval. Chief Cabinet Secretary Kawamura Takeo suggested that the bump in public support is a reflection of public understanding that the government is working diligently to overcome the economic crisis. Hatoyama Kunio, the minister of internal affairs and communications, argued that the government's fortunes are looking up because "the prime minister's character is of a type whose true value takes time to be displayed and understood." Hatoyama foresees the government's public approval rising above 50%. (Does anyone want to take that bet?) Suga Yoshihide, the vice chairman of the LDP's election strategy committee, said that the public is "losing its allergy" to the LDP on the basis of the party's response to the economic crisis and the North Korean missile launch.

However, as Sankei notes at the end of its article, the members of the Aso cabinet have conspicuously neglected to mention that Ozawa Ichiro's struggles might have something to do with the change in the government's fortunes.

For his part, the prime minister has refused to celebrate prematurely — for good reason. Despite Hatoyama's inexplicable optimism, the Aso government and the LDP still have a perilous road ahead before they can be confident that an election is theirs to win.

First, Komeito continues to oppose an election before the July 12 elections for the Tokyo assembly. The party's leadership has publicly rejected a mid-June election, at the close of the ordinary Diet session, as too close to the Tokyo election, upon which the LDP's junior partner has long attached considerable weight when it comes to election timing. Komeito head Ota Akihiro questioned whether the governing coalition should be so confident about the general election, arguing that, contrary to the judgment of Suga and others, it may be a mistake to generalize from the Chiba and Akita elections to determine public openness to voting for the LDP in a general election.

Komeito could be bargaining with the LDP, but for what? The government has already announced its latest stimulus package, meaning Komeito has probably already received the bulk of the benefits it will be able to squeeze out of the LDP in this round of economic stimulus. Can Komeito stop the prime minister from calling an early election? Komeito has stated its preference for an election sometime after July 12, but what is it offering or not offering the LDP in the debate over election timing? Conceivably the LDP will be solicitous of Komeito's opinions — Aso certainly has been up to this point — due to Komeito's holding the balance of the government's supermajority in the lower house, but what leverage does Komeito have when it comes to election timing? The timing of a general election might be one issue over which Komeito has little control.

More significant than Komeito opposition to an early election is the state of the economy. As I've argued previously, Aso is trapped between his commitment to put fixing the economy above everything else and the pressure from within LDP and the government to exploit what looks to be a window of opportunity during which the political situation favors the LDP. Can the LDP win on the basis of its "exhausting all power" to stimulate the economy, even if the government's efforts have had precious little impact on the health of the Japanese economy? Do Aso's ministers truly believe that the public is responding to the government's diligent efforts?

The DPJ, as expected, has stressed the need for "sufficient debate" on the 15 trillion yen stimulus plan, prompting Yamaguchi Shunichi, one of Aso's cabinet aides, to note that if the DPJ prolongs the debate — which he characterized as extending the debate in the upper house to longer than a couple weeks — it is possible that the prime minister will retaliate by calling an election. (Who is the prime minister or his aide to decide what makes for the appropriate amount of debate, especially the size of the stimulus package, the amount of debt entailed, and the fact that LDP no longer controls the upper house?) I suspect that the DPJ will call the prime minister's bluff; Ozawa, it seems, will do so gladly, as he said Tuesday that he still thinks that an election should be held as soon as possible.

The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, the DPJ. Ozawa's position is purportedly in jeopardy once again following Sunday's defeat in the Akita gubernatorial election, but as before, it is hard to see precisely how dissatisfied the party rank-and-file is with the beleaguered leader. There have been few hints of dissatisfaction from the party prefectural chapters or defections from the party leadership's decision to back Ozawa, aside from the usual suspects. In the wake of Sunday's defeat Hatoyama Yukio has called for Ozawa to make his case directly to voters in town hall meetings, something that I am surprised Ozawa has not been doing every day since the scandal broke. Ozawa might be clean and might have good reason for criticizing the Tokyo public prosecutor's office, but if he does not communicate directly to the public, without the filter of the media, polls will continue to show majorities in favor of his resigning. What remains unclear is whether those same majorities will be disinclied to support the DPJ in a general election if Ozawa stays on — despite Sunday's defeat, it still seems up to Ozawa whether he stays or goes, depending on a few factors beyond his control, and for now he shows no sign of going anywhere.

