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Japan's foreign policy

The death of an alternative foreign policy for Japan?

WREAC Fellow and Leading expert on Japan’s territorial disputes, Dr Paul O’Shea (Lund University) discusses the prospects of an East Asian Community under the new LDP administration

In 2009 the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept to power, defeating the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in dramatic style and forming the first non-LDP majority government in postwar history. The path was clear for the DPJ to implement the many reforms promised in its election manifesto. Although the manifesto focused primarily on domestic issues, the new prime minster Hatoyama Yukio was keen to implement a new foreign policy. This consisted of a (re)turn to Asia, building an “East Asian Community” while simultaneously developing a more “equal” relationship with the United States (US).

Given that Japan’s postwar foreign policy was built on the primary pillar of the US-Japan alliance, while in contrast relations with its Asian neighbours had remained fractious and at times outright confrontational, this new policy could be described as “brave”. Yet Hatoyama and those within the DPJ who supported it (especially party kingpin Ozawa Ichiro) recognised that the world – and particularly the region – was changing. The 21st Century had already been dubbed the ‘Asian Century’, and while the West was mired in the worst recession since the 1930s much of East Asia continued to boom. Developing broader and deeper relations with its neighbours seemed to many Japanese to be a logical move.

However, Hatoyama made a promise to relocate the controversial Futenma US Marines base located in an urban part of Okinawa elsewhere in Japan or perhaps even outside of the country altogether. This promise proved to be his undoing. An agreement to move the base to another part of Okinawa had been painfully negotiated over a period of years, and reopening the negotiations would require no small amount of US goodwill. Given that Hatoyama’s new foreign policy vision for Japan did not go down well in Washington, it is perhaps unsurprising that this goodwill was not forthcoming. The eventual failure to fulfill his promise to find an alternative location for the base resulted in Hatoyama’s resignation.

The next DPJ administration was headed by Prime Minister Kan Naoto. Kan focused on social and economic affairs and quietly dropped the new foreign policy. In September 2010 Maehara Seiji became foreign minister. Maehara belongs to the most conservative faction of the DPJ, and advocates strong Japan-US relations while maintaining a hawkish view on China. The next and final DPJ prime minister, Noda Yoshihiko, also comes from this faction, and thus the DPJ’s foreign policy had come full-circle. Indeed, after Hatoyama’s resignation DPJ foreign policy became more LDP than the LDP itself, with Japan stumbling from bilateral crisis to crisis, facing off against Russia, South Korea and China over territorial and historical issues. By the time the LDP regained power last winter Sino-Japanese relations were plumbing new depths, while top-level South Korea-Japan relations were on hold, waiting for new leaders to thaw the ice following a very public spat between Noda and President Lee Myung-bak in the summer of 2012.

Elections are rarely fought on foreign policy, and the lower house elections of 2012 were no different. Yet what was striking was the similarity between the foreign policies of the top three parties (the LDP, the DPJ and Isshin no Kai, a vehicle for the charismatic governors of Osaka and Tokyo, Hashimoto Tōru and Ishihara Shintarō respectively). All three espoused a conservative, traditional policy, based on strengthening relations with the US while hedging against China’s rise. It was a far cry from the East Asian Community of 2009 – rather if anything the parties were attempting to out-conservative each other in terms of how they would deal with China. In the end Abe Shinzō led the LDP to a comprehensive victory while the DPJ suffered potentially fatal loses.

With Hatoyama’s failure, the new cross-party conservative consensus, and the return of one of Japan’s most nationalistic prime ministers in recent history, the prospects for an alternative foreign policy for Japan look bleak. The DPJ faces oblivion at the upper house election this summer, while Hatoyama has left politics and Ozawa, his powerful behind-the-scenes supporter, is a spent force. Abe has proven to be a more pragmatic prime minister in his second term than in his first, prioritising economic stimulus over his pet nationalist projects of constitutional reform and historical revisionism.

Still, the summer’s elections are crucial. If the LDP win a comfortable majority, and if Japan’s apparent turnaround through the so-called ‘Abenomics’ continues, it is highly likely that having consolidated his position Abe will move to implement some of his more controversial policies. Given the overtly nationalist bent of many of these, not least the revision of article nine (the pacifist clause in Japan’s constitution), it will put Japan on a collision course with its neighbours. The dreams of an East Asian Community are long gone. More important now are concrete plans to avoid an East Asian conflict.