U.S.-Japan Relations

Author
Michael J. Green
Content Type
Journal Article
Journal
Comparative Connections
Volume
11
Issue Number
1
Publication Date
April 2009
Institution
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Abstract
A new calendar year did little to change the tenor of Japanese domestic politics as the public became increasingly frustrated with parliamentary gridlock and the leadership of Prime Minister Aso Taro, whose approval rating plummeted amid a deepening recession. Opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro continued pressure tactics against the government and became the favorite to succeed Aso until the arrest of a close aide damaged his reputation and stunted momentum for a snap election. Aso demonstrated the art of political survival, touting the urgency of economic stimulus over a poll he could easily lose and which need not take place until the fall. In an effort to prevent political turmoil from weakening Japan's global leadership role, the government dispatched two Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyers to participate in antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
Topic
International Relations, Economics, Government
Political Geography
United States, Japan, North Korea
A new calendar year did little to change the tenor of Japanese domestic politics as the public became increasingly frustrated with parliamentary gridlock and the leadership of Prime Minister Aso Taro, whose approval rating plummeted amid a deepening recession. Opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro continued pressure tactics against the government and became the favorite to succeed Aso until the arrest of a close aide damaged his reputation and stunted momentum for a snap election. Aso demonstrated the art of political survival, touting the urgency of economic stimulus over a poll he could easily lose and which need not take place until the fall. In an effort to prevent political turmoil from weakening Japan's global leadership role, the government dispatched two Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyers to participate in antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. The Obama administration wasted little time in establishing a positive trajectory for the U.S.-Japan alliance, first sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Tokyo in mid-February and receiving Prime Minister Aso at the White House shortly thereafter. The core agenda items for both visits – the economic crisis, North Korea, Afghanistan, and climate change – reflected both regional and global challenges. Bilateral issues also featured prominently on the agenda in the form of an agreement on the relocation of U.S. forces from Okinawa to Guam. In a fitting end to a quarter of close bilateral coordination, Washington and Tokyo were poised to monitor an anticipated missile test by North Korea and orchestrate a cohesive response that could determine the fate of the Six-Party Talks. Putting off an election Prime Minister Aso opened the year with a pledge to stimulate the economy but could not win public support in the face of grim economic data; for example, exports fell 50 percent in January from a year earlier and the economy shrank at an annualized rate of 12.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. Unable to reach a compromise with the opposition led by Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) President Ozawa Ichiro, Aso was forced to ram a second stimulus package through the Diet in January by asking his ruling coalition to vote on it a second time with a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, but that did little to improve his standing. Aso then compounded his political problems in early February by stating that he opposed former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro's plan to privatize the postal system – a symbol of economic reform that propelled the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to a landslide victory in an election back in 2005 – despite having served in Koizumi's Cabinet at the time. This raised questions about Aso's credibility. A week later the public was outraged by video footage showing Finance Minister U.S.-Japan Relations 15 April 2009 Nakagawa Shoichi seemingly intoxicated during a press conference with the Japanese media at a G7 meeting in Rome. Nakagawa was forced to resign and Aso's approval rating dropped below ten percent in some polls. Opposition members repeatedly called for a snap election, but Aso stood firm stressing the importance of economic stimulus measures and noting that, as prime minister, the timing of an election is his prerogative. Meanwhile, Ozawa Ichiro's popularity increased steadily and he escalated a rhetorical campaign based on two themes: criticizing the LDP on domestic policy and standing up to the U.S. (using phrases such as “equal alliance.”) But like Aso, Ozawa raised eyebrows with controversial commentary, was tarnished by scandal, lost the support of the public, and refused to step down. He caused a stir in the media in February, when he stated that the U.S. 7th fleet alone should suffice for maintaining security in the Far East, implying that the U.S. footprint in Japan should be drastically reduced and Japan would fill the gap (thus pulling off the rare feat of simultaneously angering both the pro-U.S. conservatives and the pacifist left within the DPJ). One of his closest aides, Okubo Takanori, was then arrested in early March for allegedly accepting illegal donations from a construction company. Ozawa apologized to the public but refused to resign as DPJ president. A Yomiuri poll published on March 26 said 68 percent of the public opposed Ozawa as head of the DPJ. Aso's approval rating rebounded to just above 20 percent at the end of March and he intimated during a press conference on March 31 that he might consider dissolving the Lower House if the opposition refused to pass a third stimulus package this spring. He could also wait until August in an attempt to develop a message that resonates with the public, but that might prove challenging for both parties as ambivalence best describes current attitudes about politics. According to an Asahi Shimbun poll published on March 17, 60 percent of the public is disappointed with the state of politics and close to 90 percent feels that political leaders are not offering a future vision for the country nor reflecting the will of the people. The Aso government did garner public support for its decision to dispatch two MSDF destroyers to the Gulf of Aden for antipiracy missions, which 61 percent of the public favored according to a Yomiuri poll in mid-March. Kick-starting alliance cooperation President Obama moved quickly to dispel any concerns in Japan that a Democratic administration might place less emphasis on the U.S.