It seems clear that it is Ozawa who opened the window of opportunity that now tantalizes the LDP. The question for Ozawa is whether he can slam the window shut in the prime minister's face, without having to step down in the process.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The LDP's loose lips

When Ozawa Ichiro suggested that at some unspecified point in the future the US forward-deployed forces in Japan might be reduced to the Seventh Fleet with Japan's taking greater responsibility for its own defense, he was greeted with opprobrium from LDP and government officials, who called him naive, unrealistic, and ignorant. Even Kevin Maher, the US consul general in Okinawa, weighed in, echoing LDP comments about Ozawa's ignorance of the complexities of the East Asia regional security environment. Judging by the response, it appeared as if Ozawa was a dangerous radical who, if elected, would single-handedly undermine the alliance and leave Japan defenseless in a dangerous neighborhood.

After watching the response from certain corners of the Japanese establishment to North Korea's rocket launch, when will Mr. Maher issue another warning to Japanese politicians for their dangerous rhetoric?

Over the past week, Japanese conservatives have used the fear roused by the North Korean launch to put one radical idea after another before the public, all of which amount to a giant vote of no-confidence in the US-Japan alliance. The same politicians who last month were condemning Ozawa for his naivete were rattling the saber at North Korea and in the process questioning whether the US is capable of defending Japan from its neighbors.

Some examples:
  • Yamamoto Ichita and six other LDP members formed a study group for "thinking about strengthening deterrent capabilities against North Korea." The group wants the new National Defense Program Outline due at year's end to include some mention of possessing the capability to strike at bases in North Korea. The group also calls for lifting the restriction on collective self-defense, but the focus appears to be more on acquiring new capabilities than on bolstering the alliance. The other six members are Shimomura Hakubun (54), a four-term lower house member from Tokyo; Onodera Itsunori (48), a three-term member from Miyagi; Mizuno Kenichi (42), a four-term member from Chiba; Tsukada Ichiro (45), a first-term upper house member from Niigata; Suzuki Keisuke (32), a first-term PR member from Fukuoka; and Matsumoto Yohei (35), a first-term lower house member from Tokyo. There are certain points of commonality among these seven. Their study group memberships lie at the nexus of the Koizumian reformists and the Abe-Aso-Nakagawa (Shoichi) conservatives. Three belong to the "True Conservative Policy Research Group." The first-termers belong to the club of 83 or the conservative Tradition and Creation club. They occupy the younger half of the age spectrum, meaning they can look forward to inheriting the LDP. In Shimomura the group has a politician identified by Richard Samuels and Patrick Boyd as a future leader of the LDP. It may be a small group, but it is a significant group in terms of its membership, representative less of the views of the LDP at large than of the views of a group that is likely to lead the LDP in years to come. Their membership in this group is wholly consistent with what Samuels and Boyd found in their study of next-generation political leaders: "The twelve [future LDP leaders they identify]...are significantly more supportive of Japan’s right to preemptive attack in the face of imminent threat than the LDP overall or the larger midcareer generational cohort."
  • I have already noted that prominent conservatives used the occasion of the launch to call for a debate on the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Hosoda Hiroyuki dismissed these remarks by saying that "I don't think that anyone is seriously saying this," while Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, reaffirmed the three non-nuclear principles. (These remarks were in response to LDP official Sakamoto Goji's remarks about acquiring nuclear weapons and withdrawing from the UN.)
  • Koike Yuriko, whose quest to unseat Aso Taro ended just as soon as it began, stressed the need for a Japanese-style National Security Council — an idea that died with the Abe government — at a meeting of a subcommittee of the LDP Policy Research Council's defense policy division.
  • Nakagawa Hidenao stated his concern that since the US ruled out intercepting the North Korean launch beforehand, it exposed a gap in the alliance.
Komori Yoshihisa, Sankei's man in Washington, more or less summed up the line of argument that encapsulates the views of these politicians in a front-page article in Sankei — more op-ed than reportage — in which he speaks of the present moment as a "moment of truth" for the alliance.

Komori argues that the US (and the effete and ineffectual Obama administration) failed to live up to the letter of the alliance by ruling out an intercept, that the Obama administration's emphasis on multilateral diplomacy did nothing to prevent the launch, and that Japan is learning the true face of the new administration when it comes to the alliance. The upshot is that Japan is coming to realize that in the face of the North Korean missile threat, it cannot necessarily depend on the United States.

