Commentary Magazine


Naoto Kan’s Foreign Policy

U.S.-Japan relations have been on the rocks since the Democratic Party of Japan overtook the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party last August. On Wednesday, the bedraggled prime minister resigned, leaving the U.S.-Japan relationship mired in even more uncertainty.

But Naoto Kan, the man chosen today to replace Hatoyama as Japanese prime minister, has made statements in the past that suggest cause for further concern. If Kan meant what he has said in the past, the United States can expect him to pursue a foreign policy of diminished U.S. military presence in Japan, low Japanese support for U.S. war efforts in Iraq, and further Japanese outreach to allies other than the United States.

Kan has ridden to power on a rapid change in Japanese public opinion. In August, the DPJ won after over half a century of LDP ascendency. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had played to populism, running his campaign partially on promises to reduce American presence in Japan. That backfired. Hatoyama initially tried to backtrack on an agreement with the United States about a military base in Okinawa, undermining American confidence. He eventually bowed to U.S. pressure, meeting public uproar. That concession, along with economic mismanagement and funds scandals, finally ended in Hatoyama’s resignation from office.

But Kan holds what Americans would perceive as a mixed record about the U.S.-Japan relationship.

Like Hatoyama, Kan seems to support the reduction or withdrawal of U.S. troops from Japan. In 2001, he said that “a pullout of the Marines ‘should not have a major impact on the US strategy for the Far East. We should perhaps formerly propose through diplomatic channels that (the Marines) return to US territory.” Likewise, in 2003, Kan said that “security in the Far East can be maintained without U.S. bases in Okinawa and the marines stationed there. We are eyeing having them moved out of Japan.”

Furthermore, Kan has a history of outspoken statements against the U.S. war in Iraq. He made his strongest statement in 2001. Kyodo News Service reported:

Japan’s opposition parties strongly criticized the US-led war on Iraq as well as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for backing the attack, saying the government’s position is antagonizing the voice of people in the international community.

“I cannot allow mass murder simply because Iraq did not fully comply with UN resolutions in the past,” said Naoto Kan, president of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

However, in September 2002, Kan insisted that the United States retain the ability to use its bases in Japan for the war in Iraq:

“If Japan refuses to allow the United States to use its bases here, we would have to risk breaking the very basis of the Japan-US security treaty,” DPJ Secretary-General Naoto Kan said. “We have never questioned the US use of bases in this country before,” he said, referring to the US forces’ use of facilities in Japan during the Vietnam War and other wars.  “We should keep this precedent intact,” he said…

That does not appear to mean that Kan supported the war effort. In 2003, Kyodo News Service reported that regarding Iraq, Kan “urged Washington to return to the framework of the United Nations to resolve international issues through dialogue.” Other news reports said that Kan considered the use of American force in Iraq a violation of the UN charter. Later in 2003, Kan criticized then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi for “a foreign policy of merely following in the footsteps of the United States like in the case of the Iraq bill.” Kan has consistently argued that sending Japanese troops into Iraq combat zones would violate the Japanese constitution. In 2004, Kan said, “Hasn’t this Iraq war contributed to an expansion of terrorism, rather than leading to its prevention?”

Finally, Kan has consistently advocated for stronger relations with alternative allies besides the United States. That constitutes a significant shift in Japanese foreign policy, which has considered the United States its primary ally since the aftermath of WWII. In 2003, he said, “Our ties with the United States are vital, but our relations with Asian countries are equally important.” In 2006, he criticized Japanese foreign policy for “lean[ing] too much toward the U.S,” as the Japan Times reported. Kan said: “Our relations with the United States are definitely important. But at the same time, we also have to build relations with Asian countries and resume top-level dialogue with them.” It is encouraging that today he said: “I believe the Japan-U.S. relationship is the foundation of Japan’s diplomacy. … The course we need to take is to maintain a trusting relationship with the United States and at the same time to consider China as equally important. I think that’s the right course for Japan’s future as well.”

Japan has every right to pursue the policies that best fit its interests. And Naoto Kan the prime minister might be much more measured in his statements and actions than Naoto Kan the opposition leader. But many of the statements Kan has made in the past suggest more contention between the United States and Japan regarding security and defense issues.

Hatoyama left many defense and security issues unresolved, although his concession to the United States was one of his last acts as prime minister. Among broader Asian security concerns, Kan will have to work with the United States immediately to determine many details about U.S. military placement in Okinawa; yet to be determined is the configuration of the base, the exact location of its placement, and how to mitigate its possible environmental impacts, to name a few.

Kan would do well to learn from Hatoyama’s failure, acknowledging the controversial nature of these discussions but establishing a consistent and moderate foreign policy before addressing them. He will have to clarify his position on the issues he has in the past made statements about. Otherwise, he risks disapproval both in Washington and among his people.

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