Sunday, May 31, 2009

Summer travel

I will be in Japan this summer, from mid-June to mid- or late August — hopefully I will be around for the general election.

As always, I am interested in meeting with readers.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

More on the Roos appointment

Considering the appointment of John Roos and other Obama donors to ambassadorial posts, David Rothkopf makes a strong argument against the relevance of ambassadorships in the first place:
For really important relationships, we need permanent high-level representation. But those relationships are comparatively few and in those cases, we need a special breed of highly empowered, highly experienced people...people who look more like Tom Shannon or perhaps Tim Roemer or Jon Huntsman...and not the others. A good rule of thumb might be: If you think a job can go to someone with no regional, diplomatic or relevant national security experience, then perhaps we ought to really be thinking about whether we need the job rather than who should fill it.
I think the one mistake Rothkopf makes is overstating the significance of the ambassador's post in Tokyo. As I argued earlier this week, Roos is going to Japan precisely because it is the kind of post that does not demand "a special breed of highly empowered, highly experienced people," especially now given Japan's domestic "difficulties." The challenges facing Roos are of a wholly different nature from the challenges facing Roemer and Huntsman in New Delhi and Beijing respectively. If China and India jobs involve smoothing out problems stemming from the emergence of two colossal powers, the Japan job is the flip side of the coin: constantly reassuring Japan that despite its relative decline, the US-Japan relationship is still important. That is not to say that Roos is not highly empowered — indeed, it appears that he was also in consideration for domestic policy jobs — but that he is high-powered in a different sense from someone like Huntsman who has extensive foreign experience. But Roos should have no problem performing his two most important tasks.

Roos's number one task is reassuring Japan's elites that the US will meet its obligations to come to Japan's defense. That message ultimately has less to do with the messenger than the messenger's persistence, and the extent to which the messenger has the backing of the administration.

Roos actually may be uniquely capable of managing what could be the other important task of his ambassadorship, welcoming a DPJ-led government into power. As someone removed from the circle of US-Japan alliance insiders, Roos presumably will arrive in Tokyo free of LDP leanings and more open to forging a relationship with the potential governing party. Even if the DPJ does not win this year, it is increasingly a force to be reckoned with in Japanese politics. I hope and trust that Roos will make building a relationship with the DPJ a top priority of his ambassadorship.

Party A vs. Party B

Maehara Seiji, the former DPJ president who has been viewed as a possible defector from the DPJ, said in a TV appearance Thursday evening that "even if the DPJ loses the election, it will absolutely not break apart." I have long been skeptical of the willingness of Maehara and his fellow conservatives to defect from the DPJ, particularly when the DPJ has been ahead in public opinion polls. Maehara's remarks are yet another reminder that the DPJ — often criticized as being as divided as the LDP — is more unified than the party's critics acknowledge. Moreover, it suggests that a political realignment after the general election is far from inevitable.

Rather what we are witnessing is simply part of the evolution of a mostly two-party system. A post at The Economist's Democracy in America blog is useful on this point.

Questioning the importance of a coherent governing philosophy for either the Republican or the Democratic Party, the anonymous blogger notes:
The American political system all but guarantees dominance by two stable parties over time, but there's no sound reason to think that two basic ideological frameworks adequately represent the diversity of citizens' political views, even in a very rough sense. And, of course, the actual platforms of the two 'modern' parties—which is to say, the parties boasting the names 'Republican' and 'Democratic'—have fluctuated wildly over time. What if we dispensed with any pretense of ideological content and simply branded them 'Party A' and 'Party B'?
Party A and Party B? That actually sounds like a fairly good description of the Japanese political system. Indeed, given the ideological polarization within American politics it is a better account of Japanese politics than American politics.

The DPJ is often criticized for being "LDP-lite," but that implies the LDP has a stable identity to which the DPJ can be compared. The LDP may be the world's most successful big-tent party, having succeeded in preserving an ideologically diverse coalition for more than a half century. Perhaps the key to its success has been that the ratio of pragmatic moderates (i.e., pork-barrellers) to ideologues has long been skewed in favor of the former. Whether this is still the case is an open question, but the LDP has succeeded by being less ideological than its rivals. The DPJ, like the LDP, has its share of ideologues — of the left and the right — but like the LDP it will enjoy more success the more it is "Party B" to the LDP's "Party A." Of course, the more success the DPJ has had at selling itself as "Party B" the more imperative it has been for the LDP to sell itself as "Party A." Thus past elections saw both parties trumpeting "reform" on their campaign posters. (Indeed, back when I was doing campaign work I remember seeing posters for LDP and DPJ candidates side by side, each poster proclaiming the candidate's commitment to 改革. Alas, no picture.) And this election will see the two parties committing over which is more sensitive to the concerns of the average citizen, which is more opposed to the consequences of the Koizumi reforms, which party offers the kinder, gentler reform package. Both parties promise to punish the bureaucracy. Both parties have punted on tax reform.

Party A The LDP will no doubt respond to this situation by borrowing from Karl Rove's 2004 strategy for the re-election of George W. Bush, using swine flu and North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons tests to appeal to voters' fears of an uncertain world — and suggest that now is no time to trust an untested, immature party like the DPJ with power. The LDP flirted with this approach in the 2007 upper house election, but as that election was not a general election, the fear card did not have the same salience. Hatoyama Kunio, minister of internal affairs and communication and brother of DPJ leader Yukio (and possibly friend of a friend of terrorists), said after North Korea's nuclear test this week that under the DPJ "the country cannot be protected." To make this argument he continued to cite Ozawa Ichiro's February remarks about one day reducing the US presence in Japan to the Seventh Fleet. No doubt we'll be hearing those remarks cited out of context up until the general election.

The fact that LDP officials keep referencing Ozawa's remarks may be evidence of how little the LDP has to gone on in trying to argue that electing the DPJ would be risky in these dangerous times. In reality, the DPJ has given remarkably little ammunition to the LDP: it is no less enthusiastic about recovering the abductees than the LDP, it has balanced criticism of China with outreach to Beijing, especially under Ozawa, and it is open to autonomous defense capabilities and, as mentioned in this post, preemptive strikes against North Korea. Nevertheless, the LDP will try to paint the DPJ as irresponsible, irresolute, and pacifistic when it comes to the defense of Japan.