This reasoning is considerably more threatening to the alliance than anything Ozawa said. In material terms the US security guarantee is no weaker today than it was before North Korea's rocket launch. Does a slightly less unsuccessful rocket launch make Japan so much more vulnerable to North Korea's missiles that the alliance as it exists is rendered irrelevant? Has enough changed in the past week to merit this discussion?

And yet by talking as if North Korea has struck a blow against the alliance, these leaders risk eroding public confidence in the alliance without offering anything in its place. After all, Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu said "it is highly doubtful" that deterrent capabilities will be included in this year's NDPO or the mid-term defense program. Japan is still not prepared to even discuss nuclear weapons. (Yamasaki Taku offered the novel argument against a nuclear debate by saying that even by talking about nuclear weapons Japan would be voicing its acceptance of North Korea's nuclear weapons.) But the LDP is taking a hard line — Hosoda took the opportunity to criticize Condoleeza Rice and Christopher Hill by name for being "weak" on North Korea — without any indication that its rhetoric will accomplish anything but frightening the public and undermining the alliance. (Of course, if Japan actually acquired its own conventional deterrent capability, it would likely lead to conclusions similar to Ozawa's: if Japan had its own capabilities to strike at North Korea, presumably Japanese citizens would wonder why they were continuing to pay to base US airpower on Japanese soil.)

As Sam Roggeveen wrote in response to equally outrageous rhetoric from Newt Gingrich in the US, "There is no military solution to this dilemma — not missile defence, and certainly not air strikes or special forces. The reason lies in the geography of the Korean peninsula. The proximity of Seoul (and several other South Korean cities) to the border with the North means Pyongyang essentially holds that city hostage." Japan is in no more position to start a war with North Korea than the US is. Japan may be more insecure on account of geography, but geography makes Japan no more capable of "solving" the North Korean problem than any other country.

The US is, of course, paying the price for having swung from unremitting hostility towards North Korea to cooperation in the hope of containing the threat without ensuring that Japan shifted too. The US government, first under Bush and now under Obama, has only acknowledged the reality that the US has little power to change the unpleasant status quo and must therefore find a way to limit the threat posed by North Korea beyond mere deterrence. The Japanese government, by contrast, is locked in by past decisions to pursue a hard line on North Korea that put the abductees first and roused the public's fears so that the government lacks the ability to change course, even if it wanted to do so. And Japan's conservatives are using the situation to push an agenda that they would be advocating anyway — Kim Jong-il has simply made it easier for them to do so.

Conservative rhetoric is unlikely to change Japan's security policy in the near term, not with a 15 trillion yen stimulus package on the agenda. For the moment the public continues to prefer tough talk on North Korea to backing up talk with expensive weaponry. But too much tough talk will undermine the US-Japan relationship and make the US more eager to work with countries that will help it contain or solve the North Korea problem, not make it worse.

Perhaps it is time to send an ambassador to Tokyo.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Is the government running out of options — or out of options already?

The political system is gearing up for a debate over the government's 15 trillion yen stimulus package that could decide the timing and the outcome of the next general election.

Kan Naoto has indicated that if the government is open to revising the plan, the DPJ will cooperate to smooth its passage. What choice does the DPJ have? Now that the LDP and the DPJ have swapped preferences regarding election timing — after years of demanding an immediate election, the DPJ has backed down due largely to Ozawa Ichiro's struggles, and the prime minister, enjoying what could be a temporary shift in his favor, is contemplating an election sooner rather than later — the DPJ has every reason to cooperate if it means depriving the government of an issue which it can use as justification for a snap election. Although there is some debate within the party about the right course of action, it seems likely that the DPJ will opt for this strategy, forcing Aso to decide whether he will live up to his oft-repeated commitment to putting policy and the resolution of the economic crisis before politics or whether he will opt to exploit what looks like a window of opportunity for a general election.

At the same time, the DPJ ought to engage in good-faith debate for reasons having nothing to do with its political standing. Given the amount of money the government is pledging to throw at Japan's crumbling economy, the leading opposition party and master of the upper house ought to be thoroughly reviewing the government's plan and questioning whether its components are intended to stimulate domestic demand or buy the votes of straying LDP constituencies (or throw money at the prime minister's hobby). The press coverage of the government's plan makes the mistake of treating it as wholly dedicated to fiscal countermeasures. As Ikeda Nobuo notes, emergency measures comprise 4.9 trillion yen, compared with 6.2 trillion yen for the government's "growth strategy." Ikeda, a libertarian economist, says that the growth strategy measures could be conceived as old-fashioned LDP pork-barrel spending, but they should also be understood as an effort to revive old-style MITI targeting — and which Ikeda rejects as inconsistent with the latest economics research and likely to do more harm than good. The DPJ ought to be raising questions about whether the government's spending plans have the slightest chance of nurturing new industries and reorganizing the Japanese economy. Hatoyama Yukio has already started on this line of argument, but the DPJ may have a hard time continuing in this vein given its own spending plans.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of questions about the government's proposal that can and should be asked. Looking at Prime Minister Aso's statement about the stimulus package, a number of questions came to mind.

