Testing time for Japan's US ties
TOKYO - Japan's Lower House of the Diet, or Parliament, passed a controversial bill on Tuesday that will allow the nation to resume its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of US-led anti-terrorism operations in and near Afghanistan.
The bill's approval came only two days before Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's departure on Thursday for the US to meet with President George W Bush on Friday. It will be his first overseas trip since taking office in late September.
Fukuda is expected to express his firm determination to resume Japan's refueling mission, which was suspended on November 1 when a special anti-terrorism law authorizing the mission expired due to strong objections from opposition parties.
The US and other nations taking part in the anti-terrorism operations have repeatedly urged Japan to resume refueling US-led coalition ships. The special anti-terrorism law was enacted shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US.
Fukuda's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, abruptly announced his resignation, citing the dire prospect of having the law extended to keep Japanese naval ships deployed in the Indian Ocean. Abe was admitted to hospital with a serious stomach illness just a day later, though.
To be sure, Tuesday's passage of the new anti-terrorism bill will provide Fukuda with powerful ammunition to convince Bush of his firm resolve to resume the refueling mission as soon as possible. But prospects remain dim for its early resumption.
The new anti-terrorism bill cleared the House of Representatives on Tuesday on the strength of Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led ruling coalition's majority there. The opposition parties voted against it or abstained. The bill was sent immediately to the House of Councilors, the Upper House of the bicameral Parliament, which is controlled by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-led opposition.
The ruling LDP-New Komeito coalition lost control of the Upper House in July elections, although it still retains more than two-thirds of seats in the more powerful Lower House. The next general election for that chamber is due by September 2009 at the latest, but it is very likely to come much earlier, possibly early next year.
Uphill Diet battle
Under the constitution, the government's new anti-terrorism bill can be sent back to the Lower House for a second vote if the Upper House votes it down or holds off on taking a vote on it within 60 days. The bill would become law if passed in the second vote with the support of a two-thirds majority. The new anti-terrorism law would be effective for one year.
The DPJ remains adamantly opposed to the new anti-terrorism bill. It insists that the US-led operations in and around Afghanistan have no clear United Nations mandate and says that Japanese troops should be sent abroad only to participate in UN-led peacekeeping operations.
In September, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution expressing gratitude for maritime interdiction activities in the Indian Ocean, in which Japanese naval ships took part.
Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said last Thursday, "The longer the interruption, the greater the possibility that Japan will be seen as having a passive attitude toward the fight against terrorism, and that would not be good." Ishiba made the remarks n a joint press conference with visiting US Defense Secretary Robert Gates after their meeting.
The DPJ has also submitted to the House of Councilors a bill to abolish a special law enacted in 2003 that has allowed Japanese troops to be dispatched to Iraq on a reconstruction and humanitarian mission.
The House of Councilors' foreign and defense affairs committee, where intensive deliberations on the new anti-terrorism bill are to be held, is now chaired by a DPJ lawmaker. The DPJ has said the committee will deliberate the party-sponsored bill to abolish the special law for Iraq first.
The DPJ-led opposition camp is also poised to continue to grill the government over a series of scandals involving the Defense Ministry.
The opposition parties are still unsatisfied with the conclusion by the governments of both Japan and the US that there was no diversion of fuel provided by Japanese vessels to US warships in the Indian Ocean for the Iraq war.
Meanwhile, former administrative vice defense minister Takemasa Moriya is to give sworn testimony at the House of Councilors' foreign and defense affairs committee on Thursday over a collusion scandal involving himself and arrested defense equipment trader Motonobu Miyazaki.
Fukuda predicted an uphill battle for the new anti-terrorism bill in the Upper House. "We've come a long way ... but there is also a long way ahead. We must try our best," he said on Monday night.
Last Friday, the current extraordinary Diet session, which was originally scheduled to close last Saturday, was extended by 35 days until December15. The government and ruling coalition extended the session in an effort to win the Diet enactment of the new anti-terrorism bill.
Legislative business has been virtually stalled in the divided Diet. Only one relatively non-contentious law - the revised Natural Disaster Victims Relief Law - was enacted during the originally set 62-day period of the current Diet session.