If fear is not enough to win the election for the LDP, it will ultimately come down to intangibles, with the DPJ's benefiting from being just different enough from the LDP to unseat it from power. (Party B! The choice of a new generation?)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A nuclear Japan is not an option

Roy Berman calls attention to conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer's call for the US to negotiate with Japan over the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Arming with Japan satisfies Krauthammer's desire for action, which he believes as superior to the multilateral efforts he considers a "humiliation." The target of a nuclear Japan, Krauthammer admits, would not be North Korea — it would be China. He argues that a nuclear Japan would force China to move to pressure North Korea.

Of course, this could have the opposite result of leading China to redirect whatever effort it has directed to impoverished North Korea's tiny and unsophisticated arsenal to the sophisticated arsenal that a nuclear Japan would deploy.

But aside from Krauthammer's dubious assertion that China will be bludgeoned into bludgeoning North Korea by the mere existence of a nuclear Japan, Berman calls attention to the not inconsiderable domestic obstacles in Japan that make Krauthammer's proposal fanciful. How can the US "unleash" Japan if the Japanese people and a significant portion of Japan's elite do not want to be unleashed in the first place? The Japanese government has made a clear commitment to the US-Japan alliance over autonomous defense capabilities. If anything, these preferences are even more applicable when it comes to nuclear weapons.

(It bears noting that Llewelyn Hughes ably made the case for why Japan will not go nuclear in International Security in 2007.)

There is no problem that will be solved by a Japanese nuclear arsenal — only the problem of how Japan's conservatives can leave behind the postwar regime. In effect, the implication of Krauthammer's proposal is that a Japanese nuclear arsenal is desirable because it is less predictable than the US nuclear arsenal. A nuclear Japan would be a wild card in the region. The US nuclear umbrella by contrast is stabilizing. As I wrote the other day, the task for the Obama administration is to do whatever necessary to reassure Japan that the nuclear umbrella remains in place. The administration will not help its cause by overstating the impact of North Korea's latest test. As Stephen Walt writes, "...The Obama administration should avoid making a lot of sweeping statements about how it will not 'tolerate' a North Korean nuclear capability. The fact is that we've tolerated it for some time now, and since we don't have good options for dealing with it, that's precisely what we will continue to do."

Monday, May 25, 2009

A study in powerlessness

With its second nuclear test in three years, North Korea continues to illustrate the limits of the power of the US, China, and the international community as a whole.

The underground test, conducted on Monday, appears to have been more successful than the October 2006 test — although it is unclear just how much of a success it was. As Geoffrey Forden wonders, this test could have been a failed test of a 20KT device or a successful test of a miniaturized 4KT device. Pyongyang will undoubtedly be glad to keep its neighbors guessing which is the case.

The response from Japan and other countries has been predictable. Prime Minister Aso Taro spoke of the gravity of this latest development for Japanese national security and stressed cooperation with the US and the international community at the UN Security Council. The House of Representatives moved swiftly to draft a resolution condemning North Korea that could pass as early as Tuesday. The LDP leadership called the test "outrageous." Okada Katsuya, the new DPJ secretary-general, echoed the government's sentiments. Japanese conservatives used the test to advance their argument for a more robust Japanese security posture. Abe Shinzo, continuing his comeback effort, demanded firmer sanctions against North Korea, especially against North Korean counterfeiting activities, called for preemptive strike capabilities, and was vaguely supportive of a debate about acquiring nuclear weapons ("A debate on matters of national security ought to be conducted freely"). Komori Yoshihisa said that the test illustrates the limits of the multilateral management of the North Korean problem and argued that Japan, doing whatever it needs to do defend itself, should reopen the debate on a nuclear deterrent. A Sankei "news" article informs readers that North Korea has the power of life and death over Japan, based strictly on the range of the missiles it possesses. In other words, much like last month's rocket launch, the responses of Japanese political actors to North Korea's second nuclear test have followed wholly predictable patterns — and show just how powerless Japan is to stop or reverse North Korea's nuclear program.

Of note is that Japan's conservatives once again have responded as if the US-Japan alliance and its nuclear umbrella does not exist. Indeed, it is remarkable how cavalier the conservatives are in their disregard for the nuclear umbrella. This is now the standard conservative argument: play up the North Korean threat, play down the US ability to meet that threat, and let a vicious cycle of fear and doubt take over. Do the vast deterrent capabilities of the US really count for nothing in the face of North Korea's piddling (and shrinking) arsenal? North Korea may be able to deter a first strike aimed at toppling the Kim regime, but is the US somehow incapable of deterring North Korea from launching a suicidal strike against Japan? Of course, back North Korea into a corner to the point where the regime has nothing to lose and then I too may question the ability of the US or anyone else to deter North Korea from doing something like firing a Rodong in Japan's direction.

Which is why the response of the conservatives is the height of folly. Threatening the very survival of the regime is a good way to make North Korea undeterrable. It's an unpleasant task, but North Korea's neighbors are responsible for talking (or buying) North Korea down from the ledge. To wit, criticism of the "talk over pressure" approach is equally foolish. If the goal of negotiations is to halt and reverse North Korea's nuclear program, then yes, it is an abject failure. But if the purpose of multilateral diplomacy is to keep talking North Korea down from the ledge and to buy time for its neighbors to plan for regime collapse and to push for gradual opening of the north (however halting), then "jaw-jaw" is essential and must continue, despite the nuclear test. I for one think there is no alternative to the latter.

Hence the distinction between capabilities and power. The US is unquestionably capable of deterring a nuclear strike against Japan, but it takes compellent power over North Korea's actions. Being unable to make a credible threat of regime change and visibly dependent on Beijing to pressure Pyongyang, Washington has little power other than its deterrent power. Japan, even with a nuclear arsenal of its own, would have even less power over North Korea. This is the unanswered question in the conservative response to every act of provocation by North Korea. If the US is unable to guarantee Japanese security through its immense nuclear arsenal — again, the unstated (or occasionally stated) basis of the argument for a Japanese arsenal — how would a Japanese deterrent be any more powerful? I understand that they could argue that the problem isn't US capabilities but US commitment, but I have yet to see a convincing demonstration that the US commitment to defend Japan from attack is flagging to the point that Japan would require its own nuclear weapons. I do not think the Japanese public is convinced either.

