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The burden of a landslide victory: a new Japan?

After more than 50 years of almost uninterrupted Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government, Japan moved in a new direction in its general elections of August 2009. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won the country’s general elections by an unexpectedly high margin – surpassing even the winning party’s predictions. Even though some DPJ members started their career in the LDP, the new government seems to be serious about creating a new Japan.

Prime Minister Hatoyama made that clear last September when he spoke of a ‘New Japan’ during his first address to the United Nations General Assembly: a Japan that would look at global challenges such as climate change, nuclear non-proliferation/global nuclear disarmament and building an East Asian Community.

© Reuters/Ho New

In climate change, many still associate Japan with the famous Kyoto Conference, which set target limits on carbon emissions. But Japan has not had much success in tackling environmental issues. Today, it produces 9.2 % more greenhouse gases than in 1999. Japan lacked firm rules and targets on environmental protection for decades, leaving business to self-regulate.

Now, new Prime Minister Hatoyama has promised to increase the country’s emission reduction target to 25% in comparison to the 1990 levels by 2020. And in early December, the government announced a $80 billion economic stimulus package which included extended incentives for purchasing environment-friendly cars and household appliances.

But Prime Minister Hatoyama conceded at December’s Copenhagen Conference on climate change that effecting change will be difficult, given the vested interests of industry (and it’s worth remembering that these interests spread into the public sector too – not least in the powerful Ministry of Economy,Trade and Industry).

The new government will not only have to improve quality of life in Japan, but also set an important example for developing countries. Japan needs to assist these countries’ pursuit of economic growth by sharing its experiences and technologies: something Prime Minister Hatoyama recognised in Copenhagen when he announced financial assistance to developing countries.

However, this financial pledge, as well as Japan’s 25% carbon emissions reduction commitment in the Copenhagen Accord, is ‘premised on the establishment of a fair and effective international framework in which all major economies participate and on agreement by those economies on ambitious targets.’ Seemingly rather strict, this premise leaves sufficient manoevre space for practical approaches if necessary.

© Reuters/Toshiyuki Aizawa

Japan’s history is explanation enough for its decades-old promotion of nuclear non-proliferation and global nuclear disarmament. It has a policy of non-possession, non-production, and non-introduction of nuclear weapons. At the UN Security Council Summit on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament in September 2009, Prime Minister Hatoyama stated Japan’s intention to take the lead in eliminating nuclear weapons. Unsurprisingly, one of the ‘action items’ referred to North Korea.

While Japan and the rest of the world are concerned about North Korea’s nuclear development, Japan has an additional connected issue. In 2002, North Korea admitted having abducted Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan stated that there could be no normalisation of relations between Japan and North Korea unless this issue was solved and linked the issue to the Six Party Talks. Though difficult, the new government might have to de-link these two issues if it wants to successfully lead in helping eliminate nuclear weapons.

So far, the government’s track record shows a resolution on nuclear disarmament, submitted by Japan along with a record 87 co-sponsors and adopted by the United Nations in early December with an overwhelming majority of 171 against only two no votes and eight abstentions.

The new government’s next step will be to take advantage of the centennial of Japan’s annexation of the Korean peninsula to deepen its relationship with South Korea. These discussions with South Korea will not be easy: however, joint efforts are needed to find a way ahead on North Korean nuclear development and South Korea’s influence will be crucial.

Also positive is the new government’s intention to shed light on the so-called secret arrangements that permitted secret stopovers by nuclear-armed US ships and aircrafts in Japan. For a nation that committed itself to a policy of not allowing this, this investigation is a logical step.

© Reuters/Yuriko Nakao

One element that has not changed with the new government is the concept of an East Asian Community forming the centrepiece of Japan’s Asian diplomacy. Prime Minister Hatoyama sees the East Asian Community as an extension of existing accumulated cooperation and apparently intends to put even greater emphasis on Asia. Japan will seek to lead on the integration of Asian countries into a common market. The vision is to strengthen cooperation in fields such as energy, environment and cultural exchange, and in particular finance, trade, and economy.

A number of regional organisations and mechanisms have already emerged, brought together by overlapping agendas and the principle of “first business then politics”. But to make an East Asian Community successfully take shape, some questions need to be answered. What will the East Asian Community provide that existing organisations and mechanisms cannot? From which organisation or mechanism will this community arise, given that China has a different understanding of the market’s composition? (Currently, China promotes the ASEAN Plus Three (ASEAN plus China, South Korea, Japan) whereas Japan advocates a recent mechanism, the East Asian Summit, consisting of the ASEAN Plus Three plus India, New Zealand and Australia). Finally, yet importantly, will the United States be considered a prospective member?

