TOKYO (Reuters) - The head of Japan’s newly empowered opposition is keen to stop playing ‘follow the leader’ with the United States on defense, but straining ties with Tokyo’s closest ally might be risky at a time of fear over China’s military rise.
July’s election drubbing for staunch U.S. ally Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave the opposition Democrats and their allies a majority in the upper house and the clout to delay legislation.
Democrat leader Ichiro Ozawa, advocate of a more independent stance for Japan, was quick to flex his muscles, rebuffing an appeal from U.S. ambassador Thomas Schieffer to back a law continuing naval support for U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan.
He said his party may also submit a bill to parliament halting supply flights into Iraq by Japanese troops based in Kuwait.
“I think this is a crisis for the alliance,” said Richard Tanter, director of the Nautilus Institute at RMIT in Australia. “But what that mainly tells us is how little the United States has been accustomed to serious negotiation and dialogue with its oldest alliance partner in Asia.”
Japan has been refueling U.S. and other coalition ships in the Indian Ocean since 2001 under a law that expires on November 1. If Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) fails to push the renewal through parliament by then, supplies may be interrupted.
“To remove the ships is going to present a logistical and supply headache,” said Jason Alderwick, a maritime analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. “But I can’t believe the United States can’t fill the gap by redeploying its own tankers, if it has enough notice.”
More significant, may be the symbolism of Washington’s closest Asian ally withdrawing from the Afghan operation.
Restricted by its pacifist constitution, Japan has spent years in lockstep with U.S. defense policy in return for the shelter of Washington’s “nuclear umbrella”.
Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, put “boots on the ground” in Iraq in a bold show of support for the United States, despite domestic opposition.
The ground troops withdrew in 2006, but 200 air force troops still fly in supplies from a Kuwait base. Koizumi also oversaw measures allowing the two countries’ militaries to work more closely together, including on a joint missile defense shield.
“If Mr Ozawa moves to halt the bill, it will be an experiment, whether intentional or otherwise, in separation from America,” the Nikkei financial daily said in a recent editorial.
“Is Japan going to face up to the power of China through its alliance with the U.S., or seek another path?” it asked, warning that going it alone would require a complete transformation of Tokyo’s defense policy.
Official U.S. comment on the issue has been muted, but Michael Green, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former White House Asia director, said some in Washington were worried.
“For people who are concerned about the relationship, it’s causing deep heartburn,” he said. “If Ozawa succeeds in unilaterally pulling back the Japanese navy from this coalition operation, it’s going to undermine confidence in Japan’s capacities as an ally.”
Abe has sought to propel Japan further out of its post-World War Two pacifist shell since he succeeded Koizumi last September, aiming to reinterpret the constitution to allow Japan to defend its allies, and eventually to re-write the entire document.
While Ozawa wants more distance from U.S. policy, he has long favored a more “normal” defense stance, even suggesting Japan could take part in risky NATO-backed ground operations in Afghanistan.
“Being normal for Ozawa includes being able to say ‘No’,” said Richard Samuels, a political science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“That’s dramatically different from the traditional LDP position. Fear of abandonment has dominated their strategy for the last few years in Japan,” he added.
But LDP defense policy faces pressure from within the ruling coalition -- Buddhist-backed junior partner, Komeito, has since the election become a more vocal opponent of reinterpreting the constitution.
The government has shelved the reinterpretation of the constitution and abandoned hope of passing a law making it easier to send troops abroad, Kyodo news agency said on Monday.
Many analysts doubt, though, that Ozawa will deliver on his threat to block the extension of the Indian Ocean operation, not least because his own party is deeply divided on the issue.
Even if he does, there is little risk of serious long-term damage to Tokyo’s alliance with Washington, many analysts say.
“I don’t imagine the entire architecture of the alliance will give way if Japan decides it has done what it can and can do no more,” said Samuels of MIT. “... a lot of close partners left the fold on Iraq without too many repercussions. Life goes on.”
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg in Tokyo and Paul Eckert in Washington
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