JPRI Critique, Vol. XV, No. 4 (November 2009)
Hatoyama's Vision for a New Japan
By John de Boer, Ph.D.


Aspirational leadership has rarely animated postwar Japanese politics, particularly in the arena of foreign policy. For more than fifty years the ruling elite has anchored foreign policy to the U.S.-Japan Alliance, rather than chart a more independent course that seeks to tap into and shape popular aspirations. Even in the face of numerous crises that cast doubt on the wisdom of political, economic, and military reliance upon the United States ( i.e. , the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, the 1997-98 Asian Economic Crisis, the present Iraq War), Japanese leaders have firmly supported this central tenant of foreign policy. But change may be on the horizon. Heading into the recent general elections that saw the Liberal Democratic Party humbled by the upstart Democratic Party of Japan, DPJ leader Hatoyama Yukio questioned the continuing relevance of this single-track policy approach in an article first published in Japan's Voice Plus magazine and later translated into English as an op-ed in The New York Times (26 August 2009). Hatoyama described "a utopian dream" for a New Japan and an East Asian Community that would become reality if only more and more people in Japan and neighboring countries came to believe in the ideal and were to act upon it.

Since his ascension to the premiership in September 2009, Hatoyama has come under fire from the political establishment in Japan and in the United States, forcing him to tone down his rhetoric and affirm his allegiance to the Japan-U.S. Alliance. Yet Hatoyama has not shied away from delivering a pluralistic message.

Upon arriving in Thailand on October 23rd for the Fifteenth ASEAN Summit, Hatoyama proclaimed that, "it would be meaningful for us to have the aspiration that East Asia is going to lead the world." During the three party summit between China, Japan and Korea earlier in October, he consistently stressed his vision for an East Asian Community which would "raise the importance of Asia" in the world. The creation of an East Asian Community is part of his vision for a New Japan: one that recognizes Japan's place in Asia and increasingly values relations with Asian countries. While acknowledging that the idea of an East Asian Community will take years to realize, Hatoyama has advocated a plan for starting with the possible. On his agenda are the finalization of free trade agreements, increased financial cooperation, and collaboration in areas of energy, the environment, disaster relief - all of which present, according to Hatoyama, opportunities for "win-win cooperation."

However, nothing in this agenda appears as low-hanging fruit. Japan's free trade negotiations with South Korea have been stalled for five years. The last time Japan formulated a concrete proposal (the Asian Monetary Fund idea in 1997) for enhanced financial cooperation to combat a serious financial crisis, the proposal was promptly killed by American pressure. Energy demands in East Asia are so acute and environmental policy so divergent that it is difficult to imagine a unified policy among East Asian countries anytime soon. Finally, in terms of disaster relief, and more specifically, infectious disease control, given vast qualitative disparities among healthcare systems in the region, the idea of an effective regional disease control regime appears unrealistic in the short term.

Which begs the question, if the idea of an East Asian Community faces so many obstacles to its realization, why does Hatoyama continue to promote the idea? The answer is that he is trying to provide an answer to a core dilemma that Japan has faced for the past decade. As expressed in his own words, the dilemma is as follows: "How should Japan maintain political and economic independence, and protect its national interest when caught between the United States, which is fighting to retain its position as the world's dominant power, and China, which is seeking ways to become dominant?" ( The New York Times , 26 August 2009)

China is moving faster than ever to create strategic partnerships with ASEAN countries. Its "Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Declaration on ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity" commits China to an impressive array of initiatives: creating a China-ASEAN Free Trade Area; accelerating construction of infrastructure facilities throughout the region; deepening agricultural and rural cooperation; promoting sustainable development; strengthening social, scientific and cultural exchanges; and further advancing regional cooperation at various levels. In April 2009, the Chinese government announced that it would set up a "China-ASEAN Fund on Investment Cooperation" worth 10 billion USD to support infrastructure development in the region. China also plans to offer low-interest credit amounting to 15 billion USD to ASEAN countries, and approximately 40 million USD in aid to less-developed ASEAN countries. The China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (scheduled to be established in 2010) will create a free-trade area encompassing 1.9 billion people and a cumulative GDP of 6 trillion USD. Japan simply cannot afford to be left out of this partnership.

Leaders of the Democratic Party of Japan recognize that East Asia represents the essential economic, political and social-cultural sphere in which Japan operates. They acknowledge the enduring significance of Japan's bilateral relationship with the United States but nonetheless emphasize the necessity of reorienting Japan's foreign policy. As long as the Liberal Democratic Party was in power Washington could rest assured that its relationship with Japan would remain largely unchanged even in the face of dramatic transformations in global politics and economics. However, with the rise of the DPJ - a party that had been largely shunned by successive U.S. administrations and instead focused on cultivating relations with East Asia - a policy shift toward Asia is framed as inevitable concession to reality. A reality in which Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and ASEAN now account for a quarter of the world's economic output. It should be noted, however, that Prime Minister Hatoyama and DPJ stalwarts have chosen a risky policy platform. That is, they have linked the Party's legitimacy to the daunting task of building popular support within Japan and beyond for an East Asian Community - and overcoming at least some of the many obstacles to its realization. We shall see if Hatoyama's and his Party's aspirational leadership becomes a reality or remains only a utopian dream.

JOHN DE BOER is a JPRI Fellow in Diplomatic and Political Affairs.


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