The prime minister himself said, the goal of the government's proposal is "to prevent the bottom from falling out of the economy," meaning that the government's emergency measures have less to do with stimulating consumption than with minimizing the hardship suffered by laborers and small- and medium-sized businesses. To that end, the government has pledged more subsidies for businesses that have retained employees and greater support for retraining for laidoff employees, and greater access to credit from public financial organizations for small- and medium-sized businesses. (Jun Okumura notes the importance of this measure here.) Additionally, Aso pledged greater support for working single mothers, higher child allowances, scholarships and tuition reductions for private school students, and some 310 billion yen in subsidies for rural medical institutions.

The third part is the portion criticized by Ikeda, the government's medium-term growth strategy. Central to this plan is environmental technology, and thus Aso called for spending to promote greater use of solar panels in schools, homes, and businesses and the development of electric cars. The government will also ease the burden on local authorities for public works projects (i.e., greater central government spending), will promote the construction of a Tokyo ring road, and raise the level of subsidies to localities. He also alluded to medium-term tax reform that includes a consumption tax increase, prompting Nakagawa Hidenao to criticize the prime minister sharply for speaking of a tax increase as the economic outlook worsens. (Yosano Kaoru acknowledged in a TV appearance Saturday that as the government debates fundamental tax reform it needs to set a new target for balancing the budget now that 2011 is out of the question.)

The first thing that stands out is just how much Aso has lowered his sights since January. Recall that in January Aso insisted that he would make Japan the first country to escape the crisis. No longer. Now his government is merely trying to stave off complete collapse. Aso appears to have lost much of the optimism that characterized his response to the crisis earlier this year.

The question is whether this will be too much, too late, whether the fate of the economy rests in non-Japanese hands, making the government's plan a gambit to buy time in the hope of economic recovery elsewhere. It's an expensive gambit, and the DPJ should be concerned. If the government's salesmanship works, the massive stimulus package might be enough to convince the public that the LDP is steady and reliable in troubled times and deserves to be returned to office. And if the latest stimulus package fails, it will have the unintended consequence of leaving a new DPJ government facing an economy in freefall with its options even more limited on account of the additional debt the government will issue to pay for the stimulus package (which suggests that despite Yosano's desire for progress in the direction of tax reform, the LDP has every reason to wait until after an election to commit to a course of action — why should the LDP commit itself to a politically fraught policy when it could be the DPJ's problem in a matter of months?).

The uncomfortable question raised by this debate is whether the Japanese government is wholly powerless in the face of the worsening economy. Monetary tools? Limited. Fiscal policy? How many more stimulus packages can the government pass while waiting for recovery, ensuring that future generations of Japanese will bear an ever greater burden of paying for the current government's restless impotence?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Aso government's need for speed

Ozawa Ichiro, marking the third anniversary of his leadership of the DPJ, gave a long (and rambling) press conference at DPJ headquarters to mark the occasion.

In the midst of Ozawa's winding and evasive answers to questions pertaining to North Korea's rocket launch, political strategy, the coming general election, and economic policy, it is hard to find a coherent message, which betrays a certain lack of confidence that Ozawa and the DPJ are feeling at this juncture.

For the first time in months, the DPJ is on the defensive. The momentum has shifted perceptibly. The DPJ, rather than criticizing the government from one misstep or another, is forced to defend Ozawa's alleged misdeeds and respond to an Aso government that has appeared more vigorous of late.

Despite North Korea's pushing Nishimatsu out of the headlines for the moment and Ozawa's having secured the support of the bulk of the DPJ — the latest vote of confidence coming from Okada Katsuya, his most likely successor — for his staying on as leader, the impact of the Okubo indictment remains that the DPJ is now answering the questions instead of asking them. As the LDP knows all too well, politically it is much easier to criticize or threaten censure than to have to explain why apparent wrongdoing is not in fact wrongdoing. The DPJ has enjoyed a run of good luck, with the LDP's making plenty of mistakes for the DPJ to exploit, but now finds itself on the receiving end of the public's doubt.

