When Ozawa Ichiro suggested that at some unspecified point in the future the US forward-deployed forces in Japan might be reduced to the Seventh Fleet with Japan's taking greater responsibility for its own defense, he was greeted with opprobrium from LDP and government officials, who called him naive, unrealistic, and ignorant. Even Kevin Maher, the US consul general in Okinawa, weighed in, echoing LDP comments about Ozawa's ignorance of the complexities of the East Asia regional security environment. Judging by the response, it appeared as if Ozawa was a dangerous radical who, if elected, would single-handedly undermine the alliance and leave Japan defenseless in a dangerous neighborhood.
After watching the response from certain corners of the Japanese establishment to North Korea's rocket launch, when will Mr. Maher issue another warning to Japanese politicians for their dangerous rhetoric?
Over the past week, Japanese conservatives have used the fear roused by the North Korean launch to put one radical idea after another before the public, all of which amount to a giant vote of no-confidence in the US-Japan alliance. The same politicians who last month were condemning Ozawa for his naivete were rattling the saber at North Korea and in the process questioning whether the US is capable of defending Japan from its neighbors.
* Yamamoto Ichita and six other LDP members formed a study group for "thinking about strengthening deterrent capabilities against North Korea." The group wants the new National Defense Program Outline due at year's end to include some mention of possessing the capability to strike at bases in North Korea. The group also calls for lifting the restriction on collective self-defense, but the focus appears to be more on acquiring new capabilities than on bolstering the alliance. The other six members are Shimomura Hakubun (54), a four-term lower house member from Tokyo; Onodera Itsunori (48), a three-term member from Miyagi; Mizuno Kenichi (42), a four-term member from Chiba; Tsukada Ichiro (45), a first-term upper house member from Niigata; Suzuki Keisuke (32), a first-term PR member from Fukuoka; and Matsumoto Yohei (35), a first-term lower house member from Tokyo. There are certain points of commonality among these seven. Their study group memberships lie at the nexus of the Koizumian reformists and the Abe-Aso-Nakagawa (Shoichi) conservatives. Three belong to the "True Conservative Policy Research Group." The first-termers belong to the club of 83 or the conservative Tradition and Creation club. They occupy the younger half of the age spectrum, meaning they can look forward to inheriting the LDP. In Shimomura the group has a politician identified by Richard Samuels and Patrick Boyd as a future leader of the LDP. It may be a small group, but it is a significant group in terms of its membership, representative less of the views of the LDP at large than of the views of a group that is likely to lead the LDP in years to come. Their membership in this group is wholly consistent with what Samuels and Boyd found in their study of next-generation political leaders: "The twelve [future LDP leaders they identify]...are significantly more supportive of Japan’s right to preemptive attack in the face of imminent threat than the LDP overall or the larger midcareer generational cohort."
* I have already noted that prominent conservatives used the occasion of the launch to call for a debate on the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Hosoda Hiroyuki dismissed these remarks by saying that "I don't think that anyone is seriously saying this," while Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, reaffirmed the three non-nuclear principles. (These remarks were in response to LDP official Sakamoto Goji's remarks about acquiring nuclear weapons and withdrawing from the UN.)
* Koike Yuriko, whose quest to unseat Aso Taro ended just as soon as it began, stressed the need for a Japanese-style National Security Council — an idea that died with the Abe government — at a meeting of a subcommittee of the LDP Policy Research Council's defense policy division.
* Nakagawa Hidenao stated his concern that since the US ruled out intercepting the North Korean launch beforehand, it exposed a gap in the alliance.
Komori Yasuhisa, Sankei's man in Washington, more or less summed up the line of argument that encapsulates the views of these politicians in a front-page article in Sankei — more op-ed than reportage — in which he speaks of the present moment as a "moment of truth" for the alliance.
Komori argues that the US (and the effete and ineffectual Obama administration) failed to live up to the letter of the alliance by ruling out an intercept, that the Obama administration's emphasis on multilateral diplomacy did nothing to prevent the launch, and that Japan is learning the true face of the new administration when it comes to the alliance. The upshot is that Japan is coming to realize that in the face of the North Korean missile threat, it cannot necessarily depend on the United States.
This reasoning is considerably more threatening to the alliance than anything Ozawa said. In material terms the US security guarantee is no weaker today than it was before North Korea's rocket launch. Does a slightly less unsuccessful rocket launch make Japan so much more vulnerable to North Korea's missiles that the alliance as it exists is rendered irrelevant? Has enough changed in the past week to merit this discussion?
And yet by talking as if North Korea has struck a blow against the alliance, these leaders risk eroding public confidence in the alliance without offering anything in its place. After all, Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu said "it is highly doubtful" that deterrent capabilities will be included in this year's NDPO or the mid-term defense program. Japan is still not prepared to even discuss nuclear weapons. (Yamasaki Taku offered the novel argument against a nuclear debate by saying that even by talking about nuclear weapons Japan would be voicing its acceptance of North Korea's nuclear weapons.) But the LDP is taking a hard line — Hosoda took the opportunity to criticize Condoleeza Rice and Christopher Hill by name for being "weak" on North Korea — without any indication that its rhetoric or will accomplish anything but frightening the public and undermining the alliance. (Of course, if Japan actually acquired its own conventional deterrent capability, it would likely lead to conclusions similar to Ozawa's: if Japan had its own capabilities to strike at North Korea, presumably Japanese citizens would wonder why they were continuing to pay to base US airpower on Japanese soil.)
As Sam Roggeveen wrote in response to equally outrageous rhetoric from Newt Gingrich in the US, "There is no military solution to this dilemma — not missile defence, and certainly not air strikes or special forces. The reason lies in the geography of the Korean peninsula. The proximity of Seoul (and several other South Korean cities) to the border with the North means Pyongyang essentially holds that city hostage." Japan is in no more position to start a war with North Korea than the US is. Japan may be more insecure on account of geography, but geography makes Japan no more capable of "solving" the North Korean problem than any other country.
The US is, of course, paying the price for having swung from unremitting hostility towards North Korea to cooperation in the hope of containing the threat without ensuring that Japan shifted too. The US government, first under Bush and now under Obama, has only acknowledged the reality that the US has little power to change the unpleasant status quo and must therefore find a way to limit the threat posed by North Korea beyond mere deterrence. The Japanese government, by contrast, is locked in by past decisions to pursue a hard line on North Korea that put the abductees first and roused the public's fears so that the government lacks the ability to change course, even if it wanted to do so. And Japan's conservatives are using the situation to push an agenda that they would be advocating anyway — Kim Jong-il has simply made it easier for them to do so.
Conservative rhetoric is unlikely to change Japan's security policy in the near term, not with a 15 trillion yen stimulus package on the agenda. For the moment the public continues to prefer tough talk on North Korea to backing up talk with expensive weaponry. But too much tough talk will undermine the US-Japan relationship and make the US more eager to work with countries that will help it contain or solve the North Korea problem, not make it worse.
Perhaps it is time to send an ambassador to Tokyo.
Other posts by Tobias Harris: