Can Kan? Japan Can’t
The fix was in: that’s the news on the alleged survival of Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan from a no confidence vote tabled by his parliamentary opponents on Thursday. On the face of it, Kan easily survived the challenge – with some 293 voting against the measure, including all of his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), with 152 preferring to oust him. But in order to prevent angry DPJ members from joining the opposition insurgency, Kan agreed before the vote to fall on his sword and resign in the coming months.
But the sword may stay sheathed for some time. Kan’s predecessor , the former DPJ prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, says the agreement was for Kan to leave in June. But Kan now says he’ll stay through the end of the year. And so the very Italian-flavor that Japanese politics has accrued since its bubble popped in 1989 continues.
This bodes ill for the country’s urgent reconstruction efforts following the March 11 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. A strong hand might manage to force a compromise over emergency budgetary measures with the opposition Liberal Democrats (LDP), the force behind the no confidence vote. The same strong hand might have brought accountability to Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) to stop obfuscating about the situation in its four reactors at Fukushima Daiichi.
Obfuscation seems to be the political strategy, too, however. From a Washington perspective, while no one wants to see Japan’s political dysfunction hamper reconstruction or nuclear containment efforts, the growing evidence of incompetence on the part of the DPJ isn’t the worst news. The 2009 election which ended the almost permanent lock of the pro-American LDP on power in Japan promised the rise of a new generation of Japanese politicians who don’t necessarily view alignment with America as a permanent state. One of the DPJ’s first decisions was to make an early bet on a regional hedge against America’s sliding influence in Asia, proposing an “East Asian Community” which would involve Japan, China, South Korea and other countries (though not the U.S.) in an all-Asian security pact. The idea went nowhere, and the government also backed off a vow to eject U.S. Marines from their bases in Okinawa. Yet the debate invigorated those in Japan who oppose the still large U.S. military presence in Japan. That such a debate, once nearly taboo, is now main stream is yet another harbinger of declining of U.S. influence.
Japan has no way of knowing the depth of Washington’s commitment to Japanese interests should they ever seriously clash with China’s. As in South Korea, the erosion of faith in America’s ability to keep its promises already has affected Japanese decisions. In September 2010, the Japanese Coast Guard arrested a Chinese fishing captain allegedly violating Japan’s territorial waters and then ramming the Coast Guard with his vessel—an action caught on videotape. China’s reaction? It demanded an apology and banned exports to Japan of “rare earths,” a key component in Japan’s manufacturing of television and computer screens. In spite of public assurances from Washington, Japan meekly backed down. In years past, it would have been Japan demanding the apology with the Seventh Fleet looming nearby for effect.
While the U.S. military has won plaudits for its search and rescue operations after the quake, U.S. military planners take Japan’s ambiguous posture on American bases seriously. Both the Navy and the Air Force are studying alternative options in the central Pacific (Guam, American Samoa), reversing a slow drawdown in South Korea, or perhaps placing bases in Indonesia or Australia. Any of these options would have immediate strategic implications for all the region’s major powers, most of them negatively affecting U.S. interests and allies.
Even before the quake, Kan’s government had softened on the question of closing a Marine Air Base in Okinawa, and talks on the subject drag on with little hope of a solution any time soon. That, again, suits Washington just fine for now.
One Response to “Can Kan? Japan Can’t”
You're right. Between the debt and their political shakiness, they're the Italy of Asia. Now, if they could only make a decent wine …