Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

Shinzo Abe Leaves: What Next?

Posted by K.E. White on September 19, 2007

AEI’s The American explores the effect of Shinzo Abe’s abrupt departure from Japanese politics. The first section delves into the Japan’s foreign policy struggle. It seems the leader of Japan’s resurgent opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, Ichiro Ozawa favors shifting Japan away from its close relationship with America. And the weakness of Abe’s successor, Taro Aso, doesn’t augur well for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)–Japan’s ruling party.

But as earlier blogged, one must remember the LDP’s historical hold on the Japanese government.

What does the Japan-US relationship bring? Michael Auslin’s piece plunges into the politics of fueling allies of the multinational peacekeeping force in Afghanistan:

Back in the 1990s, Ozawa championed a more assertive Japanese foreign policy: one not as subservient to the United States, and yet one that gave Japan a global role commensurate with its economic power. But since the July upper house poll, he has refused to consider an extension of the anti-terrorism law that allowed Japanese maritime forces to provide thousands of gallons of fuel to coalition ships operating near Afghanistan. This was a puzzling move, since the election had focused on domestic issues. Abe, however, had declared his intent to get the renewal passed; otherwise Tokyo would have to withdraw its ships from the Indian Ocean starting on November 1st.

Privately, some U.S. government officials are furious with Ozawa for playing politics with the anti-terrorism law. But they are equally furious with Abe for his helplessness. The Japanese have supplied millions of dollars worth of high-grade fuel, which the U.S. cannot deliver, to Pakistani and British ships. The fear is that Pakistan will withdraw its ships if the Japanese leave, thereby eliminating the one Muslim nation in the Afghan coalition.

This is the result of the globalization of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Washington’s desire for a reliable, go-to partner may have made strategic and even tactical sense, but it appears that Koizumi and Abe’s willingness to fill that role put them far ahead of their fellow citizens. Neither Koizumi nor Abe made a particularly compelling case for why it was in Japan’s best interests to dramatically expand its international activities, especially when those activities required military forces. Some folks in Washington and Tokyo even allege that Japan joined the war on terrorism solely as a down payment for U.S. support against North Korea’s nuclear programs.

Ozawa is now insisting that Japan only join UN-run operations, and that it put less emphasis on the U.S. alliance. This is a risky ploy, both diplomatically and electorally. Washington is unlikely to significantly alter alliance promises, but a more independent approach on Tokyo’s part may, if maintained long enough, slowly drive the two partners apart, as was the case with America and France during the Cold War. If Japanese voters get a chance to see what such isolation is like, they may well punish Ozawa for doing unnecessary damage to Japan’s most important alliance. In either case, it will have an impact on Washington’s dealings with the rest of Asia, where some believe the U.S. is moving closer to China.

Japan is now at a crossroads. Abe’s likely successor, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, does not have deep political support among the populace, and is suspected by Japan’s neighbors of being a hardliner. Aso—or whoever becomes premier—faces serious challenges. Will economic reform continue? Will Japan’s bold, yet so far largely rhetorical, new diplomacy survive? Is this the beginning of a true two-party system in Japan? Will Washington give its Asian ally the space to sort out these developments? There’s a lot more riding on it than free gasoline.

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