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Assessing Hatoyama in Office

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • December 24, 2009

    After Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) assumed the office of Prime Minister of Japan bringing to an end the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) half a century of almost uninterrupted rule Japan’s foreign policy has begun to look different with an element of assertiveness.

    Hatoyama had articulated Japan’s likely change in foreign policy even before he won the election in an op-ed article in New York Times in August 2009 in which he saw the beginning of the end of the American global supremacy and hinted at the possible independent stance of Japan in foreign policy under DPJ rule. The subsequent concept of an East Asian Community (EAC) that Hatoyama floated during the trilateral summit between the leaders of China and South Korea in Beijing was a defining moment in reorienting the country’s foreign policy.

    Though the concept of an EAC is at present and likely to remain for some time quite ambiguous, it points towards a likely restructuring of Japan’s foreign policy away from its US-centric approach and towards Asia. Though bilateral tensions between Japan and China, and between Japan and Korea centring either on history, textbook revision controversy, Yasukuni shrine visits or on regional issues relating to claims to disputed islands, territorial disputes, and scramble for resources, continue to exist and are unlikely to be diminished overnight, there clearly has emerged a new sense of Asian identity. As a result, there is likely to be multiple concentrations of power centres, with multiple poles centring in Tokyo, Beijing and New Delhi binding the region in a large web of networks in the economic and security realms.

    If the rise of China and India as new economic growth centres has drawn attention of the world, Japan’s decline is equally noticed. However, though Japan is struggling to come out of its prolonged recession of the 1990s when its asset-inflated economy collapsed, triggering a period of bank failures, one per cent annual growth rates and economic stagnation, Hatoyama’s policy prescription, different from his predecessor’s kind of structural reform popularized by his mantra “without pain, there would be no gain”, is questioning unrestrained market fundamentalism and financial capitalism, which has only increased the hiatus between the rich and the poor.

    Though China is projected to overtake Japan as the world’s second largest economy by the middle of 2010, Japan’s global and economic clout built over the years is unlikely to diminish soon. The rise of regionalism, if pursued vigorously, may rebalance the Asian order. So far, regionalism in Asia contains a top-heavy economic dimension and has proved to be substantially successful in fostering economic integration by developing a large network of trade, investment and industrial collaboration. Regional institutions such as ASEAN, APEC, and ARF have proved to be successful facilitators in fostering regional growth. None of these have a security dimension.

    The SCO is a Chinese initiative and thus suspect. Though the Australian initiative of Asian Pacific Community or the Japanese initiative of East Asian Community intend to contain an element to address security issues, it is premature at the moment to expect substantial progress in either of the concepts to take some institutional shape. With so many contentious issues and potential hotspots lurking in the background to undo the economic gains so painstakingly built by forward-looking policies, what the region urgently needs is some sort of an institutional mechanism.

    In this background, what does the political transformation that took place in Japan in 2009 means for the region and what direction Japan’s foreign policy is likely to take in the coming months for 2010? The extraordinary political change in Japan could bring profound change not only to Japan but to the region as well.

    Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (November/December 2009), Yoichi Funabashi, Editor in Chief of The Asahi Shimbun, argues that one change is generational: the new leaders, including Hatoyama, are the first with little memory of World War II. Another is substantive: the DPJ’s stated objectives suggest significant shifts in both Japan’s domestic policies and its external relations, especially with the United States and the rest of Asia. Japan, Funabashi suggests, now stands a better chance of becoming a two-party system, with real political competition, than at any time since its first election in the Meiji period. Although the alliance relationship with the United States is currently burdened with the problem of the re-location of the Futenma airbase in Okinawa, Funabashi argues that a more vibrant democracy at home allows Japan to become a more active ally to the democracies that have constituted the liberal international order since the end of World War II.

    However, there are serious flaws in some of Hatoyama’s advocacy of sub-regional regionalism in the form of EAC, where the United States is excluded. This runs counter to Japan’s traditional endorsement of ‘open regionalism’. For example, the APEC’s main agenda of fostering economic integration in the Asia Pacific region as enshrined in its principles is likely to be marginalized in Hatoyama’s scheme of things. Then again, in its manifesto, the DPJ had stated that “North Korea must not be permitted to possess nuclear weapons,” but offers no specific policy for denuclearising it.

    Hatoyama’s foreign policy position excludes many opinions within the ruling party. He has argued for establishing a regional currency union in East Asia without specifying clearly how to do it. If Hatoyama is going to pursue a Japanese-Chinese strategic partnership, long advocated by the DPJ supremo Ichiro Ozawa, it is unclear how South Korea will respond. The North Korean issue has a Chinese connection and Japan has to take this into account if the strategic partnership with China is really pursued. Since China seems to be aspiring to be the dominant Asian power, it is unclear how Japan will get its rightful space in such a strategic partnership.

    True, Hatoyama might be trying to correct some historical wrongs committed by his predecessors such as Koizumi, whose successive visits to Yasukuni Shrine adversely affected Sino-Japanese relations as was demonstrated by the anti-Japanese riots in Beijing and other Chinese cities in April 2005. But whether his plan to construct a secular memorial will assuage Chinese feelings is unclear.

    Again, there are ambiguities in some of his other policies. His advocacy of free trade agreements with South Korea and the United States does not take into consideration considerable resistance from the farming community. With divisions within the DPJ, Hatoyama is likely to face embarrassment if he pushes his free trade agenda in the Diet and fails to get through.

    The bureaucracy is another stumbling block. Though the DPJ wants to do away with the decade-long stranglehold of the bureaucracy in the system of governance, it cannot do without the cooperation of the bureaucracy. If the DPJ falters in major policy initiatives, the hype that catapulted it to power will soon be dissipated. Hatoyama is already entangled in a fund donation scandal and is finding it difficult to come out of it. It seems likely therefore that until at least July 2010 when elections to the Upper House will be due, Hatoyama will desist from enacting a major policy change. If the DPJ falters in correcting domestic economic woes, the pendulum may swing quickly in favour of the LDP.