It’s tempting to dismiss last weekend’s landslide election victory of Japan’s opposition Democratic Party (DPJ) as reflecting no more than a bad-tempered “throw the bums out” mood among recession-hit voters.
European commentators transfixed by China’s rise have jumped two-footed into this trap, playing down the result’s wider significance for a country they view as a declining power.
In Beijing a smug response is also evident to the decimation, after half a century in power, of the Liberal Democratic Party of the former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, a hate figure for many Chinese.
Pledges by the DPJ’s incoming prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, to eschew visits to the Yasukuni war shrine and to pursue closer Asian cooperation are seen as tacit acknowledgement of Tokyo’s past mistakes.
American reactions have been notably less complacent, reflecting real unease about the DPJ’s vaguely anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation stance and its vow to forge a “more equal” relationship with the United States. Washington said it was ready to work together “to further cement this indispensable alliance”, but quickly stressed it had “no intention” of reopening negotiations on US bases and troops in Japan, as urged by DPJ leaders.
Although Hatoyama recently said the US-Japan alliance would “continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy”, the presence of 47 000 US military personnel occupying 134 bases that account for 100 000 hectares of prime real estate is a weak point in the edifice.
“The vast tracts of land set aside for US forces in Japan impede community development and have a major impact on the lives of our citizens,” said Shigefumi Matsuzawa, the governor of Kanagawa prefecture, abutting Tokyo.
Crime and environmental damage associated with the bases were of special concern, he said. The 1960 “status of forces” agreement should be reviewed or, failing that, specific Japanese laws should apply to US bases and personnel.
Hatoyama says he will not renew the mandate for Japanese refuelling ships in the Indian Ocean, tasked with supporting US military activities in Afghanistan, when it expires in January. He also wants a US pledge not to bring nuclear-armed vessels or aircraft into Japanese ports and airports. At the same time, he favours the establishment of an East Asian regional community with Japan and China at its heart.
Some have compared Hatoyama to Germany’s former chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, in his bid to loosen Washington’s stifling embrace. These unsettling ideas, plus his guiding political mantra of yuai — friendship and love — will add spice to his first meeting with US President Barack Obama at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh later this month.
Right-wing US commentators sense a threat to US interests.
“Hatoyama dreams of an Asian union, a utopia free of rapacious American capitalism, a region bound together by fraternity and a common currency,” wrote Tim Kelly in Forbes magazine. He was, Kelly concluded, living on “fantasy island”.
Veteran Asia commentator Philip Bowring is less alarmist, suggesting that Hatoyama and the DPJ faced a sharp reality check: “In some [Asian] countries rising fears of China’s goals are cancelling out criticism of the US-led invasion of Iraq and the ‘war on terror’.
“Worries about the impact of reduced US demand is offsetting resentment of Wall Street-style capitalism,” he said. In other words, Japan could become more dependent on Washington, not less.
“The [DPJ] assumes that Japan and China can share leadership of an East Asian community. But the prevailing view in China appears to be that there cannot be two suns in the sky. For Beijing, the Japanese sun is setting as the Chinese one rises.” —