A Bill for Bush

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda gets the Diets mandate to resume the refuelling mission in the U.S. global war on terror.

in SingaporeYasuo Fukuda hands

JAPAN is once again veering towards a political orbit around the United States, while beginning to recognise the emergence of China as a major star on the international stage. This impression is evident from the manner in which Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda successfully piloted a pro-U.S. Bill through the Diet, Parliament, in early January after having paid a feel-good visit to China in December.

For post-imperial Japan, a long-time military ally of the U.S., the challenge of finding a rightful place in the still-emerging post-Cold War international political order continues to prove quite daunting indeed. Having failed so far, albeit in the company of India as also Germany and Brazil, to secure a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, Japan is beginning to project its soft power to take the lead in such areas as environmental protection and counter-terrorism.

However, counter-terrorism is a tricky domain where Japan has discovered the difficulties of projecting its non-lethal military capabilities as pure soft power. Successive Japanese governments, from that of the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi, have had a tough time convincing their compatriots of the merit of sending abroad the self-defence forces to render purely non-lethal assistance to the U.S.-led military units in the ongoing global war on terror. The terminology of self-defence forces is but a political euphemism for Japans military wings under its U.S.-imposed pacifist Constitution.

In defence-related diplomacy, Japans basic challenges centre on the ways to promote its enlightened national self-interest without causing concern among key neighbours, China in particular. Several East Asian states, big and small, continue to see the possibility of Japan re-militarising itself and threatening international peace and security in the name of projecting nothing more than defence-related soft power in the cause of a global agenda such as counter-terrorism. Of equal or, perhaps, greater importance to Fukuda is the prevalence of similar concerns within Japan that its pacifist Constitution should not be altered except through due process.

Fukudas predecessor, Shinzo Abe, despite his high political pedigree, gave up the battle for the minds and hearts of the Japanese people, leaving in a political mess the question of an external role for the self-defence forces. The more politically seasoned Fukuda, with a profile and a pedigree that do count, has opted for the only creative option left under the Constitution to have his pro-U.S. say in the Diet. Obviously, the pro-U.S. say is projected as the political equivalence, if not also a moral likeness, of Japans own national self-interest in the global fora of the early 21st century.

In November last year Fukuda first managed to win a crucial vote in the House of Representatives, the Diets powerful lower chamber, to carry forward Japans then-ongoing maritime mission in the Indian Ocean theatre of the global war on terror. In essence, some sophisticated vessels of the Maritime Self-Defence Forces (MSDF), the Japanese Navy in pacifist nomenclature, were deployed in a region close to Afghanistan on a refuelling mission. The task was to render assistance of this non-lethal kind for the benefit of the U.S.-led forces operating in Afghanistan. The MSDF was engaged in extending collateral help as well, such as the provision of water.

Even as Fukuda heaved a sigh of relief over this vote in the Lower House, he knew that the main Opposition camp, the rejuvenated Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), would not let him extend the U.S.-friendly mission. The DPJ, having triumphed in the elections to the House of Councillors, or the Diets upper chamber, was determined not to let Fukuda dictate the national agenda on this emotive issue.

Unsurprisingly, Fukuda let DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa have the last laugh. So, as the earlier parliamentary mandate for the refuelling mission, itself a special measures law under a liberal interpretation of the pacifist Constitution, lapsed in November, Fukuda ordered a suspension of the MSDFs operations in the Indian Ocean area. He remained combative, though, and pledged to resume the mission sooner rather than later through a creative strategy.

It is against this background that Fukuda made good his pledge on January 11. The day began with the DPJ leading the charge in ensuring that the House of Councillors rejected the Bill that the lower chamber had passed in November. The Bill fell by 133 to 106 votes in the DPJ-controlled chamber. It was a triumphal moment for Ozawa, whose partys earlier victory in the polls to the upper chamber had forced Abe to quit office as Prime Minister in despair over his inability to withstand the perceived DPJ bandwagon effect.

Soon, however, Ozawa could do little more than leave the lower chamber before Fukuda put the same Bill to a second vote. It was a rare and, therefore, creative move by Fukuda to nullify the upper chambers veto through a second vote in the House of Representatives. As Fukuda bagged a vote tally of 340 to 133 in the 480-member chamber in favour of the refuelling mission, political pundits highlighted the fact that it was the first such second vote in the House of Representatives in 57 years.

