Daily Yomiuri On-Line

Is Japan's 21st-century role to be U.S. satellite in Asia?

Steven C. Clemons Special to The Daily Yomiuri

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has turned out to be a pretty tame lion. Swept into office in a wave of populist euphoria that he might deliver his people and nation from economic malaise and geopolitical obscurity, Koizumi was the hope for liberal nationalism in Japan. After nearly six decades of U.S. presence in Japan, some hoped that while supporting the basic tenets of the U.S.-Japan security alliance, he might at least shore up Japan's sovereignty and general weight in the equation. Fast forward to the day of U.S. President George W. Bush's 48-hour "Get out or face the heat" warning to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the actual incursion into Iraq, and one sees Koizumi performing like one of the most sycophantic prime ministers in Japan's history, at least in matters relating to the United States.

Reacting to Bush's speech, Koizumi made clear that he supports the Bush ultimatum to Saddam and that Japan will endorse the invasion by U.S. and British troops. Reading as if from talking points scripted by the White House National Security Council staff, Koizumi embraced the plan to reach back to U.N. resolutions 678, 687 and 1441 to justify the U.S. action. It would be interesting to know whether Diet legal counsel came to this conclusion on their own, or whether this was a full intellectual import from Washington. Koizumi also remarked that Japan would not participate in any military action against Iraq "because of constitutional constraints," implying that if those tethers were not in place, Japan might be up there on the front line with the Americans and the British.

In the days before the attack on Iraq started, nearly 70 percent of the Japanese public disapproved of the imminent attack on Iraq. Perhaps Koizumi would give a British Prime Minister Tony Blair-like performance if he could, and commit Japan to this war despite the ambivalence of the international community and his own citizens. But to fall into lockstep behind Bush now while maintaining "radio silence" during the great debates in the United Nations in recent months relegates Japan to servant and satellite of U.S. interests, rather than a nation whose national identity is finally emerging from behind U.S. hyper presence.

I am not an apologist for Saddam, nor am I patently against any type of conflict that would topple him. However, the U.S. political leadership has stumbled into this replay of the Gulf War, generating numerous "friendly fire" casualties among its allies, and failing to understand that the grand theater of U.S. leadership requires that the United States appear as if it can competently manage multiple crises in the world at once. Otherwise, every thug and interest-maximizing government in the world who has a score to settle, land to acquire, or nearby nations to intimidate would use the point in time when the global hegemon is tied down and distracted by Iraq to make their moves. The unfolding debacle with North Korea demonstrates the limited ability of the Bush administration to "walk and chew gum" at the same time. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the soft underbelly vulnerabilities of civil infrastructure are any more hardened to the real threat of terrorism than they were before the Sept 11, 2001, attacks. Koizumi would be a better friend to the United States if he had articulated his points of strong support for Bush, combined with public counsel on Japan's concerns about the manner and strategy that Bush was pursuing this war.

Two astonishing trends to observe in the world today are that European power is on the rise and that China, a nation targeted early by the Bush administration as the primary object of our national security concerns, is looking like an astonishingly stable power with upward of 50 billion dollars a year in foreign direct investment pouring in. China is laughing all of the way to the bank as this U.S.-led global turmoil unfolds. Europe has chosen arenas to closely collaborate with the United States while confronting the United States in others. Japan, in contrast, has disappeared from the scene. When asked a year ago why Japan was so invisible in the great debates about global governance and in most other international policy matters, Japanese Ambassador to the United States Ryozo Kato said it was the wrong time for Japan to stick its head up and the time to support the United States was in times of crisis.

It is not in U.S. interests for Japan to appear as weak and peripheral to world affairs as it now appears to so many. Japan is a rich nation that clearly has economic challenges, but it still ranks as the world's second largest economy and maintains one of the largest and most competent defense forces in the world. Yet no leader considers Japan a credible architect in the unfolding world order. Japan's sycophantism and acquiescence to the Bush administration on its Iraq policy seem to harken back to the days when U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was sending orders to the first Occupation-era leader, Prime Minister Kijuro Shidehara.

The United States needs a strong Japan, not a "yes man." It needs a Japan that will collaborate on the realities of global governance in economic and security dimensions. While Koizumi promised a Japan with a fuller sense of itself and its national potential, Japanese got a prime minister who is perpetuating the image of Occupation Japan, lobotomized in foreign policy and a supplicant to U.S. needs and whims.

While Koizumi might not have wanted to go the distance that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has gone in distancing Germany's interests from those of the United States, one can clearly see that Japan has still not graduated from its satellite status.

Clemons is executive vice president of the New America Foundation, a centrist public policy institution in Washington. He was also a member of the "Understanding Tomorrow's Japan" task force of the U.S. Pacific Council on International Policy.

Copyright 2003 The Yomiuri Shimbun