So given that North Korea has successfully deterred the US and others from initiating regime change, what choice do the participants in the six-party talks but to turn to the UN to condemn the test and then try once again to engage North Korea via the talks? Meanwhile, the governments of the region should continue to treat every day that Kim Jong-il lives as another day for them to plan for regime collapse.

And as for the ongoing effort by Japanese conservatives to undermine the nuclear umbrella? Mr. Roos, you have your work cut out for you.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Roos to Japan

While the White House has not made the announcement official, the Nelson Report said that the Obama administration will be sending John Roos, Silicon Valley lawyer and major Obama fundraiser, to Tokyo as U.S. ambassador.

(Click here to read this post in Japanese.)

As Armchair Asia notes, this is a sign that Japan has indeed become normal: "It is about to nominate for ambassador to Japan a presidential crony and big money fundraiser--just like the traditional emissaries to the Court of St. James or France or Italy or Bermuda." Indeed, Jun Okumura looks at Britain and finds that the British press is disappointed with Obama's choice for ambassador to the Court of St. James. Japan, welcome to the club of countries that think they deserve better from Washington.

The disappointment from certain circles in Japan is palpable. Komori Yoshihisa, Sankei's editor-at-large in Washington, lists the accomplishments of previous ambasssadors and concludes that all Roos has achieved is "collecting funds for Obama's election." Naturally he compares the selection of Roos with the appointment of Utah Governor Jon Huntsman to be ambassador to China — a selection that the Economist's Banyan blog rightly calls "brilliant" — and finds Roos wanting. Asahi looks at Roos's background and reports blank next to "foreign languages," obviously calling to mind the Mandarin-speaking Huntsman.

Japanese are not the only ones questioning the Roos appointment. Jonathan Adler, blogging at the website of the conservative National Review, calls the news "interesting (if disturbing)," relaying the opinion of a nameless correspondent who calls the appointment a "slap-in-the-face" [sic].

A big part of the problem is that the Japanese media jumped the gun in its reporting on the ambassadorial sweepstakes. Recall that Asahi, surveying Obama's likely Asia policy team, pegged Joseph Nye as ambassador before Obama had even taken the oath of office. After no further news was forthcoming, Yomiuri suggested the same later in January (which prompted me to write an open letter to Nye). In hindsight, it appears that both newspapers were running with rumors, hoping for the scoop. While the story of how close Nye was to be named as ambassador has yet to be told, it appears that the Japanese newspapers were talking to the wrong people in Washington. In short, it is fine if Japan's elites feel disappointed, but they should assign the blame where it belongs, with the newspapers that rushed their reports and gave Nye an air of inevitability as the president's choice for ambassador.

And what about Roos? I do not think this is something about which to hyperventilate. Nor do I think it is a slap in the face for Japan. This is normal. While Japanese elites worry that the alliance is adrift or in crisis, the Obama administration clearly does not feel the same. The attitude appears to be, every alliance has problems and the US-Japan alliance's problems are no more severe than the problems with any other alliance. While it is natural to compare the administration's China and Japan appointments, this strikes me as a mistake. The appointments say nothing about the countries' ranks in the administration's eyes and everything about the intensity of the problems in the bilateral relationship. Obama picked a Mandarin-speaking rising star with foreign policy experience for the Beijing job because it is a job that demands a Mandarin-speaking rising star with foreign policy experience. The task of coaxing China's path to becoming a "responsible stakeholder" requires an ambassador with sufficient clout on the ground in China.

What problems in the US-Japan relationship require the same class of appointment? Is a Harvard professorship or fluency in Japanese necessary to go stand on the beach in Niigata and look out to sea? It would be one thing if Japan was ready for a serious bilateral discussion on the future of the alliance, but given the response Ozawa Ichiro's musings on the subject, Japan's leaders are not even ready to have such a discussion amongst themselves. (Speaking in Okinawa on Saturday, Ozawa revisited his remarks and said that his reference to the Seventh Fleet was "symbolic," which I presume means that he does not want the US presence reduced literally to the Seventh Fleet, but the Seventh Fleet would be the core?) As useful as Nye would have been as ambassador, his time would likely have been frustrating. Japan is simply too preoccupied with fixing its institutions to commit to make a major bilateral initiative on the alliance worthwhile. At this point it will be a major achievement if the realignment of US forces in Japan goes forward as scheduled, something that could become even more difficult should the DPJ take power later this year. Japan's preoccupation with a domestic concerns is not meant as a criticism of Japan — it is what it is. Japan does have a lot on the agenda, what is not helped by political uncertainty. Readers will know that I do not think that the "twisted" Diet is anything to panic about, but rather that I expect that the present turbulence is natural as Japan transitions to more "normal" politics. The fact that Japan can slight its foreign and security policy is a testament to the success of the alliance.

Would Nye's presence have made a difference in hastening the realignment process or fixing the obstacle that is Futenma? Will Roos fare any better or worse? It is unfair to Roos to treat his appointment as an insult to Japan without considering what exactly is the problem. I expect that Roos will be fine. I am sure that he is a quick study and in James Zumwalt, the deputy chief of mission, he has a first-class Japan specialist. (Indeed, the staff of the US Embassy in Tokyo rarely gets enough credit for the work they do managing the alliance.) As ambassador Roos will also carry a lighter burden than ambassadors to other countries because so much of the bilateral relationship is handled by the department of defense and US Forces Japan. And, in the event of a major crisis, Roos will have the president's ear.

Unease over the Roos appointment is ultimately the product of asymmetrical dependence. Given the importance of the US-Japan alliance for Japan, it is natural for Japanese officials to worry about every signal from Washington (like this signal, which will undoubtedly be another source of discomfort in Tokyo). But the Roos appointment should not be treated as Japan's being downgraded but as Japan's not being a problem for Washington. I have previously written about this administration's tendency to approach foreign policy as problems to be solved. Japan, not being the source of major problems for the US, naturally does not require a high-profile troubleshooter as ambassador. And thus it continues to look as if the Obama administration has opted for benign neglect towards Japan.

