Setting Sun

One element that continues to amaze is how cavalierly the United States threw Shinzo Abe under the bus while negotiating the North Korea agreement.

The abductee issue-which Abe had ridden to power and which forms the core of his image as Japan’s new generation assertive foreign policy hard case-was dismissively pushed off to the working groups.

While President Bush poured praise on the Chinese for facilitating the deal, Japan was left as the odd man out, refusing to join the energy aid program.

And it’s not as if Abe extracted any political capital by packaging this embarrassing outcome as a piece of principled intransigence.

Unwilling to denounce the deal, he meekly asserted that, despite its absence from the North Korean consensus, Japan was “not isolated”.

As reported in the New York Times:

Critics said Tokyo’s narrow focus on [the abductee] issue, seemingly at the expense of regional stability, would leave it isolated.

“We must not be isolated and we are not in fact isolated,” Mr. Abe said in Parliament. “Other countries understood our decision not to provide oil unless progress is made in the abduction issue.”(Norimitsu Onishi, South Korea and Japan Split on North Korea Pact, New York Times, Feb. 15, 2007)

Despite Prime Minister Abe’s protestations, all is not rosy.

Bloomberg reported:

Opposition politicians said Japan was “out of the loop” because the agreement failed to address the issue most important to the Japanese public: North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens three decades ago.

The agreement signed in Beijing yesterday “limits Japan’s options regarding the abduction issue,” said C. Kenneth Quinones, former U.S. State Department director of North Korea affairs and a professor at Akita International University in Japan. Abe “has virtually no leverage with either Pyongyang or other six-party talk participants.”

Now, Abe-whose government was making noises last summer about pre-emptive strikes on North Korean missile facilities in the great American tradition-doesn’t look like our sheriff in North Asia. He looks like Barney Fife.

In a February 15th article entitled With U.S. shift, Abe’s N. Korea Containment Strategy Falls Apart, Asahi drove another nail in the coffin:

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s containment policy for North Korea–a stance that helped him vault to power–is quickly crumbling.

The agreement reached Tuesday at the six-party talks in Beijing, in which North Korea would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for energy aid, shows that Washington has softened its stance toward Pyongyang.

That is bad news for Abe.

The prime minister continues to assert that Japan will not provide energy assistance to North Korea until the issue of Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese citizens is resolved.

But Abe’s words now carry less weight compared to last year, when Japan and the United States were closely consulting on containing North Korea following its missile launches and nuclear test.

“While I would not say Japan has had the ladder taken out from under it, there is no denying that there has been a change in the tide,” a senior official in the Cabinet Secretariat said.

An important multi-part article in Yomiuri has explored the rapidly growing divergence between Japan and the United States, as exemplified by the negotiations with North Korea.

According to the report, it all started with the cataclysm of the U.S. mid-term elections, which forced the Bush administration to turn away from the confrontational policies of the neo-cons to a dovish negotiated track led by the State Department:

According to sources in Washington, shortly after North Korea conducted a nuclear test, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, presidential aide Stephen Hadley and other top government officials held a secret meeting with U.S. experts on North Korea and China on Oct. 25. During the meeting, they did not discuss possible diplomatic solutions to the nuclear crisis, but rather confrontation strategies, including a scenario of toppling the Kim Jong Il regime with China’s involvement and cost estimates for military options, the sources said.

However, the Bush administration found itself in a changed environment after the Republican Party suffered a major defeat in midterm elections on Nov. 7.

Then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph, as well as Bolton, who was the U.N. ambassador at the time, resigned or were replaced, prompting a drastic review of the Bush administration’s diplomatic and security policies.

The U.S. policy on North Korea, which resulted in stalled talks on nuclear disarmament and eventually allowed the country to carry out a nuclear test, was forced to make a major shift from confrontation to dialogue.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator at the six-party talks, has been backed by dovish officials in the administration, mainly those at the State Department.

In a key parting of the ways the U.S. decided to identify non-proliferation-rather than denuclearization-as the focus of the North Korea negotiations.

Differences have become apparent between Japan and the United States over policies toward North Korea since the country’s nuclear test on Oct. 9.

In early November, U.S. officials, including Robert Joseph, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, visited Japan.

The very first thing they said was they would seriously address nuclear nonproliferation.

“We were quite disappointed because the Japanese side was planning to discuss how to apply pressure on North Korea toward the country’s abandonment of its nuclear programs,” a source at the Prime Minister’s Office said.

The suddenness of the switch, the obvious flaws in the deal, and the violence it did to the interests of our key ally in the region support my contention that the conciliatory posture of the Bush administration at the North Korean talks was a strategic fire sale: a matter of short-term tactical urgency driven by the mid-term electoral disaster.

