Japan's dovish defense minister

Posted in Japan | 02-Feb-07 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Asia Times

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a reputation as a hawk. So why did he appoint a dove from Nagasaki, a city that still nurses grievances from the 1945 atomic bombing, as his defense minister? And why does he treat his colleague's repeated jibes against the US with only mild rebukes?

Fumio Kyuma, a 66-year-old veteran lawmaker from the premier's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), said recently the United States should "stop being so bossy" about the issue of realigning US bases on Japanese soil, only three days after describing the US-led war in Iraq as a "mistake".

These embarrassing remarks by Kyuma have dealt yet another blow to Abe, who has seen his public support slip precipitously since succeeding Junichiro Koizumi last September. It has been especially pronounced in recent weeks amid a spate of political funds-related scandals involving some of his cabinet ministers, one of whom resigned.

But it is the recent outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease in his cabinet that has Abe reeling. Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa made an even bigger gaffe by calling women "birth-giving machines", resulting in calls that he resign. Abe instructed all his cabinet ministers on Tuesday to be careful about their remarks.

But at least Yanagisawa apologized profusely and promised to keep his mouth shut in the future. Kyuma has been much more grudging in his reaction to criticism, and he has a longer record of saying similar things about Japan's ally and protector, the United States. Kyuma's case apparently was not just a slip of the tongue. He was speaking his mind. And he does not seem to be repentant at all in his heart about what he said.

Defense chief Kyuma's anti-US remarks also come at an awkward time for both Tokyo and Washington, which are strengthening security cooperation, including the building of a missile defense system at an accelerated pace amid increased tensions in East Asia after North Korea's missile and nuclear tests last year.

There are growing concerns in both Tokyo and Washington about possible negative impact of the fuss over Kyuma's remarks on the bilateral security alliance, including the possibility that the first "two plus two" meeting of Japanese and US foreign secretaries and defense chiefs since the Abe administration was inaugurated might be further delayed. The meeting was originally expected in January.

One anti-US remark after another
On January 24, just about two weeks after his defense portfolio was officially upgraded from an "agency" to a ministry, Kyuma said he believed it was a "mistake" that US President George W Bush decided to go ahead with the war in Iraq in March 2003 on the assumption, which later turned out to be wrong, that the country had weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons.

Kyuma's comment came only hours after Bush implored Congress in his annual State of the Union address to back his unpopular plan to send an extra 21,000 US troops to Iraq, saying it represents the best chance in a war the US must not lose.

This was not the first time Kyuma had spoken out against the US-led war in Iraq. In December, the defense chief said that then-prime minister Koizumi's expression of Japan's outright support for the invasion of Iraq "was not made officially" but were just personal comments Koizumi made to the media.

Kyuma retracted his remarks the following day. But Kyuma expressed his personal view against the government's support of the Iraq war, saying, "I felt at that time that it was premature and I personally still feel so now. I believe there should have been a better alternative." On March 20, 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq, Koizumi said he "understands and supports the use of force", and his statement was approved by his cabinet as the government's official view.

When he heard about Kyuma's "mistake" remarks, Abe initially tried to take them in stride. He said simply that that the words did not represent the government's position. "I think Mr Kyuma expressed his own thoughts. The cabinet has a consistent view on the evaluation of the war in Iraq and its reconstruction assistance," Abe said.

But Abe apparently had second thoughts soon afterward about the seriousness of the gaffe. He directed Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki, a close aide, to meet with Kyuma on last Friday, before the day's regular cabinet meeting, and warn him over his "mistake" remarks. "Please be careful [about what you say] as it may send a wrong message to the United States," Shiozaki was quoted as telling Kyuma.

Kyuma said later in the day that he would be more careful with his comments. "If they were taken [as criticism], I think I should be more careful about how I say things," Kyuma told a press conference. "Even if they were my thoughts, I think perhaps it might be better not to say them," Kyuma said, adding, "I decided not to talk about the past anymore."

But while those words were still fresh from his mouth, Kyuma criticized the US again - this time over its unwillingness to accept changes in the plan for the relocation of the US Marine Corps's Futenma Air Station on Okinawa, from Ginowan City in the south to Nago City in the north.

While noting that governors have the authority to approve the reclamation necessary for the relocation, Kyuma said in a speech on Saturday, "The United States doesn't understand that in Japan there are things that we can't do if the governors don't say 'okay'.

"The United States doesn't understand [the importance of] spadework. We're in the process of telling the United States to stop being so bossy and let us do what we have to do."

Alarmed, Abe met with Kyuma, Shiozaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso on Tuesday after the day's regular cabinet meeting to confirm the basic government policy of making efforts to persuade local governments to accept the current relocation plan agreed between Tokyo and Washington. When Abe instructed the ministers to follow the basic government policy, Kyuma was quoted as replying, "That's right." But at a press conference only minutes later, Kyuma said again that the current relocation plan "may be revised".

Concerns in Tokyo, Washington
To be sure, there are many people around the world, even in the US, who would nod in agreement if they heard Kyuma's critical comments on the Iraq war. But that a minister in charge of the bilateral security alliance would speak out against the Bush administration over its most vexing issue is something that Washington could not let pass.