This will no doubt continue to be the case in the US-Japan relationship for years to come. Japan's dependence on the US will continue, and even intensify, over the coming years as falling defense spending will make it harder for Japan to countenance life outside of the alliance; a crowded foreign policy agenda will lead Washington to focus on fixing problems rather than tinkering with alliances; and Japan will be judged on how it contributes to fixing problems rather than how loyal an ally it declares itself to be (through "showing the flag" and the like).

There is, however, a lesson in all this for Washington. The political appointment of ambassadors should cease (or be scaled back from the thirty percent or so of ambassadors who are political appointees). US allies should not be reduced to guessing their worth by the quality of the ambassador sent by the US. Ambassadors should be career foreign service officers, preferably with knowledge of the country's language and earlier time spent working in country. It seems like a fairly simple idea that might actually make for better American diplomacy on the whole.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The DPJ bets on Hatoyama

As became clear in the days before the DPJ's Diet members met Saturday to elect a party leader to replace Ozawa Ichiro, Hatoyama Yukio, one of the founders of the Democratic Party of Japan, has once again been selected to serve as party president. He received 124 votes to Okada Katsuya's 95 votes, with, as Jun Okumura notes, Hatoyama doing particularly well among upper house members.

He returns to the leadership at a critical moment, as the DPJ looks to reverse the decline in its popular standing over the past two months and put the buoyant Aso government and the LDP on the defensive again.

Hatoyama has quickly moved to consolidate his leadership. Perhaps not surprisingly, he suggested that he might name Okada to his old post of secretary-general. Perhaps more surprisingly, he said that he would give Ozawa a position in the party executive. I obviously expected that Ozawa would play an important role, but I wondered whether it pays to give him a formal role in the party leadership. But Hatoyama, in his initial press conference, indicated that he may retain the troika structure that characterized the DPJ leadership under Ozawa — with Okada's inclusion making it a quad. The party will probably be best off letting Ozawa do what he would be doing anyway, traversing the country on behalf of DPJ candidates in districts in which the party has struggled in the past.

Beyond personnel questions, Hatoyama will not introduce radical change to the DPJ's preparations for the next general election. The party will continue to stress administrative reform — when asked for a slogan for the campaign, Hatoyama offered up "a cabinet to make clean sweep of wasteful spending" (might need a little work) — and drastic economizing of the nation's finances. He is committed to the Ozawa balancing act on security policy, and would work to reach compromises with the Social Democrats if the SDPJ joins a DPJ-led coalition. What the last several days have revealed is that the DPJ is, as I argued in the April issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, not nearly as divided as the conventional wisdom suggests. It is revealing that the DPJ's "neo-conservatives" were not able to field a candidate of their own and were reduced to backing Okada because he was the candidate most distant from Ozawa — not because he was the candidate closest to their views. The DPJ has largely united around the Ozawa program: a focus on economic wellbeing and administrative reform, support for farmers, fishermen, and small- and medium-sized businesses, and a small Japan-ish nationalist foreign policy that stresses distance from the US, regional cooperation, and modest global contributions through multilateral organizations. The debate between Hatoyama and Okada before the election was exceptionally cordial, more of a discussion over how best to implement this program than a clash of conflicting visions. Removing Ozawa was simply a matter of political convenience — Ozawa forged this consensus, and it will survive at least through the general election.

But, nevertheless, I think the DPJ may come to regret electing Hatoyama as Ozawa's replacement, for reasons having less to do with Hatoyama's relationship with Ozawa than with who Hatoyama is as a politician.

When the Hatoyama brothers, Yukio and Kunio, split from Sakigake and the New Frontier Party respectively to form the first DPJ in 1996, the new party was derided as the "brothers' private party" — an impression reinforced by the role played by their mother in leading them to form the new party. As Mayumi Itoh writes in her biography of the Hatoyama dynasty: "In press interviews, Yukio and Kunio often referred to their mother by saying, 'my mother said so and so' and 'my mother is opposed to this and that,' although they were in their late forties at that time. A relative of the family said that the brothers were under their mother's thumb and that it was she who convinced Yukio to create a new party with Kunio. Yukio admitted that he was motivated by his mother's encouragement." Yukio showed a particularly clumsy hand when creating the new party, rushing to announce the party's creation prematurely and alienating Takemura Masayoshi, Sakigake president, in the process. The fledgling party turned to the popular Kan Naoto — then at the height of his popularity as the crusading health minister — largely as a means to repair the new party's image. (Shiota Ushio, Minshutō no Kenkyū, pp. 91-92.)

This episode may seem like ancient history, but it reveals several characteristics about Hatoyama Yukio that lead me to wonder whether Hatoyama is up to the job of leading the DPJ in the general election, and, if the party is successful, leading the first government led by a majority party other than the LDP in a half century.

Throughout his political career, Hatoyama has shown a certain frailty as a leader, a need for the support and approval of others that stands in sharp contrast with his predecessor as DPJ leader. Perhaps this quality made him uniquely suited to serve as Ozawa's lieutenant, repairing the damage when Ozawa committed some indiscretion or another, but it makes him less suitable as a party leader or prime minister. The arc of his career also suggests that Hatoyama lacks a certain toughness — not a problem that Ozawa has — which will be indispensable if Hatoyama is to become prime minister and will have to be responsible for keeping the DPJ united, coaxing coalition partners, and overriding a recalcitrant bureaucracy. These tasks would be hard enough for Ozawa. Will Hatoyama be any more adroit?

More significantly, Hatoyama is truly a political prince. As one reporter observed at Hatoyama's press conference Saturday, this year's election will be a rematch of the conflict that created the LDP in the first place. Aso Taro, Yoshida Shigeru's grandson, will square off against the grandson of Yoshida's archrival Hatoyama Ichiro. I admit there is a certain degree of dramatic symmetry — the grandsons will battle over the shape of the post-1955 system, just as their grandfathers battled to create the foundation for enduring conservative rule in the first place. But I would argue that the DPJ loses more than the LDP by choosing a political princeling as its leader. The LDP enjoys a certain degree of "political seigniorage," in that by virtue of having been dominant for more than a half century, the LDP is able to get away with malfeasance or inepitude by virtue of low expectations. Like the US government in the international monetary system, the LDP has political credit not available to a newer party like the DPJ because the public has been conditioned to expect less of the LDP — the party has to do something truly outrageous to exhaust its line of credit. However, the DPJ, in trying to be a force for change, actually has to live by its words to gain an advantage on the LDP. The DPJ will be penalized more for its hypocrisy than the LDP.

