When Japan goes to the polls on August 30, the Democratic Party of Japan is likely to oust the Liberal Democratic Party that has governed the country almost uninterrupted for more than half a century. How will this sea change in Japan's politics alter the country's foreign and defense policies? And how will it affect United States-Japan relations, ties that U.S. administrations have long described as the cornerstone of Asian-Pacific security? The brief answer is that nobody knows for sure.
As an opposition party, the DPJ has taken policy positions that have appeared far more pacifist and suspicious of close ties to the U.S. than the ruling LDP. These policy positions are reinforced by the DPJ's coalition partner, the dovish Social Democratic Party of Japan. In the past, the DPJ has indicated it would immediately end the Japanese navy's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of the NATO mission in Afghanistan; seek to limit the terms and scope of the American military presence in Japan; pursue greater accommodation with China; and, in general, restructure the alliance to make Japan's own foreign and defense policies less "subservient" to those of the U.S.
However, senior DPJ party officials such as Ichiro Ozawa have a reputation for being ruthlessly pragmatic. They will be aware that polls show most Japanese voters still support the LDP's policy of close ties with the U.S. and that, if the DPJ is elected, it will be primarily because of dissatisfaction with the LDP's domestic and economic policies. Japan's national security bureaucracy still holds a powerful grip on the levers of policy making and tends to be pro-alliance. And many younger but important DPJ party members, such as Seiji Maehara, are conservative and hawkish.
So as election day and the realities of actual governance draw near, the DPJ has modified its policy positions. The most recent DPJ pronouncements on security matters have avoided the more strident positions of the past, with the party platform now stating that it wants to "build a close and equal Japan-U.S. relationship." Although Tokyo should not "just rely on the United States," DPJ leader Yuko Hatoyama has said that the party "places top priority on the Japan-U.S. alliance." In short, Tokyo's foreign policy is unlikely to change drastically.
But Washington should not kid itself; there will be changes. No longer will Japanese security matters largely be an insiders' game played only by senior politicians and bureaucrats. The fact that Japan will now have truly competitive political parties means that Japanese policy makers will be more attuned to public opinion. Washington will need to be mindful of this, and use all the tools of public diplomacy and people-to-people exchanges that once were an integral part of America's statecraft. As with other long-standing, once totally reliable allied partners--such as Germany and Turkey--Japan will surely remain an ally but one where Washington can expect more pushback than in the past.
There are bright sides. If Washington can expect a somewhat bumpier road with Japan, a DPJ government may provide some unexpected opportunities as well. For example, the DPJ has advocated that Japan take more of a leadership role in building Asian multilateral structures. To help do so, DPJ leaders have shown a greater willingness to deal more forthrightly with Japan's imperial past than the LDP, including a pledge by Mr. Hatoyama not to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to Japan's war dead. If the party succeeds, Japan will gain greater regional influence and respect. Washington would benefit as well if its most important ally becomes a stronger player in a region that is increasingly worried about China's rise.
The DPJ also has shown far greater interest in a free-trade agreement with the U.S. than the LDP, which for domestic political reasons has increasingly played the protectionist card. This is especially significant in a region where free trade agreements have profound strategic as well as economic benefits. To take advantage of this development, however, the Obama administration must end its foot dragging in the area of trade.
Finally, the DPJ has shown no less concern about the security problems presented by North Korea than the LDP. An honest and open Japanese debate about the threat posed from Pyongyang and Japan's security options--such as greater cooperation with the U.S. in the area of missile defenses--can become a vehicle for educating the Japanese public of the lasting value of the U.S. alliance.
This election will likely mark a historic realignment in Japanese politics. Japan will become a more "normal" liberal democracy and, as a result, alliance management will become a more complicated business. This shift was bound to happen; the surprise is that it took so long once the security pressures of the Cold War were lifted. A more equal partner could become a stronger partner. But keeping the alliance in good order will require a deft hand on Washington's part and a recognition, so far absent from the Obama administration, that the strategic lodestar for meeting Asia's many challenges and opportunities remains America's democratic allies—most importantly Japan.Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI. Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar at AEI.