Sunday, May 30, 2010

Was the coalition doomed from the start?

On Friday, Fukushima Mizuho, the head of the Social Democratic Party of Japan, refused to bow to the prime minister's decision to accept a modified version of the 2006 realignment agreement, forcing the prime minister to dismiss her from her position as minister responsible for consumer affairs.

Not surprisingly, on Sunday the SDPJ decided that it would leave the coalition, although it suggested that electoral cooperation in the upcoming upper house election is still possible. The DPJ still holds a slim majority in the upper house with the PNP — perhaps thanks to the work of the "devil" — and will undoubtedly press harder to get its legislation passed without having to extend the current Diet session.

Jun Okumura questions whether electoral cooperation is the wisest decision for its survival "as an anti-business, anti-Japan-US alliance protest party." In this statement, of course, one sees the problem with the coalition between the DPJ and the SDPJ. With 308 seats — including 221 of 300 single-member districts — in the House of Representatives, electoral dynamics suggest that the DPJ would drift to the center once in power, as it needs to maintain pluralities in as many districts as possible. In this sense, perhaps the only surprising thing about the Hatoyama government's embrace of the old agreement is that it tried so hard and so long to find an alternative to accommodation. Some might say that the DPJ is becoming the old LDP, although I don't think that's a particularly meaningful assessment: Futenma, and Ozawa's courtship of old LDP interest groups notwithstanding, the DPJ's priorities and identity remain distinct. If the LDP and the DPJ increasingly resemble each other (and if the LDP survives), it is because survival in a political system dominated by nonaligned voters will produces moves to the center in order to satisfy as many floating voters as possible, combined with rhetorical and symbolical gestures to distinguish one from the other.

The SDPJ is in wholly different circumstances. The party has only seven seats in the lower house, four from proportional blocs and three from single-member districts. One of those three — Teruya Kantoku — is from Okinawa's second district. As a marginal party, the SDPJ's survival depends on offering something unique to a narrow slice of core supporters, in this case left-wing ideologues who share its commitment to reducing the US presence in Japan, resisting revision of the constitution, and resisting growing inequality. While on paper there appears to be some basis for cooperation between the SDPJ and the DPJ, the reality is that for the DPJ compromise is indispensable (for large parties, manifestos, one might say, are made to be broken), while for the SDPJ its survival depends on rigid adherence to its principles and promises. Had the LDP not fallen into such disarray, the coalition might have survived a bit longer in mutual resistance to a convenient enemy, but the electoral dynamics of the coalition seem to have doomed the partnership in advance.

Electoral dynamics were compounded by the SDPJ's history. The old Socialist Party virtually broke itself by compromising its principles on the security alliance and the SDF to form a coalition with the LDP in 1994. That choice may have been the result of the party's failure to recognize that the JSP was becoming a marginal ideological party even before electoral reform: in 1993, the party actually lost 66 seats, most of them to the LDP splinter parties that would form the non-LDP coalition after the election. In other words, having betrayed its core supporters on the alliance once before, it was extremely unlikely that Fukushima would act differently than she did.

In short, Fukushima had to reject the prime minister's compromise on account of the past, present, and future of the SDPJ. The party's future is still precarious — it is not immediately clear which party gains more from electoral cooperation without cooperation in government — but having stood on principle, the SDPJ should have an easier time maintaining its electoral base.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hatoyama accommodates the US on Futenma

It may have taken a few months longer than I expected, but it appears that the Hatoyama government may have finally accommodated itself to the 2006 agreement on the realignment of US forces. The US and Japanese governments have reached an understanding regarding the future of Futenma following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Tokyo.

The latest bilateral agreement largely reaffirms the 2006 roadmap: the Hatoyama government has agreed to the construction of a new runway somewhere in the vicinity of Camp Schwab at Henoko Bay, with the details regarding the precise location and the method of construction to be decided by President Obama's visit to Japan in autumn. The US, meanwhile, agreed to disperse some training activities from Okinawa to elsewhere in Japan. The Hatoyama government has also stated that it will campaign for the inclusion in the Two-Plus-Two statement due 28 May a pledge to return bases in Okinawa to Japanese ownership within ten to fifteen years.