The process by which Hatoyama wound up as party leader smacks of hypocrisy. Not only was the election rushed, but the party twisted its leadership election rules to Hatoyama's advantage. Article 12, section 7 of the party rules does allow for a vote of the party's Diet members should the leadership post be vacated during the president's term — but it does not command such an election. Ordinary DPJ election rules provide for the participation of the party's members and supporters, who vote in the 300 local chapters that correspond with the 300 single-member lower house district. Each chapter has one electoral vote. The party's local government representatives receive 100 electoral votes, which are distributed proportionally. And the party's Diet members get one vote (which counts twice). This system makes perfect sense for an opposition party trying to build a national organization and having far fewer Diet members than the LDP, especially after the 2005 election. As MTC noted, opting for the emergency election process slanted the election in Hatoyama's (and Ozawa's) favor. It is not surprising that Hatoyama did well among upper house members, many of whom owe their jobs to Ozawa's leadership. But how will this play in the provinces? Will local chapters campaign with the same ardor for Hatoyama that they would have for Okada or Ozawa? Will some voters stay home?

DPJ members will probably not complain openly about the process by which Hatoyama was elected — the bump the party is sure to experience will soften criticism — but the media will likely not let voters forget how Hatoyama profited from Ozawa's manipulation. And the media will constantly remind voters (as if they needed any reminding) of Hatoyama's heritage.

Hatoyama may be fine on the whole, but what matters is the impact on the margins. A few votes here, a few votes there and suddenly the DPJ could find itself short of a majority or a plurality. When faced with a choice between the scions of two political dynasties, one of whom has made a career of sticking out and has done a passable job as prime minister, the other of whom has struggled not to be overshadowed by other politicians, which prince will the voters choose?

The party's face and prospective prime minister matters, in part because the LDP has since 2007 learned that it cannot indulge in ideological fantasies and expect to win elections. It has struggled to look like a party that cares about combating economic hardship. Aso has made a show of repudiating the Koizumi legacy, most recently on Friday, when he said that it is necessary "to dispense painkillers and have blood transfusions" to deal with the pain caused by the Koizumi reforms. Consider that after listing constitution revision as the party's number one priority in its 2007 manifesto, the LDP is actually debating whether to include constitution revision altogether in this year's manifesto. I think it is unlikely that the LDP would drop it — Aso, like Abe, stressed that revision has been a party goal since the LDP was founded — but revision is unlikely to take pride of place as in 2007.

In other words, it will not be enough for the DPJ to criticize the LDP for its inattentiveness. It will have to tap into the "it" factor that propelled Koizumi Junichiro into office and buoyed his government. Of course, neither Hatoyama nor Okada has it. Ozawa was probably the DPJ's best chance to win on intangibles.

And so it becomes clear how the LDP could pull off yet another unlikely victory: three economic stimulus packages, some fear mongering, disarray and poor leadership in the opposition camp, and a bit of luck. I am not calling the election for the LDP yet; I think it is wide open and a lot can happen in the three months or so until the election will most likely be held. There are still plenty of reasons to think that the DPJ will have its best ever performance in a lower house election. But under Hatoyama's watch the party looks that much less impressive, that much less formidable an opponent for a desperate LDP, and that much more vulnerable to the persistent claim of the LDP and its allies in the media that the DPJ is unfit to govern.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The DPJ rattles markets

How much longer can the US count on Japan to buy Treasuries?

Nakagawa Masaharu, since 2007 shadow finance minster in the DPJ's Next Cabinet, has raised the specter of DPJ government's forgoing US government bonds (at least those dominated in dollars instead of yen). In a story that originated with the BBC, according to Jiji, Nakagawa said, "We propose that we would buy [the US bonds], but it's yen, not dollar." (The fact that the article gets the name of the party that has governed for Japan for a half century wrong — and that Jiji is the only Japanese media outlet carrying this story — makes me a bit reluctant to link to it, but the markets apparently took the report seriously.)

The BBC writes off the possibility that the DPJ could take power this year, but obviously I think it is a mistake to dismiss the DPJ out of hand: Ozawa's troubles notwithstanding, the outcome of the general election is still open. Which is why Nakagawa's remarks should be taken seriously. As Brad Setser reminded readers recently, creditors prefer to lend in their own currency. He was referring to China, but his analysis applies equally to Japan. The DPJ — less constrained than the LDP thanks to its status as an opposition party (and an opposition party interested in distancing Japan from the US) — is free to say what LDP members and bureaucrats may think but are constrained from saying openly.

That said, Yosano Kaoru, finance minister-economy minister-FSA chief did allude to the internationalization of the yen at the recent ASEAN + 3 finance ministerial meeting in Bali, when he pledged up to 6 trillion yen in emergency loans to Southeast Asian countries that would be financed out of Japan's foreign reserves. In other words, Japan would sell some of its dollar holdings to convert into yen, which it would then lend in the region. Whether Japan could sell that quantity is doubtful, but Nakagawa and Yosano's remarks suggest that the Japanese establishment is concerned about Japan's dollar reserves — and is surely watching China's activities warily.

As the two largest holders of US government bonds, Japan and China are locked in a standoff. Neither wants to be the second to liquidate their holdings. Both governments are trapped by their holdings, in that the economic consequences of unloading their Treasuries could damage the US recovery and harm their own economies, but they also don't want to pay for US profligacy by holding Treasuries while the US inflates its way out of debt (or defaults entirely). Given the future outlook for the US government's balance sheet, they have good reason to worry.

So to return to Nakagawa's threat, it is worth asking whether it is a credible threat. Could a DPJ-led government act less restrained in its financial relationship than the Chinese government? I think there is reason to doubt Nakagawa, not least because the DPJ is running to a certain extent on the basis of a populist nationalism with the US as a major target. If the DPJ takes power, it may find it hard to deliver on all of its campaign promises. Moreover, it is unclear whether Nakagawa was voicing his own opinion or speaking for the DPJ as a whole. If the former, it may be irrelevant what he thinks a DPJ government should do about Treasury holdings.