Perhaps the more important reason for the swing of the pendulum away from the DPJ is the appearance of action on the part of the Aso government. Between North Korea and the financial crisis, the Aso government appears to be getting things done. I think Ozawa is right to question the government's handling of last weekend's launch, but this argument may have little political utility. The public is more concerned about North Korea than the mistakes the government may or may not have made while acting to keep Japan safe. Not surprisingly, the media wanted to know what an Ozawa government would do in the Aso government's situation. The media asked about whether the DPJ would be able to work together with the SDPJ on security policy in a coalition government, given that the party abstained from the Diet vote condemning North Korea's launch — and Ozawa prevaricated. The one clear answer he gave rejected calls within the LDP for the capability to launch preemptive strikes against North Korea. He also called for greater cooperation with China and Russia on North Korea, which is fine seeing as how the US has already beaten a well-worn path to Beijing to cooperate on North Korea, but hardly certain of yielding results. The DPJ will not win by meeting the appearance of action on the part of the LDP with mealy-mouthed obfuscation.

The same applies to the DPJ's response to the Aso government's latest stimulus plan, which will amount to roughly 15 trillion yen and push the total budget for 2009 over 100 trillion yen for the first time in history. The plan includes environmental technology projects, tax relief, infrastructure projects (lengthening the runway at Haneda, for example), allowances for children not yet in school, and greater protection for temporary workers. As Mainichi suggests, this stimulus package is redolent of baramaki, of throwing money about willy nilly.

I think it is fair to ask whether the government's latest plan will make a dent in shifting the public's propensity to consume, which remains the primary challenge for economic recovery. Claus Vistesen, in a long discussion of how the government can get people to consume more, once again comes back to demographics — he questions the argument that the government can fix the lack of domestic demand by incentivizing the transfer of wealth from the older to the younger generation and suggests that the answer is "to rely on the ability to keep a structural surplus towards the rest of the world" (which means constantly finding countries able to maintain deficits to complement Japan's surpluses, something the US may not be able to keep doing).

But without a plan of its own, the DPJ is also on the defensive on economic policy. The DPJ's "next cabinet" compiled an economic stimulus proposal this week, but for the most part it looks like the DPJ is simply trying to outbid the LDP rather than determine measures the DPJ can take to promote recovery and transformation. Promising 21 trillion yen over two years, the DPJ is offering 26,000 yen monthly child allowances (a proposal straight out of the party manifesto), making highways free, strengthening support for workers, and investing in green technology. The party is also calling for tax cuts for small- and medium-sized businesses and removing the temporary gasoline tax. Ozawa insisted that the party's manifesto remains pertinent despite economic conditions, that its focus on livelihood issues remains sound, but it is hard to escape the impression that the DPJ is punting on the most significant livelihood issue of all: the economic crisis. The party is still focused on comprehensive adminstrative reform as a means for freeing up funds. Adminstrative reform may save some money, but it certainly won't be a reliable source of funds in the short or medium run. Saving the Japanese economy will require more than cutting waste.

As a result, the party has, for the moment, ceded the initiative to the Aso government. Prime Minister Aso is even feeling confident enough to speculate openly about the timing of the general election, as he did Monday evening of this week: "Soon," he said. He may not have been serious — Sankei suggested his remark may have been intended to disorient the DPJ — but subsequent remarks suggest that the prime minister may be thinking hard about exploiting the DPJ's situation by calling a general election should the DPJ oppose the government's stimulus plans. The government is clearly desperate to appear to be doing something in response to the crisis. The content of policy appears to matter less than the recognition that the government is acting. Chief Cabinet Secretary Kawamura explicitly appealed to the speed with which the US passed a stimulus package earlier this year in a call for cooperation with the oppostion parties (ignoring the reality of the Republican Party's fierce opposition to the stimulus). The Aso government clearly wants to consolidate recent gains and build on its momentum. Whether it will succeed will depend in part on events, in part on the response of the DPJ.

The DPJ needs to tailor its message to acknowledge that it is no longer 2007. There is no ignoring the economic crisis. This week's next cabinet discussions were a start, but there is more work to do. The DPJ should have little trouble doing this: isn't fixing the economy a lifestyle issue? The DPJ cannot answer the Aso government's frenetic activity by waving its 2007 election manifesto.

