Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The wages of uncertainty

The exchange of fire between the North and South Korean militaries that left two ROK Marines dead and at least a dozen wounded (see the roundup at Wired’s Danger Room blog), following closely on the heels of revelations regarding a new North Korean uranium reprocessing facility, strengthens hopes that the US and Japan might be able look past Futenma and strengthen their security relationship. The relationship has, of course, had a bit more wind in its sails since the standoff between Japan and China over the maritime collision near the Senkakus.

Can we really draw a straight line from regional instability to closer security cooperation between the US and Japan? Arguably this logic has worked in the past, with North Korean provocations from 1994 onward stirring Japanese policymakers to bolster Japan’s capabilities and launch new bilateral initiatives with the US, ballistic missile defense being perhaps the most notable example. And there are signs that the DPJ-led government is remarkably more realist in its approach to the region than many expected. I think Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji spoke for many in the DPJ when he told an official Chinese foreign affairs publication that he is “by no means a hawk but a realist who values idealism.” The distinction between “hawk” and “realist” is meaningful and says a lot about the DPJ’s approach to foreign and security policy.

To be a hawk in Japanese politics is not just to support a certain set of policies: it is more a cultural identity than a policy stance. It is a worldview that, in addition to wanting to dismantle political and legal constraints on Japan’s security policy, questions the value of Japan’s postwar regime (that which former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō wanted to "leave behind"), supports revising the constitution (not just Article 9), opposes “masochistic” interpretations of history, and promotes traditionalist values. While they cite the threats posed by North Korea and China to justify their policies, the idea of Japan as a great power is valued in its own right — it is not driven by material considerations.

Meanwhile, to be a realist in Japan means much the same as it does in other countries: valuing the sober assessment of national interests, and thinking clearly about how best to secure those interests using the means available. While I think “realism” is often associated with a predisposition towards military capabilities and the use of force, it need not be. As Eric Heginbotham and Richard Samuels argued in a 1998 article in the journal International Security, postwar Japanese leaders have been “mercantile realists,” thinking of Japanese national interests in broader terms that prioritized Japan’s economic position.

The DPJ has thus far been far more realist in its foreign and security policies than has been generally recognized. Like earlier LDP governments it is working to maintain some sort of constructive relationship with China, however difficult, while building closer bilateral ties with other countries in the region that are also concerned about Japan’s rise. The government has signaled that it is willing to invest in Japan’s security, for example announcing last month that the MSDF will increase its purchase of new submarines from sixteen to more than twenty. As this post at Sigma1 notes there are signs that the government’s new National Defense Program Guidelines, which the DPJ has been considering since it took power, will contain a number of sensible proposals to enhance Japan’s security, including a relaxation of the arms exporting principles and relocation of SDF personnel from the north to the south. Is Japan “rearming”? Arguably not. But we are not seeing a passive and pacifist Japan either, despite the idea that the DPJ is “left wing.”

But what about the relationship with the United States? On the face of it, the dispute with the US over Futenma has shown the limits of the DPJ’s realist tendencies, allowing its position on the bases to be driven by domestic political considerations instead of the “national interest.” However, is it really in the interest of either Japan or the US to force bases on an unwilling Okinawan public? The point is not that the DPJ has been particularly sober minded in its approach to the issue, but that it is not altogether clear how the bases in Okinawa serve Japan’s interests, which leads to the larger question of how the US-Japan alliance can best serve the interests of both countries.

This is the big question hanging over the alliance, the question that the two countries may finally be in the process of addressing as they begin consultations in advance of a bilateral summit that is expected to be held sometime in the spring. Will North Korean provocations or Chinese maritime adventurism push the alliance in new directions? If anything, I think regional uncertainty reinforces the trend towards a “strong but limited” security relationship focused deterrence in and around Japan instead of more expansive or grandiose plans for the alliance. And given Okinawan opposition to US bases and the uncertainty regarding the US economy, the countries should be talking about politically and economically sustainable deterrent capabilities. 

As such, while developments in the region may lend a certain urgency to bilateral talks about the future of the alliance, it is unlikely that they will push the US-Japan alliance in a drastically different direction than it was already going.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Observing Japan, now on Twitter!

After having resisted Twitter, I've decided to try it. I'm not sure whether I'll stick with it, although I'm enjoying it so far.

You can find my Twitter feed here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why don't Japanese take to the streets?

The Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer has an op-ed in the IHT in which he argues that despite widespread pessimism among Japanese regarding their country's future, things may not be so bad. Basically he suggests that the DPJ may well be learning to get along with business elites and bureaucrats, Japan and the US may be rebuilding their relationship after a remarkably bad year for the alliance, and, finally, the Japanese people have not taken to the streets in opposition to their government.

I'm not sure I buy his argument, at least not entirely. His first two arguments are more or less acceptable, although I find little to praise in how the Kan government prevaricated and ultimately failed to lead on the issue. And I don't think Japan's foreign relations follow the "China down, US up" pattern Bremmer suggests — the Kan government is no less committed to fixing relations with China than it is committed to maintaining a healthy relationship with the US, consistent with the DPJ's position that Japan is not in a position to choose between the US and China.

What I'm interested in is Bremmer's argument about the relative stability of Japanese politics as measured by the lack of demonstrations, riots, and rallies with people carrying signs likening the country's leader to various twentieth-century dictators. In this superficial sense he's right: over the past two decades Japan has seen none of the upsurge in extra-parliamentary politics that one would expect a country in dire economic straits to experience. Bremmer's argument — that two decades of stagnation — is perfectly reasonable. It is difficult to see how a deflationary economy would lead people to take to the streets, particularly without the benefits cuts that have produced demonstrations and riots in Western Europe. 

Would Japanese continue to abstain from extra-parliamentary politics if, say, the Kan government pursued austerity with the same zeal as the Cameron government? And if they would continue to stay out of the streets, why? What's so different about Japan that the Japanese people seem content to express their dissatisfaction in public opinion polls and in the voting booth (which they have done regularly for decades, for despite the LDP's success in general elections there is a history of the LDP being punished in local and upper house elections)? I don't know the answer, and I certainly can't hope to come up with the answer in a blog post. However, the decline of Japanese extra-parliamentary politics since the 1960s, particularly compared with other rich democracies, is one of the more interesting puzzles in postwar Japanese politics and I don't think this puzzle has an obvious answer.

Is it political culture, for example the lack of an anti-government subculture like in the United States? If so, what changed since the 1960s? The decline in the kind of organizations that might facilitate collective action (student groups, unions, etc.)? The lack of the kind of welfare benefits that, when cut, can cause to demonstrations in defense of the status quo? The result of a half-century of LDP rule, which habituated citizens and interest groups to a certain approach to politics that left little room for public demonstrations? 

If Japan is in fact more stable than other rich democracies, it would be helpful to understand why, not least because if Japan were to pursue benefit cuts in order to shrink the deficit, it might enable us to predict whether Japanese politics will continue to enjoy "relative domestic tranquility."