Prime Minister Hatoyama’s enthusiasm for the East Asian Community seems to come from his intention to show Japanese leadership in Asia and a move away from a US-centred foreign policy. The new government’s repeated references to Asia and the East Asian Community indicates it wants to enlarge its foreign policy options by enhancing relationships beyond its close ties with the United States. But Hatoyama knows that the East Asian Community is a long-term ambition and that enthusiasm for it outside Japan is somewhat limited, especially if it is seen as vehicle for a future regional security architecture.

While now the time is not ripe for decision, discussion on the future nature of the US-Japan alliance is in full swing. The US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty is recognised throughout the Asia-Pacific region for its stabilising effect. However, the treaty’s 50th anniversary, commemorated in mid-January, comes at the same time as frictions between Japan’s new government and the United States, triggered by the DPJ’s promise to the people of Okinawa to revisit the subject of realignment of the US forces in Japan.

While these frictions should not be dismissed, it seems premature to assume a lack of commitment to the alliance. However, the new government’s determination to shift to the direction of a more Asia-centred foreign policy should not be underestimated. For the new government, this is not about choosing between Asia and the United States but extending its scope for manoeuvre.

© Reuters/Yuriko Nakao

Nations’ domestic preoccupations usually attract little attention outside its own borders; however, as the saying goes, all politics is local. The DPJ’s election manifesto acknowledged this and, now elected, it puts Japan’s internal challenges first on the agenda.

Among these is addressing a system that allowed bureaucrats to lead on politics. The DPJ already took some corrective action demonstrating its determination to reverse this. Further challenges include a rapidly aging population, declining birth rates, rising costs for health care, a faltering pension system and local communities depending on trillions of governmental yen for infrastructure projects.

The tradition of enormous public spending has left a Japanese national debt that is one of the largest of the developed nations. Whether the new government can align an expected huge shortfall in tax revenues with a likewise huge economic stimulus package remains to be seen. Domestically the question is how much time the electorate will give the new government to solve these issues. The next upper house elections are due in July 2010. By then it may be difficult not to be held responsible for the situation, even if most of it has evolved over 50 years. In addition, there are also signs that DPJ funding scandals are eroding its voter support

With all of these domestic issues, how much time, strength and resources can be devoted to international challenges, of which the above mentioned only present a fraction?

This will depend on how well Japan’s sluggish economy can be reinvigorated. This is its main basis for exercising influence. In Asia, that puts the relationship with China - and its rising power - on Japan’s agenda. The point is not to win a race against China, but to benefit from complementarities.

Japan’s economy has a massive dependence on external demand. The DPJ has therefore recently introduced an economic strategy that not only highlights the need to stimulate domestic growth but also identifies the potential of future regional cooperation. Japan’s Asian neighbours have large markets and, since their various economies differ greatly, this may invite them to take mutual advantage of individual strengths and to enhance cooperation.

The effects of Prime Minister Hatoyama’s agenda will spill over into security issues, both long-term and current. This is particularly important to a nation that mainly defines its role in international security through its use of a large Official Development Aid (ODA) budget for governance, reconstruction, capacity building, and humanitarian aid.

This ODA has already achieved significant results in Afghanistan. Since the ousting of the Taliban, Japan has played an important role in the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Its last aid package, announced in November, accounts for $5 billion over the next five years focusing on nation-building in security and livelihoods.

Emphasis will be placed on the National Police and reintegration of former combatants by providing vocational training. It will also support agriculture, rural development, education, health and other basic needs. As this aid package also pertains to Pakistan, it demonstrates Japan’s objective to promote Afghanistan's stability through a regional approach.

So a Japanese economic revival is indispensable not only for domestic reasons. The world, and in particular Japan’s neighbours, have heard Japan’s new government setting the tone and thrust differently. They will be closely monitoring progress on the ‘New Japan’.

As Prime Minister Hatoyama pointed out, the DPJ’s landslide victory provides for a great burden. The new government’s determination for transformation is omnipresent; however, the Japanese people and the international community will be looking for evidence that transformation also means improvements.

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