The DPJ also needs to find the right message on North Korea. It ought to point to irresponsible comments on nuclear weapons by the prime minister, his former finance minister, and, most recently, Sakamoto Goji, a six-term LDP member and director general of the party organization. Asahi reported that Sakamoto stated his support for the possession of nuclear weapons and withdrawal from the UN at a meeting on Tuesday, but denied the validity of the report. If the DPJ can confirm that Sakamoto said this (confirm being the operative word), it ought to be able to appeal to public disapproval of this argument and paint the Aso government as excessively bellicose. The public certainly wants a hard line on North Korea, but there appear to be limits to just how hard a line the public will support. In general, the DPJ might be better off supporting the government on this issue, applauding the decision to go to the UN and work closely with the US and other countries. The DPJ gains little from criticizing a decision that has broad public support, and supporting the government on this issue could neutralize it in an election campaign and make the DPJ appear as something other than rejectionist.

The point is that the DPJ has not lost the next election yet. Momentum may have momentarily shifted in the LDP's favor, but the DPJ and Ozawa are still in a position to pressure the government. But it cannot merely play for time and hope that the Aso government will make mistakes.

Monday, April 6, 2009

After the launch

In the wake of North Korea's Unha-2 launch Sunday, the Japanese establishment and public have uniformly reacted with a sense of outrage and a desire for an vigorous Japanese and international response to the test.

With substantial public support — 78% of respondents in a Yomiuri poll — the government is investigating tightening sanctions and plans to secure a cabinet decision authorizing further sanctions on 10 April. The Aso government is also working with the US and South Korean governments to secure a new UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea's actions over Chinese and Russian doubts. Sankei reports that in its work to assemble a coalition in support of the resolution, the foreign ministry is not looking for new sanctions to be included in the UN resolution, as a means of making the resolution more attractive to China and Russia.

Other Japanese are thinking beyond sanctions and resolutions. Nakagawa Shoichi, the disgraced former finance minister and leading conservative in the LDP, responded to the launch on Sunday by once again calling for a debate on acquiring nuclear weapons. (He most recently did so after the October 2006 nuclear test, when he was head of the LDP's policy research council — at which time Aso Taro, then foreign minister, joined him in calling for a debate on acquiring a nuclear arsenal.) To my knowledge, Jiji is the only news outlet that reported on Nakagawa's comments. The Tokyo Shimbun reports that he spoke only of a debate about how Japan can defend itself, and suggesting that it should consider acquiring the ability to strike at "enemy bases." I'm inclined to believe that Jiji's report is correct: why would Nakagawa be any more discreet now than he was when he had an official position? No longer a leader of the LDP's conservatives, his words carry less weight, but he still provides insight into how Japan's conservatives think about the region. After all, Nakagawa's remarks echo what Tamogami Toshio, former ASDF chief of staff and the new darling of the right, has said about nuclear weapons. In an interview with Sankei last November, Tamogami spoke of the deterrent effect of even publicly considering the acquisition of nuclear weapons — and suggested that ruling out the acquisition of nuclear weapons from the start weakens deterrence. More recently, in a conversation with defense affairs commentator Ushio Masato (a former ASDF airman, trustee of Sakurai Yoshiko's think tank the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, and regular in the pages of Sapio, Seiron, and Shokun!) published as the book「自衛隊はどこまで強いのか」(To what extent is the JSDF strong?), Tamogami calls for the acquisition of ballistic missiles as the best way to negotiate with North Korea and says that "the most effective way for Japan to become an independent country is to be nuclear-armed."

The conservative argument has little to do with North Korea's test, which was once again a failure, albeit less of a failure than July 2006, when its Taepodong-2 dropped into the Sea of Japan within a minute of launch. This time it managed to drop the first stage before the second and third fell into the Pacific. (Geoffrey Forden considers North Korea's progress in missile development here.) Despite no tangible change in US deterrent capabilities or the US commitment to Japan's defense — by all accounts US-Japan cooperation went smoothly in anticipation of the launch — the conservatives are agitating about Japan's vulnerabilties. For example, Sankei, in a news article that reads more like an article in a conservative opinion magazine, writes of the "possibility that data collected by the US military will not be adequately transferred" to Japan. As Tamogami's remarks above suggest, the acquisition of nuclear weapons is not about — or not only about — their deterrent value. Nor it is about the nature of the North Korean threat, which has gotten no worse as a result of the latest launch. (And, MTC suggests, the missile threat may be less worrisome than the ability of North Korean agents to cause havoc on Japanese soil.)

