Japan's New Foreign Policy: Tobias Harris

When Ichiro Ozawa left the LDP in 1993 to assemble a non-LDP coalition government, Americans were hopeful Japan would finally play a role in global affairs that was commensurate with its status as the world's second-largest economic power. After all, Ozawa espoused a belief in the need for Japan to become a "normal" nation, and his Blueprint for a New Japan outlined an ambitious vision for political reform that would subordinate bureaucrats to politicians in the cabinet and make Japan a more active participant in global affairs. Now that program looks ever more likely to come to pass. In September the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power—with Ozawa serving as secretary-general—and upon taking office the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, announced sweeping new changes that echo Ozawa's plan.

Many in the United States are worried, fretting that Hatoyama's promotion of DPJ politicians over entrenched, pro-American bureaucrats and members of the outgoing LDP will mean a turning away from the United States. The reality, though, is that the new government wants an "equal" relationship with the U.S., in which Japan's leaders can make decisions on the basis of their own calculations of Japan's national interests instead of on the basis of U.S. expectations for the country. In short, they want a relationship in which the Japanese government can, and will, occasionally say no to its ally.

The new tilt to Japan's foreign policy translates into a relationship with the U.S. that will de-emphasize and go beyond security issues. Tellingly, in the foreign-policy section of the DPJ's manifesto, it includes a proposal for a free-trade agreement with the U.S., which highlights just how much the relationship has changed over the past two decades. Burned by the trade wars of the early 1990s, the two nations shelved economic issues and focused on bilateral discussions on security, U.S. military bases, and Japanese contributions abroad. Naturally these discussions were unequal: the U.S., by far the world's strongest military power, proposed changes, and Japan accommodated U.S. requests as much as the political system would allow. Now the DPJ, especially Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, seeks to correct this imbalance. Japan, for instance, will end its role supporting the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by refueling warships in the Indian Ocean, while reintroducing significant global issues to the agenda, including climate change.

Japan's changing relationship with the U.S. will also mean a greater emphasis on leadership in Asia. But the U.S. should not mistake this as Tokyo's decision to choose Beijing over Washington. The U.S. remains Japan's most important security partner; China remains its most important economic partner. And as Okada said last month, choosing between the two is "a futile debate."

Rather, Japanese foreign policy will be a balancing act that—to borrow a term from Soeya Yoshihide, a professor at Keio University—could be called "middle-power" realism. Like other countries in Asia, including Australia, South Korea, and the ASEAN member nations, Japan will strive to maximize its freedom of action in a region dominated by the U.S. and China. The U.S. should not fear this change—Japan's leaders are as worried about Chinese dominance in Asia as their neighbors and the United States. In fact, Washington should recognize that a more independent Japan could play an important role in keeping the peace among the powers in the region.

Hatoyama's first priority, of course, will be getting Japan's house in order. The DPJ recognizes that until Japan's economy is weaned off its dependence on exports for economic growth, until Japanese workers and pensioners have a more reliable safety net beneath them, and until the government's debt is placed on a more sustainable footing, Japan will struggle to lead regionally and globally. Bureaucratic-led policymaking, which prevailed under the LDP, was fine when the U.S.-Japan alliance was the bulk of Japanese foreign policy. But if Japan's leaders want to balance multiple relationships and find an equilibrium in a changing region, political leaders need more discretion to take policy in different directions and to experiment. Until that happens, the DPJ's vision of turning Japan into a normal nation with an independent foreign policy will go unrealized, and the country's ability to pursue its own national interests will be thwarted by interference at home and abroad.