Nevertheless, the DPJ may be playing a dangerous game, not just with the United States but with China, which has every reason to be concerned that Tokyo might try to beat it in a race for the exits.

This should serve as a reminder that the LDP's conservatives do not have a monopoly on nationalism — and a reminder that Japanese nationalism takes many forms. Is Nakagawa Masaharu's argument about the "internationalization" of the yen any less nationalistic than Nakagawa Shoichi's persistent calls for a Japanese nuclear arsenal?

UPDATE: Kamei Shizuka, head of Kokumin Shintō, a prospective DPJ coalition partner, reassured Jeffrey Bader, senior director for Asia on the National Security Council, that a DPJ-led government would continue to purchase US bonds. Kamei probably does not have the authority to speak for a government that does not exist yet and may never exist, but it does diminish the authoritativeness of Nakagawa's remarks.

The short race to pick Ozawa's replacement

The campaign to replace Ozawa Ichiro as DPJ president quickly turned into a race between Okada Katsuya and Hatoyama Yukio, who have until Sunday to convince the DPJ's upper and lower house members of their merits to serve as the face of the party in the forthcoming general election.

Uesugi Takashi, writing in Shukan Daiyamondo, argues that the DPJ has missed an opportunity to reverse the political momentum by scheduling its election for Sunday. A longer campaign would have commanded media attention and given the candidates to present the DPJ's message undiluted to the public. (I would add that a longer campaign would have given the party to have the party's local chapters vote too, as would have happened in a normal election, thus ensuring that the inner party and the outer party are in sync going into the campaign.)

But on the other hand, the DPJ will enjoy a bump simply by having cast off Ozawa and elected someone new. It may be best that the party will choose a new leader quickly and set back to work.

Who has the upper hand? Jun Okamura argues that the race is wide open. Like in recent LDP presidential elections, it is not sufficient to assume that if a DPJ faction head supports a candidate, the faction's members will follow the leader. Press coverage suggests that the race is "pro-Ozawa versus anti-Ozawa," with the party's anti-mainstream flocking to Okada. But if that is the case, Okada will lose. The dedicated anti-Ozawa groups — most notably the Maehara and Noda groups — are a minority of the party. There is a reason why they are not putting up their own candidate (and why, despite talk of challenging Ozawa last year, no one stood against him).

It is not clear to me how or why the DPJ should distance itself from Ozawa. Obviously the DPJ wants to wash away the taint of Ozawa's scandal — but electing a new leader will largely take care of that problem. Would the public really hold Hatoyama accountable for corruption in Ozawa's political organization?

But what of Ozawa's impact on the DPJ's policies and party governance? Should the DPJ scrap his changes? Despite his reputation as uncooperative and dictatorial, Ozawa was able to draw upon support from across his party. He inspired loathing from some, but he also included rivals in the DPJ's Next Cabinet and in other party leadership positions. The final word may have rested with Ozawa, but considering the frequent complaint that Japan does not have enough top-down leadership, why should that be a negative? On policy terms, Yamaguchi Jiro praises Ozawa for promulgating the "Seikatsu dai-ichi" line that was the party's slogan in 2007, which he believes distinguished the DPJ from the LDP's neo-liberals. Indeed, evidence of the success of this approach can be found in the LDP's about-face since the 2007 election: both Fukuda Yasuo and Aso Taro have stressed the importance of listening to the voice of the people and providing for public welfare. Should the DPJ scrap this approach? Should the DPJ scrap Ozawa's efforts to make the DPJ a party capable of challenging the LDP in rural districts? Ozawa's legacy as DPJ president should not be reduced to Nishimatsu.

I doubt either candidate will break with the Ozawa system. This campaign is wholly about image: personality, youth, support of the party rank-and-file, and the ability to reach out to independents. It will not be about policy.

For my part, I do wish a third candidate, preferably one who has not already led the DPJ into a general election, would enter the race. I would prefer someone like Nagatsuma Akira, who at forty-eight is younger than both candidates and as a result of his role in exposing the pensions scandal in 2007 has made a name for himself as a crusader against official malfeasance. He is only a third-term member, but on the other hand, maybe the DPJ would be better off with a leader who is comparatively new to Nagata-cho. Unfortunately the short DPJ race rules out the possibility of a dark horse challenger to Hatoyama and Okada.

But for all the shortcomings of the two contenders, I think that after weeks of talking about Ozawa, the discussion will turn once again to Aso, the LDP, and the state of the Japanese economy.

Monday, May 11, 2009

How severe is the fallout from Ozawa's fall?

Despite widespread expectations that he would not survive to lead the DPJ into this year's general election, Ozawa Ichiro's resignation is reverberating around the Japanese political system.

Aso Taro, commenting on the Ozawa's resignation, claimed that he could not understand why Ozawa would resign now, two days before the debate scheduled between the party leaders. It does not seem that hard to understand to me. Why would Ozawa stand up and speak on behalf of a party that had been sending overt signals that it wanted an amicable divorce from its embattled leader? Why would the DPJ want him to speak for the party? Did Ozawa reach this conclusion himself, or did someone senior within the party have to lean on him?

Regardless of why Ozawa finally decided it was time to go, he's gone. Not surprisingly he said very little in his press conference Monday, other than that he was stepping down for the sake of party unity and the goal of regime change.

The political consequences of his resignation are actually not particularly interesting, at least compared to his last resignation, when the DPJ was not quite ready to part with its helmsman. I anticipate a smooth return to the leadership for Okada Katsuya. He's probably the one candidate acceptable to the party's various factions and sects — he inspires neither love nor loathing (unlike Ozawa), but he is acceptable. At this point acceptable to all is good enough. If it is Okada, he won't be a significant departure in policy terms from the outspoken Mr. Ozawa.

On foreign policy, he accepts Japan's alliance-centered foreign policy but has recently suggested that the US-Japan relationship should not be overdependent on the bilateral military relationship (a view reciprocated by some in the Obama administration). Like others in his party, he wants Japan to cooperate more with its Asian neighbors.