The Hatoyama government's work is by no means complete. Not only will it have to coax prefectural and local officials in Okinawa into not making too much of a fuss, but the government will also have to work to preserve the governing coalition. Fukushima Mizuho, Social Democratic Party chief and consumer affairs minister, replied to the news by asking why the prime minister went ahead with talks with the US without securing the support of the Okinawan people and his own coalition. Whether Fukushima's remarks are the prelude to the SDPJ's pulling out of the coalition remains to be seen. Even more troublesome for the prime minister could be the opposition of Ozawa Ichiro, the secretary-general of his own party. Despite his professions to having no role in policymaking, Ozawa has not refrained from taking a hard line in calling for relocation of Futenma outside of Okinawa entirely. Responding to the latest agreement, Ozawa said it would be "difficult" to secure the acquiescence of the Okinawan people (which, one would think, would be at least partly Ozawa's job as secretary-general).

It is tempting to criticize the Hatoyama government for its supposed "about face" on Futenma. However, from the beginning of this dispute the government has repeatedly stressed that it was keeping all options on the table, including the reaffirmation of the 2006 agreement as it stands. As I've said before, the Hatoyama government was acting in good faith. It genuinely wanted to review the 2006 agreement in the hope of finding something better. Had the US government not reacted so harshly to the Hatoyama government's fairly modest request, and perhaps even signaled its willingness to offer concessions early on this dispute could very well have been contained and even resolved months ago. As it stands, prolonged public exposure gave the Okinawan public time to mobilize, making it that much harder for the Hatoyama government to secure domestic approval for a slightly revised agreement.

While the Hatoyama government may have been genuinely open to the 2006 agreement from the start, one cannot rule out the possibility that Hatoyama has genuinely come to believe that the 2006 agreement is by and large the best option. Given that the prime minister has been rather guarded about his preferences, it is difficult to say. However, Hatoyama has certainly made more frequent use of phrases like "national interest" in recent weeks than he did a mere nine months ago. As the dispute wore on, he became noticeably more inclined to speak of US bases in terms of regional security and deterrence (something Martin Frid noticed). Presumably Hatoyama will be expected to give an honest account of his reasoning to his own party, his party's coalition partners, and local officials in the days to come.

The damage to his government has, of course, already been done, because the damage to the government's reputation had less to do with the substance of the realignment plan — about which the public is divided — than with the government's gross incompetence in its handling of the issue. Despite its persistent efforts to remind the public that all options were on the table, I wonder whether the public will see the government's actions as anything but capitulation after months of dithering. At the very least the government has removed the issue from the front burner, freeing it to direct its (and the public's) attention to other matters before the upper house election expected to be held in July.

What of the US-Japan alliance? Despite the warnings from Washington of the damage that Hatoyama was doing to the alliance by asking for time to consider whether there might be a plan that would satisfy all parties, the reality is that the alliance is more durable than the Cassandras thought. That is at least in part thanks to China's latest maritime mischief and North Korea's torpedoing of the Cheonan. The idea of a desire on the part of the Hatoyama government to replace the US-Japan alliance with a Sino-Japanese entente was always far-fetched, but it seemed more plausible among some in the shadow of the Futenma. 

Indeed, in retrospect the reaction of US officials and commentators to the Hatoyama government's request seems even more overblown given the lack of histrionics in Washington in response to Britain's new coalition government, given that both Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg have questioned the US-UK "special relationship" in terms not altogether different from the DPJ. (Stephen Walt puts the attitudes of both governments in wider context here.) The difference, of course, is that whereas Britain has to find the right balance between its ties between the US and the European Union, Japan has to navigate between the US and China. It goes without saying that London's relations with Brussels do not cause nearly as much anxiety in Washington as Tokyo's with Beijing. But recognizing the difference does not excuse the overreaction. The Hatoyama government was not the first and will not be the last government of a US ally in Asia to argue with the US while trying to maintain a constructive relationship with China. The sooner Washington recognizes that the better it will be for both the US and its allies.