James Zumwalt, director of the Office of Japanese Affairs at the State Department, protested to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, saying the US took the remarks seriously. He also said the remarks could have a negative impact on the bilateral alliance.

Zumwalt also reportedly said it may be difficult to arrange the schedule for the next Japan-US ministerial security talks, dubbed a "two plus two" meeting, involving the foreign affairs and defense chiefs of the two countries if there were any more remarks critical of Bush.

The two-plus-two meeting would cover a wide range of security issues, including North Korea and missile defense as well as Iraq and the realignment of US bases and forces in Japan. Policymakers in Tokyo believe that the two allies need to reaffirm the importance of strengthening the alliance and promote policy coordination on those issues at a ministerial level at the earliest possible date.

Pyongyang's missile tests last July and nuclear test last October have prompted Japan and the US to accelerate efforts to build a missile defense system, including the deployment of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) and Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors. Meanwhile, the six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions - involving Japan, the US, China, Russia and South and North Korea - are to resume in Beijing next Thursday.

Japanese and US policymakers want the next two-plus-two meeting to agree to work for a steady and full implementation of the realignment plans for US bases and forces in Japan. There are strong concerns in Tokyo that if the relocation plan for the Futenma base falters, the bilateral alliance could suffer seriously. Washington has made the full implementation of the Futenma relocation plan a condition for moving some 8,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam.

Abe's predecessor Koizumi was one of the staunchest foreign supporters of the Bush administration's "war on terror" as well as the Iraq war. The Koizumi government enacted two controversial special laws to enable the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to assist US-led military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and he dispatched army engineers to Iraq in early 2004 (they were later withdrawn). An Air SDF detachment based in Kuwait still flies resupply missions into Iraq.

Aside from the two-plus-two meeting, some pundits say that the fuss over Kyuma's anti-US remarks could have a negative impact on Abe's first trip to Washington as premier, which is expected during Japan's "Golden Week" holiday period from the end of April to early May. Meanwhile, it was announced on Tuesday that US Vice President Dick Cheney will make a three-day visit to Japan starting on February 20.

Hawk Abe and dove Kyuma
Even before his latest outburst, some conservatives have been urging Abe to muzzle Kyuma. In an opinion piece published in late December in the conservative Sankei Shimbun national daily, Taro Yayama, a prominent conservative political commentator seen as being close to Abe, called on the premier to fire Kyuma. But there has so far been no move within Abe's ruling coalition to force the defense chief out.

In addition to his controversial remarks, Kyuma has bucked Abe and the conservatives on other matters relating to the alliance. The government wants to permit the defense forces to shoot down any North Korean missile headed for the US. Kyuma demurs, citing the constitutional prohibition against "collective defense" and technical reasons.

Abe has repeatedly expressed a desire to see a permanent law enacted as soon as possible to allow the dispatch of SDF troops on overseas peacekeeping missions so that the government does not continually have to resort to makeshift legislative measures. Kyuma has voiced negative views about pushing for such a permanent law, however.

On the other hand, the defense minister has taken controversial positions favorable to the US. Unlike some hawks in the administration, such as Foreign Minister Taro Aso, he has argued against Japan obtaining nuclear weapons of its own. He is also more tolerant of passage of US Navy vessels through Japanese waters and ports, even if armed with nuclear weapons, than are many doves in Japan.

A Farm Ministry civil servant-turned politician, Kyuma was born near Nagasaki, which suffered a US atomic bombing along with Hiroshima in August 1945, only days before Japan's surrender in World War II. He has been elected to the House of Representatives from a constituency including part of Nagasaki nine times.

Many wonder why Abe, a hawk, appointed Kyuma, widely seen as a dove, to such a sensitive post. To be sure, he had experience, having served as head of what was then the Defense Agency between 1997 and 1998 under prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. But there are many other LDP lawmakers who are better - or at least equally - versed in defense affairs.

The simplest answer may be: Abe brought Kyuma into his cabinet as a reward for the contributions the veteran LDP lawmaker made both to the reform programs of the premier's predecessor and mentor, Koizumi, and then to his own rise to power.

As chairman of the LDP's executive council, Kyuma played a key role in pushing Koizumi's signature postal-privatization bill through a raucous session of the party's highest decision-making body in June 2005, paving the way for its submission to the Diet (parliament). The council approved the bill in a majority vote, breaking the conventional rule of unanimity. In the wake of the LDP's landslide victory in the election in September 2005, Koizumi reappointed Kyuma as the council chairman. Kyuma stayed in the post until being picked by Abe for the defense portfolio.

While Abe served as secretary general of Koizumi's LDP between 2003 and 2004, Kyuma supported him as acting secretary general. Before the LDP presidential election last September, which Abe handily won, some members of the Diet were moving to field Fukushiro Nukaga, a former Defense Agency chief, as a candidate. But Kyuma was among the first key faction figures to oppose Nukaga in the election. Nukaga eventually decided not to throw his hat into the ring, and many members of his faction voted for Abe in the presidential election.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is yiu45535@nifty.com.