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Changing Japanese Politics, Not Trade, Is Greatest Threat to U.S.-Japan Relations

October 02, 1994|Norman D. Levin | Norman D. Levin, a senior analyst at RAND, served on the State Department's policy planning staff from 1984-87

Whatever the eventual outcome of the "framework talks" on trade between Japan and the United States, agreement or sanctions, it will have little effect on the political fortunes of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's ruling coalition or on the short-term course of Japanese politics. In the long term, however, relations could be damaged by underlying political trends in Japan reinforced by the way the Clinton Administration has handled the talks.

The name of the game in Japan today is not policy but political power and survival. Few things illustrate this more than the union of the leftist Socialist Party with its longtime nemesis, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, to form a surprisingly solid government. The continuing efforts of the other major parties to merge into a "New New Party" reflects the opposition's need to offset the coalition's formidable political strength. While there are differences both between and within the various political groupings on issues like taxes and policy toward Korea, they, on the whole, have not been drivers of political affiliation. Certainly, trade policy is not a defining issue.

The turnaround by the Socialists on virtually every major political issue has undercut the opposition's ability to mount an effective challenge. Even if policy differences were a more formative factor in party affiliation, the Socialists have defused the disagreements by renouncing their previous positions and embracing the goals of former "reformist" governments. Whether on trade, nuclear power or national-security, the Socialist-led government is nearly indistinguishable from its predecessors. This has made it difficult for opposition parties to criticize it, since they would, in effect, be criticizing themselves. It also has contributed to a sharp rise in support for the coalition.

The Japanese public, furthermore, is tired of U.S. hectoring on trade issues and its threats to "retaliate" against Japan with economic sanctions. Far from constituting pressure for change in Japanese trade policies, the public mood in Japan today is a mixture of confidence and resignation: confidence that Japan can survive any punitive measures the United States might impose, and resignation that a standoff may be unavoidable if Japan is ever going to end U.S. pressure.

This mood means that the coalition government will neither benefit much from a negotiated agreement nor suffer greatly from a breakdown in talks. It also means the government will be under no significant pressure to lash out against potentially harsh U.S. measures.

The good news buried in these political trends is that we are not likely to see a rupture in the broader U.S.-Japan relationship--at least not one that is precipitated by Japan. Japanese political leaders have their hands full coping with their domestic situation. The sharply polarized Japanese politics of recent times has given way to one characterized by a large, new "middle" ground that, while subsuming important policy differences, shares fundamental values and national objectives. Most significant, as reflected in the transformation of the Socialist Party, a broad consensus now exists in Japan on the importance of the United States to Japanese national interests.

The bad news is that the ground is shifting. For one thing, the framework negotiations have seriously eroded mutual trust and respect. The Clinton Administration's insistence on "objective criteria," by which to measure Japanese faithfulness in honoring their commitments, has been particularly corrosive. This has fostered greater agreement among Japanese leaders that, while ties with the United States remain critical, Japan must do more to develop other dimensions of its foreign policy. The pronounced emphasis on Asia in recent Japanese diplomacy is one early product of this shift in thinking.

Equally worrisome is the development of a new political equation in Japan. In the past, the priority was to accommodate U.S. wishes. Today, a willingness to stand up to Washington is becoming the measure of political leadership. This change could literally blow the U.S.-Japan relationship apart if a really serious issue--like responding to North Korea's continuing nuclear program--became the vehicle for demonstrating Japan's toughness. Already, Japanese financial support for U.S. military bases in Japan has become a political football.

The most immediate danger, however, comes not from any specific act by one or the other country. Rather, it comes from the growing indifference of each to the other as a result of the domestic preoccupations of the two countries' leaderships. In a sense, each side is becoming impervious to the other. Left unchecked, the result will almost surely be increasing distance--not so much a "pulling" as a "drifting" apart that undermines a sense of common interests.

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