Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 04:36 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 04:36 | SYDNEY

Japan: Three epochal changes in one


Malcolm Cook

15 December 2010 14:50

Mike Green and Nicholas Szechenyi's CogitAsia post on Japan's forthcoming National Defense Program Guidelines demonstrates the policy challenges for Japan and its partners stemming from the fact that Japan is in the midst of epochal political, strategic and fiscal pressures.

Last year we saw a 'once in many generations' change to Japan's political system; Japan and the rest of the world are still coming to terms with this change and wondering how it will play out. This year, we are seeing this new government move to introduce a 'once in many generations' change to Japan's basic defence policy in the face of a rapidly changing security environment populated by an increasingly assertive PRC and a nuclear-tipped DPRK. It is also clear that Japan's present fiscal situation is unsustainable; a new balance between expenditure and taxation is needed.  

Each one of these changes (with the fiscal yet to really happen) is a huge social task on its own. The fact all three are happening at the same time is truly breath-taking and invigorating, but also complicates each individual change.

For instance, Japan's dire fiscal situation was a factor in the population's decision to stop trusting the LDP and opt for the DPJ in last year's lower house election. The Hatoyama-led DPJ Government's fumbling of the security relationship with the US at a time of great strategic uncertainty for Japan also clearly contributed to Hatoyama's downfall and the DPJ's underwhelming performance in this year's Upper House election.

This trifecta of major reforms is behind the mixed messages coming out of Japan and the growing gap between the Government's bold promises and its actions. This will likely get worse as more taxation and less expenditure is called for — something that is both politically unpalatable for the DPJ and a severe limit to Japan's ability to address its new strategic environment.

On the positive side, the trifecta has also contributed to a significant meeting of the political minds on Japan's future security needs. The deepening bipartisan consensus on Japan's future security needs has been a key factor in the continued momentum in Japan-Australia security relations. The fact that the Guidelines will be in a very similar vein to Australia's 2009 Defence White Paper should also help further deepen Japan-Australia and US-Japan-Australia security cooperation.

As Tokyo works its way through these three epochal changes, its strategic partners should be prepared to be more patient and accepting of mixed messages and short-lived governments, and quicker to take advantage of the new areas of cooperation this process creates. A grand coalition between the DPJ and a chastened LDP may expand the scope for cooperation, as could a coalition between the DPJ and Komeito.

The trifecta is making the process of policy change in Japan even more tortured, but it is also a driving force behind Japan's consideration of major policy changes.

Photo by Flickr user Official US Air Force.