On domestic policy, he has the inescapable air of a technocrat, not surprising considering his background as a MITI official, and as a result he does not ooze pathos when talking about the nation's problems as some other politicians do. But he has a solid grasp of the issues, he has reformist credentials, and he has worked hard to travel the country and connect with voters like Ozawa has done. Given his background, he might even be better at coaxing the bureaucracy to accept the DPJ's administrative reform plans. Although I'm not certain about this: lasting administrative reform may require a dramatic battle of the sort that would have likely occurred under an Ozawa premiership. Sankei cites an anonymous source at METI headquarters who wonders whether an Okada premiership would be better for the bureaucracy than an Ozawa premiership. If there is a different, it is not a matter of an agenda. The DPJ's adminstrative reform plans predate Ozawa's leadership of the party. What is at issue is the enthusiasm with which the new leader goes about the task.

Either way, Okada is more than adequate. If the LDP isn't worried — and there were signs earlier in the Ozawa scandal that the government feared that Okada would replace Ozawa — it should be, if only because, as MTC notes, with Ozawa gone, so goes one of the last obstacles keeping voters from embracing the DPJ.

Would the same apply if Hatoyama Yukio, the outgoing secretary-general who has virtually served as Ozawa's footman, is elected DPJ president? He may have adequate support from the left of the party, but I think Hatoyama would be more compromised as party leader than Okada. Hatoyama, like the prime minister, is a scion of a political family who in his time in leadership posts in the DPJ has shown himself to be better suited to supporting roles than to leadership. Hatoyama, I think, would be the poorer of the two choices in a race with Okada. And I wonder whether his time as Ozawa's designated apologizer will tar his image.

Regardless of who winds up as party leader, the tasks facing the new leader are simple: don't forget the countryside, remind voters how disastrous LDP rule has been just since the last election, add some details to the party's economic plans, and prevent LDP politicians from running against the LDP. Don't let LDP reformists get away with their bait-and-switch again.

News and an apology

First, thank you all for bearing with me. I apologize for the gaps between posts of late — end of the semester and all that. Normal coverage will resume as soon as my time allows (and I will try to sneak a post or two in over the next couple of days on the Ozawa resignation).

Second, Japanese readers (and readers of Japanese) can now read some of my posts in translation at Newsweek Japan, here.

Third, and this will be the first and last time that I call your attention to it, but I've set up a virtual tip jar via Paypal. It's located on the right. If you like what you read here and are feeling generous, your donation is welcome.

Now the Ozawa era is over

It appears that Ozawa Ichiro is finally tired of fighting for his political life.

After weeks of circling the drain, of calls from members of his own party to resign or clarify his explanation of why his aide was wrongfully accused, Ozawa has decided to call it quits. He will not be resigning from the Diet, and he has called for a DPJ party election following the debate over the supplementary budget.

Sankei reports on the damage that Ozawa has done to the DPJ by waiting until now to resign, but on the whole it is hard to see how this hurts the DPJ. In the short term it might, as the media hammers the DPJ leadership for protecting Ozawa for so long. But before long the candidates to replace Ozawa will step forward and Ozawa's grizzled visage will fade from view as the public face of the party that aspires to be the party of change in this year's election. Particularly since it looks as if a general election will not be held before July, the new DPJ leader — presumably Okada Katsuya — will have just enough time to expunge the taint of Ozawa, to promise that the DPJ will be the party of clean politics, before heading into the election campaign.

Deprived of the gift that was Ozawa's scandal, the LDP and Komeito are back to hoping that the economy somehow shows signs of life in time for the general election. Ozawa's resignation will also deprive the LDP of its argument that Ozawa would endanger Japanese security by undermining the US-Japan alliance with his "irresponsible" talk.

There is still the chance that the DPJ let Ozawa hang on for too long, but in this case, perhaps too late is better than never.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The LDP's reformists continue to battle family politics

Surprisingly, given the howls of protest from within the LDP that greeted Suga Yoshihide's proposal to include a ban on hereditary candidates in the party's election manifesto, the LDP appears ready to include restrictions on political inheritances in the manifesto after Suga met with Koga Makoto, the LDP's chief elections strategist, and Ibuki Bunmei, former LDP secretary-general and cabinet minister. Asahi reports that the proposed restriction will take the form of a regulation that will require a retiring politician to transfer his political organization's funds to the party upon retirement.

Given the prime minister's opposition to the idea, I wonder whether the agreement between Suga and Koga will be enough to secure inclusion in the manifesto.

Nevertheless, the party's reformists have latched on to the idea, suggesting that whatever happens with the LDP's manifesto, it will not go away. Restricting political inheritance is only the latest means for the reformists to run against their own party. Yamamoto Ichita, in an explication spanning four posts, frequently notes that forty percent of LDP Diet members are hereditary members — and says (unironically, given the phrase's original context) that the party needs to be able to draw upon the "best and the brightest." Giving preference to hereditary members, he argues, has turned potentially talented individuals away from the LDP. (There may be something to this: I wonder how many of the DPJ's younger members had hoped to earn the LDP's endorsement and turned to the DPJ only upon finding the LDP's doors closed to them.) Yamamoto also is unconvincing on the constitutionality of these restrictions, treating it in the context of restrictions on the freedom to choice one's occupation (Article 22), rather than, say, political discrimination on the basis of family origin (Article 14).

Through it all, Yamamoto and the other advocates fail to demonstrate why this is such an urgent problem at this point — and why it should be a prominent subject for discussion in the general election campaign. Ultimately discussions like this amount to political bait-and-switch, efforts by LDP reformists to sell the idea that the LDP has the potential to be the party of change, if only the reformists are given the run of things. 2005 may seem like a long time ago, but I hope voters remember what happened then: voters rewarded Koizumi Junichiro and his "children" with a huge majority, stripped of the hard core of Koizumi's "opposition forces," only to have the LDP readmit nearly all of the postal rebels mere months after Koizumi left office. The past four years have been one long retreat from the promise of Koizumi's new party. Why should the voters trust the LDP to be any different this time around, despite the promises of Nakagawa Hidenao and company?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A witness to history

Nagao Yasushi, the Mainichi Shimbun photographer who won the Pulitzer Prize for this extraordinary photo of the assassination of Socialist Party leader Asanuma Inejiro by Yamaguchi Otoya, was found dead Saturday. He was seventy-eight. The assassination, which occurred on 12 October 1960 was the capstone on what was perhaps the most momentous year in postwar Japanese politics.