It is be about Japan's being able to defend itself without having to worry about the reliability of the US-Japan alliance. Conservatives like Nakagawa and Tamogami would be calling for more robust military capabilities even if the rocket launch had failed immediately after liftoff as in 2006. (We should be thankful that Tamogami is so open with his thoughts.)

All that has changed is that for the moment the eyes of the news media and the Japanese people are on North Korea.

Nevertheless, the conservative position has little public support. A new Shin-Hodo 2001 poll found 19.4% of respondents in favor of Japan's going nuclear and 72.8% opposed. (By comparison, a Hodo 2001 poll released on 15 October 2006, after the nuclear test, found 82.6% opposed to Japan's going nuclear and only 13.8% in favor: A slight shift, but for now probably not a significant shift.)

But will the legal and economic measures favored by the government and the public make any difference? What can Japan and the other participants in the six-party talks realistically do in response to North Korea's launch, other than protest?

As Mainichi reports, further sanctions will have little effect due to earlier sanctions on trade between Japan and North Korea. Economic sanctions on North Korea strikes me as the economic equivalent of "making the rubble bounce." The same holds true, even more so, for further US sanctions or even a reversion to a hardline on North Korea. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, has insisted that if the UN does nothing in response to a clear violation of UNSC Resolution 1718 it will weaken the six-party talks, which may or may not be true but shows that the Obama administration will likely press on with talks, although Yomiuri claims to see evidence of a US shift to a harder line.

Joshua Stanton suggests that there are a number of tools at the Obama administration's disposal, including a number of financial measures that could choke off the regime's access to hard currency from abroad. Maybe so, but at what cost? As Fred Kaplan argues at Slate, the US has no good options for dealing with the DPRK. The six-party talks will not result in denuclearization, not any time soon at least. Ignoring North Korea raises the prospect that North Korea will up the ante in its bid for attention. Boxing in the regime, as recommended by Stanton, presumably raises the risk of the regime lashing out in desperation — or, worse yet, that the regime will collapse for the US and its neighbors are prepared to deal with the consequences of regime collapse (a contingency that the US and North Korea's neighbors, China especially, should be devoting considerable energy to preparing for). There is no good option available to the US, Japan, and South Korea in the absence of more Chinese pressure, which may not be as viable an option as Kaplan suggests it is.

The only course of action may be getting a token resolution out of the Security Council and delaying a bit before resuming the six-party talks, and preparing for the possibility of regime collapse, in the meantime doing whatever possible to coax North Korea open in the hope of making collapse marginally less dangerous for North Korea's neighbors and less jarring for the downtrodden people of the DPRK.

And as for Japan, it ought to be less worried about its deterrent capabilities than about fixing the defense ministry, which over the weekend once again revealed its problems with handling information.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rocket launched; Japan breathes again

The Aso government got its wish: North Korea launched its rocket, with the first stage said to have landed off the coast of Akita prefecture and the second said to have landed in the Pacific Ocean.

After weeks of posturing, there was no attempt to intercept the debris.

It is unclear whether North Korea successfully delivered a satellite into orbit, as it said it would.

The US, Japan, and South Korea will now go to the UN Security Council as planned, citing the launch as a violation of UNSC resolution 1718. There will be some question of whether China will join the others in condemning the launch. China and Russia expressed reluctance to declare North Korea in violation of res. 1718 because it had followed procedures — notifying the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization of its impending launch — and gave indictations that it was "just" a satellite launch, even though the implications of a successful launch have obvious implications for North Korea's missile arsenal. (As an aside, I suspect that Japanese conservatives are happy with a successful launch, thinking that it will render the US as vulnerable to North Korea missile strikes as Japan, narrowing the distance between the US and Japan on North Korea.)

China always walks a fine line in its relationship with North Korea, and this case will be no different. China will likely stop short of supporting a new resolution condemning North Korea or supporting new sanctions — both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were cool to the urgings of Prime Minister Aso and Foreign Minister Nakasone on the sidelines of the G20 in London — but I wouldn't be surprised if Beijing used one of its own back channels with Pyongyang to express its displeasure.

Drowning in noise

While Japan waited anxiously Saturday to see whether North Korea would launch its rocket, the day ended up being notable for the defense ministry's mistakenly informing the public not once but twice that launch had occurred.