During his visit

Fukudas strategy did not really take the DPJ or the large segment of U.S.-sceptics in Japan by surprise. So, he expressed the hope that he might be able to gain further understanding and support of the Japanese people for his newly assertive U.S. tilt. He also felt compelled to explain to the people why he chose to override the veto of the Councillors. The Replenishment Support Special Measures Law, he said, was designed to foster Japans prosperity by contributing to the sustenance of a peaceful and stable international community. So, it was truly significant that Japan can now rejoin the fight against terror. And Tokyo would be doing so on its own judgment.

Drawing a distinction between Japans humanitarian assistance and the security-related counter-terror measures, he said both forms of action were needed to eradicate terrorism in the Afghan and Iraq theatres.

A relevant question is whether Fukuda would have felt politically emboldened to override the Councillors veto, and also ignore the generally popular U.S.-related scepticism, if Japans ties with China were really rocky. While the answer is not an entirely assertive no, given the Japanese politicians penchant for high drama and hard-headed gamesmanship, Fukudas feel-good China visit in December did tone up his political spirit.

Surely, Fukuda did not secure any new assurances from China on any issue of direct interest to Japan. On the interrelated issues of U.N. Security Council reforms and Japans aspiration for permanent membership in that forum, the Japanese leader requested a more positive stance from China, a veto-empowered permanent member. And, according to the Japanese side, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao responded that he attached great importance to Japans position and role within the U.N..

On the issue of resource development in respect of the East China Sea, the two leaders confirmed that mutual understanding had greatly increased through the discussions... held to date. Wen and Fukuda did strike a note of greater cooperation in pushing the international agenda of denuclearising North Korea. They discussed the tangled issue of their shared history, too, and, on balance, Fukuda felt more encouraged by the overall atmospherics than by the outcomes.

As a result, Fukuda told the Diet in mid-January that his recent China visit was an integral part of his synergy diplomacy of toning up Japans ties with the U.S. as also with Greater East Asia. Tokyo was now seeking a closer equation with Beijing to promote peace and stability in Asia and the world and to address issues of energy conservation and environment protection. This was being done even as the Japan-U.S. alliance is [still] the cornerstone of Japans foreign policy. And, Japan, as a peace-fostering nation, would further solidify ties with the U.S., he affirmed.

The Tokyo-Beijing ties, as seen through the prism of Fukudas world view, stand scrutiny from an evolving Chinese perspective as well. Su Hao, Director of the Centre of Asia-Pacific Studies at the China Foreign Affairs University, is of the view that we have a solid foundation to support close relations between China and Japan. Su was in Singapore recently to attend the Sentosa Roundtable on Asian Security, organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

In a conversation with this correspondent, Su did not, however, downplay some unresolved problems in China-Japan ties. At the same time, this kind of rapprochement between China and Japan will move forward under certain circumstances, he said. Right now, economic ties bind the two countries. In the past, China depended on Japanese [economic] help quite a lot. But now, for the past five years, Japans dependence on China has increased. So, this becomes the solid-foundation support, he said.

On the absence of a categorical sign from Official China about Japans aspiration to become a permanent member of the Security Council, Su said the whole issue was complicated. While China might show a positive attitude towards India individually in regard to its aspiration for a similar status at the U.N., the four-party coalition, which included not only India but also Japan, had complicated the relevant issues in the recent past, he noted. The future of this Group of Four aspirants, the other two being Germany and Brazil, was not clear at this stage.

In realpolitik terms, Official Japan is seeking better ties with China in a changing strategic environment in Greater East Asia. The U.S. is obviously pleased with Fukudas success in reviving the refuelling mission. Also welcome to the U.S. is the emergence of Lee Myung-bak as South Koreas President-elect. Lee is not only intensely pro-U.S. but also immensely sceptical about Pyongyangs denuclearisation pledges. Japan is wary of Lees hawkishness towards North Korea and, therefore, wants better ties with China, which is central to denuclearisation issues in northeast Asia.

Significantly, Fukuda is shying away from any public support for his predecessor Shinzo Abes proposal that Japan, the U.S., India and Australia could form a group of Asia Pacific democracies. Even before the phenomenal rise of Kevin Rudd to power recently, Australia was beginning to turn lukewarm towards the Japanese proposal, and Fukuda made no mention of India in his policy speech to the full Diet on January 18.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment