Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan survived a leadership challenge from a kingmaker in his own Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Ichiro Ozawa, and last Friday he reshuffled his cabinet. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada was named the party’s secretary-general and number two to Kan. Okada leaves the foreign minister’s desk stacked high with unfinished business in Japan’s foreign relations, such as soothing bilateral tensions with Beijing over the recent collision of a Japanese patrol vessel and a Chinese fishing boat. Okada was also unable to resolve complicated negotiations over the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps base in Okinawa.
Okada, like other senior DPJ leaders, initially expressed reservations about Japan’s alliance with the United States. Upon assuming office, he commented that under previous administrations, Japanese foreign policy was “excessively dependent on the U.S. I want to develop a foreign policy which will be able to convey our own thinking.” He also favored having Japanese foreign policy give greater reprioritization to Asia over the Japan–U.S. alliance.
Okada also questioned whether “the concentration of U.S. bases on Okinawa is normal.” However, after visiting the island, he reversed his views and emphasized the importance of the U.S. alliance for Japanese security, including maintaining U.S. Marine Corps units on Okinawa.
The replacement of Okada with Seiji Maehara, the transport minister and a minister responsible for Okinawa affairs, is a welcome and positive sign for the U.S. Maehara’s conservative foreign policy views, including his advocacy for a more assertive Japanese role in national defense, will be welcomed by the U.S.
Maehara’s appointment as foreign minister indicates that Kan intends to repair strained relations with Washington by affirming the agreement to relocate U.S. Marine Corps air units from Futenma to Camp Schwab in a less densely populated area of Okinawa. Nonetheless, as Kan inaugurates his new cabinet and strives to move forward on the Futenma deadlock, it is critical that he devote sufficient political capital to countering regional security threats.
Given the deep divisions within the DPJ and the stalemate-prone nature of Japanese politics, the Kan government should actively engage the Obama Administration. Washington should call upon Tokyo to articulate a coherent and integrated national security strategy, something the DPJ has failed to do despite being in office for over a year. The Obama Administration should take note of the adjusted political environment in Tokyo and encourage it to reject a low-risk foreign policy with minimal responsibilities. Instead, Tokyo should articulate objectives for a long-term security strategy in the backdrop of closer collaboration with its partners in Washington.
Jeff Genota is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm