After Hatoyama: Preparing for Japanese Foreign Policy in Transition

Last updated April 25, 2012

For over fifty years, Japan’s foreign policy has been predicated on bilateralism, primarily in the form of its alliance with the United States. Throughout most of the 2000s, successive Japanese governments tilted toward even closer relations with Washington, but this fragile consensus favoring “enhanced bilateralism” now appears broken. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) scored an unprecedented election victory in late 2009, and this changed the political paradigm in Japan that existed since 1955, even as the party’s inexperience on foreign policy issues has led to confusion about the its priorities and Japan’s longer-term foreign policy direction. There are some early indications that we might see a rise of “globalists” and “Asianists” from the DPJ who could drive structural change in Japan’s foreign policy, but more time and careful study are required to evaluate this possibility. Such developments would pose both opportunities and risks for the United States, potentially leading to a more capable regional partnership, or pushing the United States to the periphery of regional decision making. 

This new IFPA project will study the new Japanese government as it tries to develop viable alternatives to bilateralism, because without real alternatives to concrete economic, diplomatic, and security challenges, Japan cannot significantly alter its foreign policy approach. IFPA will combine archival research, individual interviews, and small group meetings with policy makers and specialists focused on three broad foreign policy case-study issues that offer a window to the new government’s approach to nurturing these alternatives: 1) Japan-China relations, 2) Japan-Korea relations, and 3) Japan’s peacebuilding approach in places such as Afghanistan and Somalia. Although any one of these issue areas is rich enough to warrant a complete study of its own, our objective is not to produce an exhaustive examination of evolving DPJ policy of each topic. Moreover, even though these are rather broad policy categories (for example, the Japan-China relations category could include trade and territorial issues or policy coordination within multilateral organizations), we believe that a survey approach examining multiple aspects of the overall issue will be the most instructive regarding the DPJ’s evolving foreign policy direction. Thus, we seek to understand the broad outlines of change and the people and processes behind these developing trends.        

The central focus of this project is the medium-term and potentially significant shifts underway within Japan that could affect the U.S.-Japan relationship and America’s strategic interests in the future. If a more explicit dual-hedge consensus (that is, balancing Japan-China and Japan-U.S. relations) and alternatives to bilateralism are emerging in Japan, then this should begin to crystallize under a DPJ government. Although we might not be able to make firm, long-term predictions regarding this consensus, our project will begin to answer this question and present objective criteria by which policy makers can continue to track the pace and trajectory of change in Japanese politics, as it applies to the alliance. Furthermore, based on this initial trajectory, we can highlight both risks and opportunities for the alliance. 

The opportunities could include more robust Japanese involvement in UN peacekeeping operations (PKO) and related missions, or stronger regional institutions that can help foster stability and prosperity in ways consistent with American interests and values. Japan-South Korea cooperation could be strengthened, which has been a U.S. strategic objective of late. But there are risks as well. South Korea could become less confident in its alliance with the United States if it senses a weaker U.S.-Japan security link, and there is no guarantee that either Korea or China will embrace Japan’s idea of a more close-knit regional community. Conversely, a Japanese tack toward East Asia might stimulate too much regional solidarity and lead to diminished U.S. influence in the region, especially when it comes to trade and economic policies. The proposed project aims to provide an early warning regarding these possible outcomes, and it will offer policy recommendations to help exploit potential opportunities and to minimize risks.