Meant to buy the Bush administration time and diplomatic credibility, it resulted in a hastily concluded deal that will either fall apart because of its own flaws or be discarded once the Bush administration feels that its diplomatic options and freedom of action as a unilateral superpower have been restored.

What is most striking is how casually Japanese prestige and interests were sacrificed, at a time when Prime Minister Abe could least afford it.

At this juncture, facing an important July by-election that may determine whether or not he has the political clout needed to effectively rule the LDP and run Japan, the last thing Abe needed was to look superfluous and out of the loop.

An appearance of callowness, a string of scandals, and verbal gaffes by cabinet ministers who Abe is apparently unable to control or openly rebuke have combined to erode his popularity from 70% after his selection as Prime Minister, to the 40s today.

And instead of dancing a minutely choreographed minuet of bad cop and badder cop with the United States in dealings with North Korea and over Taiwan, Japan finds itself like a bum dancing without music as the U.S. strides off in search of a more useful partner–China.

A visit to Japan by Vice President Richard Cheney, keeper of the neo-conservative flame, would normally be expected to result in affirmation of the creed of confrontation not compromise regardless of the political winds blowing in Washington.

But the meetings will be shadowed by the remarks of Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma, who had the temerity to criticize the Iraq was as “a mistake”.

Kyuma is an odd choice as Japan’s first Defense Minister. Born in Nagasaki and considered something of a dove, he is obviously ambivalent about the ABM project that is meant to turn Japan into the front line of defense against North Korean missiles:

The government wants to permit the defense forces to shoot down any North Korean missile headed for the U.S. Kyuma demurs, citing the constitutional prohibition against “collective defense” and technical reasons.


As a result of the Iraq gaffe, Vice President Cheney refused to meet with Kyuma during his visit, effectively painting a bull’s eye on the Defense Minister’s back and begging the question, Why hasn’t Abe fired this guy? or in bureaucratic-speak, Why hasn’t Kyuma accepted responsibility for damaging relations with the United States and tendered his resignation?

Apparently, removing Kyuma from the Cabinet entails a political cost that Abe is unwilling to bear.

Is it because of Kyuma’s loyal service in promoting Koizumi’s agenda and Abe’s elevation to prime minister? The importance of his faction? The weakness of Abe’s administration, which can ill-afford another embarrassing resignation?

Or is there enough ambivalence in Japan concerning the security relationship between the U.S. and Japan that Kyuma’s remarks resonate with the Japanese public and would make his removal another indictment of Abe’s fecklessness in dealing with the United States?

In addition to the divergence on the Iraq and North Korea issues, the United States has shown itself to be less than enthusiastic in backing Japan’s campaign for a permanent Security Council seat.

Another major source of friction in the alliance is Okinawa. Chalmers Johnson describes the massive U.S. infrastructure-which is used for force projection in the region and not for Japanese defense-as follows: “thirty-eight [bases] are located in Okinawa, where they occupy some 23,700 hectares or 19 percent of the choicest territory of the main island. Okinawa is host to some 28,000 American troops plus an equal number of camp followers and Defense Department civilians”.

The Koizumi government cut a deal with the United States for a realignment plan that would send 8,000 Marines to Guam, and relocate an airfield, but leave the massive military footprint on the island group largely unchanged.

Despite efforts to depict Okinawa as a land of U.S.-Japanese amity, the bases are no bonanza for the prefecture, whose unemployment rate is twice the national average. Crime, crowding, crashes, and noise issues are continual sources of resentment. In 2006, local approval of the central government’s plans for the bases polled at 14%. The only thing that separates the various political figures in the prefecture on the issue of the U.S. bases is the relative degree of their disapproval.

Relocation of Marine air operations from an urban base in Ginowan to a new field to be built at Nago in northern Okinawa was agreed in 1996 and scheduled to be completed within 5 to 7 years, but the Okinawans have unenthusiastically dragged their feet on the issue and nothing has happened, to the undisguised anger of the U.S Department of Defense. Eric Johnston of the Japan Times provides an excellent overview of the contentious and miserable process.

When Tokyo’s chosen candidate for governor of Okinawa, Nakaima Hirokazu, won his election on November 19, 2006, the project was finally supposed to get on track. But Hirokazu immediately came down with a case of cold feet, announcing he wanted the Ginowan base closed within three years-long before any replacement base would be available at Nago. Kyuma, instead of trying to shove the deal down his throat as the central government was expected to do by Washington, criticized the Americans for being “bossy”.

