Proactive, Not Independent, Foreign Policy

Wednesday, 2. September 2009     0 comment(s)
Kristian Kurki
Research Assistant

An independent line of foreign policy is not only a matter of privilege and pride, but a natural consequence of the unique geographical location, societal dynamics and political-economic circumstances in all states. Although these factors apply to Japan as much as they do to any other states, Japan’s post-WWII foreign policy has been possible only within certain limits – those set by its relationship with the United States.

Japan has managed to circumvent some constraints insofar that it has, in its own words, separated economics from politics. Japan’s long and extensive development aid programme to China, for instance, was often defended on this pretext. Of course, even when economic policy is intentionally separated from politics, it does not strip economic policy of political implications. In 1990 President Bush urged then Japanese PM Kaifu to limit Japan’s aid package to the PRC.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), victor in Sunday’s elections, has promised a more independent line of foreign policy with a focus on Asian relations.

Some Japanese who are critical of their government’s foreign policy call their country “America’s lapdog”, always subject to its master’s will, never truly allowed to administer its foreign relations independently. The US sets the precedent, Japan follows suit. The ability to pursue entirely independent foreign policy would be a sign that Japan has successfully shedded its past as a war-time aggressor and gained international respect as a responsible global stakeholder. It is a captivating thought to many, and the DPJ’s promises will probably have appealed to quite a portion of the electorate.

Nevertheless, if Japan henceforth chooses to pursue truly independent foreign policy, even transgressing its “mutual interests” with the United States, it will also have to consider the possibility of Washington reducing security guarantees to Tokyo. Why would the United States want to defend a Japan that plays against US interests? Much of Japan’s self-defence capability has been calibrated to operate effectively in unison with American forces and its allies, and a multi-billion dollar ballistic missile defence system is being implemented cooperatively around Japan. Backing out on investments of this magnitude would be a tremendous political hazard, both domestically and internationally.

Besides, Japanese foreign affairs are as much a matter of the bureaucracy and industry as it is of the prime minister’s cabinet. Yukio Hatoyama, prime minister to-be, will need to accommodate relevant ministries as well as business associations, all with vested interests, in his foreign policy plans.

Granted, a new ruling party and a new prime minister may equip Japan with the means to ostensibly improve relations with South Korea and especially China. A greater Japanese presence in other Asian nations is perfectly feasible, too. This, however, would constitute little more than proactive diplomacy. It is premature, perhaps even naïve, to start talking about independent foreign policy.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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