Requiescat in pace.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The emergence of Middle Power Asia

Over the past week, we have seen more signs of the shape that international relations in East Asia will take over the coming decades.

I've written before about the role that middle powers — most notably Japan, Australia, South Korea, ASEAN acting as a bloc, and to a lesser extent India — will play in the East Asia balance, maneuvering between the US and China, the region's two giants as they attempt to enmesh China in regional institutions and profit economically from its rise while cooperating with the US to hedge against a violent turn in China's rise and to ensure that they have strategic flexibility more generally.

Prime Minister Aso Taro visited China to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, renewing their commitment to building a "strategic, reciprocal relationship" and discussing a number of urgent problems, most notably the global spread of swine flu, the ongoing global economic crisis, and North Korea's latest turn to intransigence. The deep freeze of the Koizumi years is increasingly distant, and these Sino-Japanese summits are becoming so routine in their agendas as to be boring. But in this relationship, boring is positive. Despite Chinese anxiety about the gift sent by Aso to Yasukuni Shrine for the Spring Festival prior to his trip to China (and the expected Chinese netizen protests about welcoming Aso to China after his gift), Wen and Hu mentioned the history problem but did not harp on it, just as Aso expressed his hope for Chinese participation in nuclear disarmament. Both sides seem content to accentuate the positive in their meetings, and — aside from Wen's cautionary note — the Basil Fawlty line remains in effect: don't mention the war.

In fact, looking at the post in which I first mentioned the Basil Fawlty line, Aso has proved me wrong. Last May I wrote, "Mr. Aso and his comrades will most likely not embrace the Fawlty line." However, it appears that the structural factors that draw Japan and China to one another have tamed another Japanese conservative politician. In fact, in a speech in Beijing Thursday, Aso alluded to the possibility of an economic partnership agreement between Japan and China; the obstacles to such an agreement are high, certainly as high or higher than the obstacles facing an EPA or trade agreement between Japan and the US, but as symbolism goes it is significant that Aso mentioned the possibility of institutionalizing the Sino-Japanese economic relationship. In the meantime, Japan and China outlined the three pillars of their relationship going forward: economic cooperation (Japan will host a senior-level economic dialogue in June); environmental and technology cooperation; and cultural and educational exchanges. The beginnings of perpetual peace? Hardly: there is still much work to do, whether on the Senkakus, North Korea, the history problem (how sustainable is the Fawlty line after all?), or Chinese military transparency. But by acknowledging that there are areas on which they can cooperate and that there is value to meeting even without perfect harmony in their positions, Japan and China are making Northeast Asia ever so slightly more stable.

At the same time, even as Aso parlayed with China's senior leaders in Beijing, Hamada Yasukazu, his defense minister, prepared for a Golden Week visit to Washington where he would be meeting with Robert Gates, his US counterpart. Gates and Hamada met Friday morning, and central to the discussion was Hamada's practically begging Gates for the right to purchase F-22s from the US as Japan considers its next-generation fighter. "Even just a few," Hamada said. Of course, it is not in Gates's power to permit Japan to buy the F-22; as mentioned in this post, its sale abroad is prohibited by the Obey Amendment, meaning that the Japanese government should be making its case to Congress. (I am certain that if it isn't doing so already, the Japanese government will be lobbying representatives and senators from the forty-four states involved in the production of the F-22. Sakurai Yoshiko tellingly included this detail in the articles mentioned in this post.) No word on how Gates received Hamada's petition, but the Gates-Hamada meeting reveals the other side of Middle Power Asia. With one hand, Japan is reaching out to China, with the other it is balancing by constantly working to strengthen the US-Japan alliance. Gates and Hamada discussed coordinating as the US prepares its next Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and Japan prepares its next National Defense Program Outline for later this year. They also talked about further strengthening missile defense cooperation and devoting sufficient attention to the realignment of US forces in Japan.

Australia, as I've written before, faces the same strategic imperatives, a fact thrown into relief by events this week. As it was characterized in the Economist's Banyan column this week, "On the one hand, Australia’s crackerjack fit with the Chinese economy is reshaping Australia’s trade and investment flows, drawing the country into a China-centred Asian orbit. On the other, Australia’s security hangs on America’s continued presence in the western Pacific." One can easily substitute Japan for Australia without skipping a beat. This week Australia has been feeling the tension growing out of its economic relationship, due to an investment bid by Chinalco in Rio Tinto. In a speech at the Lowy Institute, Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the opposition, called on the government to reject the bid, which, regardless of the outcome of the bid, has brought concerns about the Sino-Australian relationship to the fore — anticipating, in a sense, the Rudd government's defense white paper.

Much as Japan is looking to hedge against China, so too is Australia: reports suggest that the white paper will lavish Australia's navy with new resources.

Rory Medcalf at the Interpreter writes that Japanese and South Korean analysts look favorably upon Australia's plans, although he suggests that the Rudd government's plans could spark a spate of middle power arms building. But regardless of what other middle powers do, the Rudd program and Japan's desperate pursuit of the F-22 suggest that the middle powers will not feel secure simply by pursuing external balancing (tighter alliances with the US and other countries in the region). Particularly as the US looks to deepen its cooperation with China across a range of issues — whether or not it is appropriate to refer to Sino-US cooperation as a G2 — the middle powers will likely rely more on internal balancing, concluding that while their alliances with the US are fine, perhaps an additional guarantee of security is worth the investment. They may look to each other for security too, although as I argued when Australia and Japan issued a joint security declaration, it is unclear what Japan and Australia can do for each other.

In any case, there are limits to how far the middle powers can and will go in their hedging against China. They will continue to work on their economic relationships with China, they will continue to look for opportunities to bind China through regional institutions, and, especially in the case of Japan, they will face fiscal constraints in maintaining capabilities adequate to defend themselves without the US. Despite concerns about the Gates defense budget, the US is not going anywhere — and it is as imperative for the middle powers to ensure that that remains the case as it is for them to ensure that the US does not go overboard with containing China. For the foreseeable future, this is the delicate balance facing the middle powers.