-Japan alliance. Hillary Clinton sent a strong signal by emphasizing in her Senate confirmation hearing that the U.S.-Japan alliance remains the “cornerstone” of U.S. Asia policy. The administration then announced that her first trip as secretary of state would be to Asia and that she would stop in Tokyo first. Just prior to her departure, in an address to the Asia Society, Secretary Clinton stated that the U.S. has not forgotten the families of Japanese citizens abducted to North Korea and she later met them during her visit to Tokyo from Feb. 16-17. Her meeting with Foreign Minister Nakasone Hirofumi covered a broad spectrum of issues including the global economic crisis, extended deterrence, the North Korean nuclear issue, efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, and climate change. The two also signed an agreement on the relocation of U.S. forces from Okinawa to Guam, a central element in a realignment plan finalized back in May 2006. Clinton also met other leaders including DPJ President Ozawa, who reportedly emphasized the U.S.-Japan Relations 16 April 2009 importance of China and the U.S.-Japan-China trilateral relationship. She also conducted a town hall meeting at the University of Tokyo to reinforce the administration's theme of listening to the perspectives of friends and allies. Secretary Clinton also delivered an invitation to Prime Minister Aso, who a week later became the first foreign leader to meet President Obama in the White House. That discussion centered on the need to coordinate responses to the global financial crisis but also addressed North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and the abductee issue. The president thanked Aso for Japan's contributions in Afghanistan, but did not pressure Japan to assume a greater military role. Japan has dispatched MSDF vessels for refueling missions in the Indian Ocean since 2001 and is also a major aid donor to Afghanistan. The government has provided approximately $1.78 billion in aid since 2001 in various areas including governance; humanitarian assistance; reconstruction; disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) projects; and counter-narcotics and border control. Climate change also figured in the discussions and could serve as a key agenda item for bilateral cooperation. Though the Japanese media tended to downgrade the meeting as truncated and business-like, the leaders set the stage for sustained coordination on key challenges regardless of the election outcome in Japan. There were only a few minor sour notes in this impressive start to alliance relations under the new Obama administration. The first was U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's failure to publicly acknowledge Japan's $100 billion contribution to the IMF and its passage of two stimulus packages when calling on the international community to support developing economies through the IMF and promote domestic stimulus measures. Within the G20 process, the U.S. and Japan may be the two most closely aligned countries on the need for replenishing the IMF and increasing stimulus. Finance Minister Yosano Kaoru met Geithner in England on the sidelines of a G20 preparatory meeting in March and explained Prime Minister Aso's desire to pass a third stimulus package this spring, noting that the three packages combined would surpass Geithner's proposed threshold of 2 percent of GDP. The other sour note was a leak by someone in the Japanese government of U.S. intelligence shared on the North Korean rocket launch preparations just before Secretary Clinton's visit to Tokyo. If the new administration loses confidence in Tokyo's ability to handle the most sensitive intelligence, it could become a problem for the overall flow of information and coordination between the two governments. Preparing for a missile launch On Feb. 3, the Sankei Shimbun reported that North Korea had begun preparations for a long-range missile test. Pyongyang claimed to be planning a satellite launch on what many analysts concluded was a Taepodong-2 missile. The U.S., Japan, and South Korea agreed that a launch would violate United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1718, which prohibits any missile activity by North Korea, and later dispatched ships to monitor any missile test. They also began considering Security Council resolutions or statements that might be adopted after Secretary Clinton warned publicly that there would be “consequences” for the launch. However, Chinese and Russian cooperation in the Security Council was not a foregone conclusion since both Beijing and Moscow accepted North Korean claims that the launch was intended to put a peaceful satellite into space. Meanwhile, the Japanese government announced it would shoot down any debris that might fall on Japanese territory in a demonstration of its missile defense U.S.-Japan Relations 17 April 2009 capabilities. Japan deployed three Aegis destroyers together with two U.S. and one South Korean missile defense ships monitoring North Korean actions. A lot to watch North Korea's antics will certainly take center stage next quarter. Washington and Tokyo can also be expected to build on whatever agreements come out of the G20 summit in London concerning the global economy. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks in Bonn carry over into the second quarter and could shed light on the prospects for a post-Kyoto framework at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen this December. Japan will host a Pakistan donors' conference in April and assume a leadership role in promoting reconstruction and development. There may also be an election in Japan, which could produce the first non-LDP government since 1994.