Yomiuri has the details on how the public came to be misinformed. The first mistake, which occurred around 10am Saturday, resulted from a computer glitch at the GSDF command center in Tokyo, which resulted in some 900 JSDF personnel receiving emails announcing that a launch had been detected, including one GSDF officer in Akita, who proceeded to inform local authorities of the launch. The second mistake, at around noon, was the result of a misunderstanding by the Air Self-Defense Forces officer responsible for missile defense, who thought that a report received from air defense command in Tokyo was based on information from US early warning satellites, when in fact it came from a J/FPS-5 radar station in Chiba that had detected "some kind of wake." The ASDF officer informed the Kantei's crisis management center, which then informed the media and some local governments via its M-net system.

Geoffrey Forden has more about the Chiba station and another station in Shimonoseki. As for the Chiba station, Yomiuri reports that its location poses some difficulty due to the Japan Alps lying between Chiba and North Korea. Due to geography, the radar is detecting with a 4-6 degree angle of elevation, which apparently prevented the station from tracking North Korea's 2006 missile launches, which were about 100 kilometers too low. But as Yomiuri notes, the mistake had less to do with the radar than with human error: neither the ASDF officer who received the report nor the defense ministry's central command post confirmed that the information had come from US spy satellites. They ought to have been suspicious, because reportedly an alarm would sound when data was received from the US — and beyond that, they could have checked on a US-Japan computer system for sharing information.

The result was confusion and alarm in localities throughout Japan. Apparently the public is paying more attention to the government's extensive and visible preparations than to its messages telling the public to remain calm and minimizing the danger of falling debris. To some degree, the confusion was the result of over-preparedness. In their desire to deliver information to the public has swiftly as possible, local governments have neglected safeguards that would check for accuracy before issuing announcements. The speed with which corrections were issued caused further confusion.

The government was quick to apologize for the mistakes, and continued to stress its readiness — and urged the Japanese people to carry on with their daily lives. But yesterday's follies will likely dog the government for weeks and months to come.

On Saturday afternoon, Hatoyama Yukio, DPJ secretary-general, criticized the government for needlessly alarming the public, sentiments echoed by the JCP, SDPJ, and PNP. The government also faced criticism from within the governing coalition. I have already mentioned Komeito's rapid-fire criticism, which was echoed by LDP members. As an unnamed LDP defense zoku with cabinet experience said: "As this has made Japan's troubles with its crisis management capabilities public, it's extremely unpleasant."

Yomiuri's anonymous zoku giin alludes to an important point, namely that both the Japanese government and the Japanese people are not prepared for this sort of thing, despite their experience with disaster preparedness. How often have the JSDF personnel responsible for handling and conveying information received from Japanese radar sites and US satellites drilled for a missile launch? And this is a situation in which North Korea has provided a launch window. Would the JSDF be ready in the event of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula which resulted in missiles being launched at Japan unannounced? It is fortunate that the errors were on the side of overcaution, but, of course, there's always the danger that these mistakes will result in the "boy who cried wolf" syndrome.

In that sense, Japan should be thankful that North Korea is stress testing Japan's national emergency response system. Of course, the Aso government won't see it that way, as I suspect that in the aftermath of Saturday's fiasco the DPJ will use its control of the upper house to launch an inquiry into what precisely went wrong and perhaps the Aso government's handling of the launch more generally. The last thing the government had hoped for when going all out in its preparations for the launch would be comments from the public wondering how these mistakes happened "despite Japan's high technology." But I hope — and the Japanese people should hope — that a public inquiry into Saturday's events reveals precisely what went wrong in the JSDF and the defense ministry, and offers recommendations for improving Japan's ability to respond to national security emergencies. Hopefully Saturday's mistakes also reinvigorate the process of defense ministry reform, as the ministry has shown once again that its information handling skills are gravely deficient.

Undoubtedly the Aso government must be hoping that North Korea launches its rocket on Sunday, that information about the launch is received, processed, and disseminated seamlessly, and that no debris falls in Japan's direction. Saturday's mishaps may have been enough to halt the rally the Aso government has enjoyed lately; further mishaps could send Aso's approval ratings back into the single digits.

And in the midst of all the focus on North Korea, Ozawa Ichiro must be breathing a sigh of relief now that the media's gaze has shifted elsewhere. Suddenly there are more important concerns than whether Ozawa and his secretary knew that they were receiving dirty money from a construction company.