Meanwhile, this new agreement does not mean that the DPJ is abandoning its belief in a balanced, Asia-centered foreign policy in which the alliance is important but not all-consuming. "Resolving" Futenma is a necessary first step to actually discussing what the alliance should look like as the DPJ continues to pursue closer bilateral ties throughout Asia — and not just or primarily with China.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why did Hatoyama go after Futenma first?

With little surprise, the Hatoyama government has decided to postpone a decision on the future of Futenma, after alienating both the Okinawan people and the US government with its indecisiveness on the issue. Reuters reports that after months of treating the end of May as the deadline for solving the dispute, the government has announced a new target of November.

The damage has, of course, already been done, now that the government's approval ratings have sunk below twenty percent and with the DPJ's looking certain to fall short of a majority in the House of Councillors in this summer's election. As Michael Cucek suggests, Hatoyama may be holding on to power simply because no DPJ member wants the responsibility for leading the party to near-certain defeat in the election.

When the history of the Hatoyama government is written, the central question that will have to be answered is why it made Futenma the top priority of its government. While the Hatoyama government has been up to other things — some good (calling bureaucrats to justify their programs, liberalizing campaigning practices), some not so good (its ambiguous record on public works) — it is not an exaggeration to say that the government has been mortally wounded by the dispute over Futenma, not because of the government's position per se, but because of its inability to take a position. Arguably it is due to his mishandling of Futenma above any other issue that has led Hatoyama to be branded as a poor leader, for good reason.

It is truly mystifying why the Hatoyama government not only threw itself into the Futenma morass shortly after taking office, but took on the problem without a clear plan of action. The easiest — the wisest — course of action would have been to delay. The relocation was already delayed, thanks to LDP foot-dragging. The transition to a new, inexperienced ruling party offered the perfect excuse for delaying the issue further. At the very least the government could have stalled for time until after the House of Councillors election. And why not? The DPJ was elected last year on a manifesto that was, but for a short (and short on specifics) section on foreign policy, wholly concerned with fixing Japan's economy and society. The government would have good reason for putting Futenma on the shelf for at least its first year.

I can think of a few explanations for why the prime minister acted as he did. 

First, as I've argued before, he may have believed that he would be able to find a solution that would satisfy both Okinawans and the US simply by negotiating one-on-one with Obama. Alternatively, he may have simply thought that the US would be more willing to compromise than it proved to be. We might call this the miscalculation hypothesis. 

Second, perhaps the government wanted to make a clear statement that it marked a departure from LDP rule, and Futenma proved a good, high-profile demonstration case. Given the relatively narrow window between the launch of the government and the campaign for the upper house, perhaps the Hatoyama government reasoned that tackling Futenma was a way of achieving some policy goal that could be presented to voters in a way that other pledges, which will take a longer time to deliver, would not. (This hypothesis is compatible with the first.) 

Third, the DPJ could have been acting on the basis of ideological beliefs. I'm less convinced by this argument, if only because by trying to please all sides the Hatoyama government has elicited almost a total absence of its own beliefs on the issue other than the need to find an alternative site than the one in the 2006 roadmap.

Fourth, I suppose it is possible that during the 2009 general election campaign the DPJ leadership came to believe that the issue had to be resolved immediately, and acted accordingly.

I'm not sure which of these explanations, if any, best captures the government's reasoning. Perhaps there is no clear reason, which would explain why the government wandered into the issue seemingly without a plan. Meanwhile, the Hatoyama government's mishandling of the dispute means that even November could be a difficult target to meet.

This post will likely be the first of several on the fallout of the Futenma dispute.

UPDATE: As can be seen in the comments, I did leave out one obvious explanation: US pressure, both explicit in the form of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's infamous visit to Tokyo shortly after the DPJ took power, and implicit, in the pressure posed by Obama's November visit to Japan, for which the DPJ wanted to have something to offer to the US President.

Media coverage of tension between the US and Japan meant that every comment, every plan, every "promise" reverberated in Japan, so that each step the government took on Futenma was one step deeper into the quagmire.

Returning soon

I realize that it has been some time since my last update. No reason for my absence other than having a lot to do for my "day" job.

Posting to resume shortly.