In a sign that disappointment and suspicion are flowering into paranoia, the Japanese press aired a rumor that the United States dealyed the deployment of twelve F-22A Raptors-the state-of-the-art warbird that Abe hopes will serve as the symbol of U.S.-Japan military cooperation-into Okinawa in response to North Korean pressure.

In these unpromising circumstances, the Diet will begin debating legislation, sure to be unpopular, that would obligate Japan to pay up to $6 billion on relocation costs for the 8,000 U.S. troops who are to move from Okinawa to Guam as part of the realignment.

If that wasn’t enough, Japan was forced to back out of a key Iranian energy project, Azadegan-which by itself was expected to account for 6% of Japan’s total oil imports– out of loyalty to the Bush administration’s policy of intransigence and no economic ties with the Tehran regime.

The loss of this project was followed by the dismaying news that a major Exxon Mobil gas project on Sakhalin had signed a preliminary agreement to sell its output to China instead of Japan. At the same time Russia began threatening a restructuring of another Royal Dutch Shell natural gas project in Sakhalin that was supposed to be a joint venture with Mitsubishi and Mitsui Trading.

In another looming problem, the aggressive U.S. push on sanctions against Iran that Tokyo is loyally supporting, if implemented, would endanger Japan’s access to Iranian oil, which currently accounts for over 10% of its imports.

The Japanese are supposed to be compensated with preferential access to Iraq opportunities but-in an ironic development considering that the Iraq war was intended to exclude competing powers and turn Iraq’s oilfields into a bonanza for the West-another energy-hungry power is muscling in:

Japan is clearly interested in increasing its profile in Iraq’s energy sector, but the main obstacle to ramping up investment remains the endemic violence that persists in that country. Despite Tokyo’s calls for domestic firms to pump more money into overseas oil and gas projects, investment in Iraq will be difficult as violence is unlikely to cease anytime soon.

Japanese officials and analysts also worry that countries such as China might have an edge over Japan in gaining access to Iraq’s energy resources, since it has more experience operating in inhospitable environments such as Sudan and Angola.

In fact, the new Iraqi government has courted Beijing because Chinese producers have been willing to invest in countries that are considered dangerous or politically isolated. Beijing had previously been thought to be out of the running for major contracts in postwar Iraq, with the best deals going to the U.S. and its allies. But the upsurge in violence there has made the country less attractive to Western producers.

Perhaps as a result of these revelations of the downside of acting as America’s sheriff in North Asia, support for Abe’s signature initiative-revision of the pacifist constitution to permit Japan to participate in hairy-chested overseas military adventures with its freedom and democracy loving brethren in the West-has evaporated.

According to Bloomberg on February 13:

Shinzo Abe’s aim of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow the nation to assert itself militarily for the first time in 62 years may be petering out, a casualty of the prime minister’s falling popularity.

“He’s set himself up for failure,” said Gerald Curtis, author of “The Japanese Way of Politics” and a professor of political science at New York’s Columbia University. “There’s no enthusiasm for constitutional revision from society as a whole. For it to happen he has to be pretty popular, and he’s not.”

An op-ed published in the Daily Yomiuru on Feb. 17 by Weston Konishi of the Mansfield Center stated:

[A]ccording to a Cabinet Office poll conducted last October, only 25 percent of Japanese respondents want their country to take a more active role in peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance and other “contributions to international society.” Sixty-five percent of those polled believe Japan’s contributions should either be kept at the current level or held at a “minimal level.”

What about public support for a “proactive diplomacy” promoting fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law (principles that were also invoked recently by Foreign Minister Taro Aso in his call for Japan to lead an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” among like-minded nations)? According to the same Cabinet Office poll, just 20 percent of Japanese believe that protecting universal values such as freedom, democracy and human rights should be a role for Japan in the international arena.

The prime minister’s claim that “Japanese will no longer shy away” from enhanced international security responsibilities rings hollow considering statistics like these. Indeed, the very items that Abe now promises to the international community–readily deploying SDF missions abroad; actively promoting universal values; and championing the creation of “arcs,” “spheres” or other geopolitical formations–are ideas that the Japanese public has not yet signed onto.

Without question, the U.S.-Japan alliance will survive America’s betrayal at the negotiating table in Beijing.

But Shinzo Abe may not.

And the hope that Tokyo and Washington would find an identity of interests that would create an impregnable united front against North Korea, China, and Russia in Northeast Asia is dead, a victim of fundamentally diverging interests and ruthless political opportunism by the Bush administration.

CHINA HAND edits the very interesting website China Matters.