Inertia and Drive in the DPJ’s Security Policy


Beginning with its bungled handling of the relocation of Futenma air base, the DPJ administration installed in 2009 has shown confusion about how to handle foreign affairs and national security policy. But it has also made some progress. Keiō University Professor Hosoya Yuichi reviews the problems and the signs of change.

The Democratic Party of Japan has encountered one crisis after another ever since it moved into power on September 16, 2009. Why has that been the case? In the campaign for the lower house election, it did not make foreign policy or national security an election issue, rallying instead behind a banner proclaiming it would “put people’s lives first.” The biggest difficulties the DPJ administration soon came to face, however, were in the spheres of foreign affairs, national security, and crisis management. These escalated into crises it was unable to handle, and the public’s confidence in it gradually crumbled. To be sure, diplomacy is not an issue that translates easily into votes. Even so, a government’s handling of foreign affairs is a matter that can directly affect lives. The public is not likely to put much trust in any administration that lacks a sound sense of international politics and does not implement appropriate foreign policies.

Behind the Confusion in the Administration’s Policies

The administration stumbled into its first crisis on the national security front as a result of the stance taken by Hatoyama Yukio, the first DPJ prime minister. It involved mounting friction and mutual distrust between Japan and the United States over the issue of relocating the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. If the Japan-US alliance were to weaken, inevitably the power balance in East Asia would begin to crumble. That would invite China to stage a more energetic advance into the seas, and an unintended clash between Japan and China would be bound to happen in one form or another. But Hatoyama chose to promote abstract ideals, such as an “East Asian Community” and diplomacy based on the concept of yūai, or “fraternity.” In essence, he failed to look squarely at the realities of national security. He made a promise that he would have the Air Station relocated outside Okinawa but was unable to deliver on it, leading to his early resignation in June 2010.

It was in September 2010, not long after Hatoyama bowed out, that a collision occurred between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats in disputed territory near the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese). Soon after, the Chinese government was moving more aggressively into ocean waters. In the United States, the Department of Defense under the Obama administration responded with major changes in its strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. The strategic environment of East Asia became highly unsettled as a result. In this light, the position Hatoyama adopted was a major mistake, as it paved the way to this fragile fluidity in the strategic balance.

Next, in March 2011, came a triple disaster exceeding all anticipated scenarios. That, of course, was the crippling earthquake in the Tōhoku region of northeastern Honshū, the record-breaking destruction from the accompanying tsunami, and the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The prime minister then was Kan Naoto, and to his credit, he acted relatively quickly to get the Self-Defense Forces involved in the rescue operations. But chaos reigned in the response to the nuclear power plant catastrophe, and the disorder began to gradually undermine the government’s policy measures. The concerned ministries and agencies adopted divergent positions, and top-level efforts to get them to act together faced difficulties. In the absence of sufficient coordination of views, the prime minister’s office was inundated with different information and recommendations deriving from different perspectives. The extreme confusion was plain to see.

Mature Foreign Policy with Suprapartisan Support

Within the stagnation and vacillation on national security policy, signs of emerging possibilities are also apparent. For example, the new National Defense Program Guidelines, which were approved by the cabinet in December 2010, represent an epochal advance. Previously Japan adhered to a “basic defense force” policy designed for the cold-war structure, but this has been discarded in favor of a “dynamic defense force” concept. This approach permits defensive power to be built up in a more rational way, and it facilitates a more effective response by the SDF to the many ambiguous threats of the modern day. The new way of thinking was worked out through the coordination of views among four key DPJ leaders, each of whom has an excellent understanding of the national security situation. They are Sengoku Yoshito (then chief cabinet secretary), Maehara Seiji (then foreign minister), Kitazawa Toshimi (then defense minister), and Noda Yoshihiko (then finance minister). The dynamic defense force concept can be counted as one of the successes of the DPJ administration in its bid to realize “government led by politicians.”

Another example involves the three principles on arms exports, which virtually ban the export of arms, particularly those to (1) communist bloc countries, (2) countries subject to arms export embargo under United Nations Security Council resolutions, and (3) countries involved or likely to be involved in international conflicts. Now the government has revised the principles in a fashion fitting contemporary international trends, opening the door to joint development and production of defense equipment with security partners in general, not just the United States. Fujimura Osamu, the current chief cabinet secretary, unveiled the new policy in December 2011. (See also this column.)

The Liberal Democratic Party had long recognized the need to update the principles, but as a result of inertia, successive LDP administrations never managed to implement the key changes the party sought. When the Democratic Party of Japan managed to accomplish this feat in a short period of time, the LDP naturally held back from the harsh criticism one usually hears from the opposition. No doubt many LDP politicians were pleased.

These developments indicate that a bipartisan consensus between the LDP and the DPJ has begun to emerge on the basics of foreign policy. This is a momentous change, as it provides evidence that Japan’s national security policy is approaching maturity. Suprapartisan agreement on the basic lines of foreign policy can be seen in advanced democracies. Such an agreement is in place in both the United States and Britain, and it has worked to sustain the quality of foreign policy in these two countries. To be sure, there are always new tasks to address whenever the government changes hands. On security affairs directly affecting lives, however, no government should allow itself to be swept along by decisions crafted for the political situation and embark on a rash course of action. With respect to foreign policy as in other fields, we may say that Japan is becoming a mature democratic state.

The Next Stage: A Japanese Version of the NSC

The next stage of Japan’s evolution will be to become capable of making an appropriate response to grave crises and other issues that the top government leaders have difficulty handling. Toward this end, Japan will probably create its own version of the US National Security Council. Five years ago, in February 2007, a panel tasked with finding ways to strengthen the functioning of the prime minister’s office on national security affairs recommended that such an agency be created. That was during the LDP administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. Now the National Defense Program Guidelines formulated by the DPJ have explicitly approved a Japanese NSC in a passage stating that the government will establish a body in the prime minister’s office responsible for coordinating national security policy among relevant ministers and providing advice to the prime minister. Moreover, a DPJ working group on diplomacy and national security has presented this as a recommendation. Even so, no action has been taken. The DPJ and LDP both agree on the need, and the idea is endorsed in the new defense program, but political movement has not yet begun.

Another issue on which forward progress is not evident is Japan’s ability to exercise its right to collective defense. About all that has happened on this front is that such figures as former Foreign Minister Maehara and current Foreign Minister Genba Kōichirō have pointed out the need for revising the government’s interpretation of the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9, which is read to mean that Japan can defend itself but not other countries. Over the five years from the LDP administration of Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo to today’s DPJ administration of Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, the country’s political leaders have not managed to overcome inertia on this crucial policy question. (Kitaoka Shin’ichi gives an overview of this period in his article here.) But a major crisis will not await the resolution of a political standstill. Let us hope that the government can come up with the resolve to take the necessary steps before the advent of a crisis threatening people’s lives.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 28, 2012. Title background photo by Jiji Press.)

diplomacy Hosoya Yuichi United States Kan Naoto Noda Yoshihiko Japan-US Security Treaty China Democratic Party of Japan Liberal Democratic Party Tohoku earthquake Hatoyama Yukio Abe Shinzō East Asia crisis management Japan-US Alliance Futenma National Security Council National Defense Program Guidelines Senkaku Islands constitution Dynamic Defense Force national security Maehara Seiji Fukushima nuclear power plant Japanese NSC Collective defense Sengoku Yoshito Kitazawa Toshimi Fujimura Osamu Genba Koichiro Fukuda Yasuo