If the DPJ sticks to its guns over the government's new anti-terrorism bill and no vote is taken on it before the rescheduled end of the session, the government and the ruling coalition are poised to extend the session again. Under the Diet law, the extraordinary session can be extended twice.
On November 6, meanwhile, the DPJ unveiled the outline of its counterproposal to the government's new anti-terrorism bill. But critics say it will not work and that many questions remain unanswered.
The outline stipulates that the nation would dispatch Self-Defense Forces and civilian personnel to Afghanistan to participate in provincial reconstruction team activities linked with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in four areas, including food production, medical services and transportation.
DPJ president Ichiro Ozawa has called for Japan to participate in the ISAF. But the outline does not call for participation in ISAF activities, saying the activities have yet to prove effective.
As for the Maritime Self-Defense Force's activities in the Indian Ocean, the document says only that the largest opposition party will consider whether to take part only if they are considered to be activities based on a UN resolution.
It remains to be seen, however, if the DPJ will draw up and submit to the Diet a bill incorporating these elements of the counterproposal. The DPJ is widely believed to have unveiled the outline to avoid criticism that it is an irresponsible opposition party that opposes all government bills without coming up with any alternative proposals.
Golden era over
It may be just like an award-winning barracks ballad duo finding it increasingly difficult these days to sing some duets in perfect harmony.
It was only until a little over a year ago that relations between Japan and the US - close allies since the end of World War II - were humming along, with foreign-policy makers on both sides of the Pacific often trumpeting them as being in "best-ever" shape.
But now Japan and the US face various pending issues, which, many pundits say, could hurt mutual trust and even begin to weaken the foundation of the bilateral alliance.
Among those issues are the possible removal by Washington of North Korea from its list of terrorism-sponsoring countries, despite the lack of progress on the issue of Pyongyang's past abductions of Japanese citizens, as well as the Self-Defense Forces' refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.
Tokyo and Washington have to resolve their differences over Japan's proposal to cut the so-called sympathy budget - Japan's share of costs for stationing US military forces on its soil. The two countries also have yet to make progress on the realignment plan for American military bases and forces stationed in Japan, which was agreed on in May last year.
Also on the economic front, the two countries have yet to resolve a dispute over easing Japan's strict conditions for importing US beef.
Under staunchly pro-US prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan significantly stretched the boundaries of the post-war pacifist constitution by taking such controversial steps as supporting US operations in Afghanistan and also deploying non-combat troops to Iraq, the first such mission to a combat zone after World War II.
Koizumi's immediate successor, Abe, also tried to stretch the constitutional boundaries further to beef up Japan-US security relations. Advocating a more assertive foreign policy and a greater military role on the global stage, Abe even made revising the supreme law a top priority. The constitution has imposed strict restrictions on Japan's military activities abroad.
Dovish Prime Minister Fukuda has advocated the importance of an Asian diplomacy and remains cautious about further loosening constitutional constraints on Japanese military activities abroad. Still, Fukuda has also joined his predecessors in stressing that the Japan-US alliance is the cornerstone of Japan's diplomacy.
Fukuda said on Monday, "I chose the United States as the first country to visit because our relationship with the United States is very deep and broad in scope, and Japan also has problems involving security."
Chief cabinet secretary Nobutaka Machimura said on Monday that in his talks with Bush, Fukuda is expected to reaffirm the Japan-US alliance and his wish to further enhance it, as well as to express his intention of making the alliance and Japan's Asian diplomacy resonate with each other.
After returning from the US visit on Saturday, Fukuda will leave on November 19 for a three-day trip to Singapore to attend the East Asia Summit and other meetings related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said Machimura, the top government spokesman.
The summit of the 10-member ASEAN plus Japan, China and South Korea, or ASEAN Plus Three as the nations are collectively referred to, is scheduled for November 20 and the East Asia Summit, which also involves Australia, New Zealand and India, is set for the following day in Singapore. Fukuda is also expected to hold trilateral summit talks with Chinese and South Korean leaders there.
Shift in the wind
After the House of Councilors election in July, the DPJ, which became the largest party in that chamber, gained the upper hand in Diet business. But the political tide has apparently begun to turn against the party recently. The DPJ has shot itself in the foot.
DPJ leader Ozawa submitted his resignation on November 4, saying he felt he no longer had the backing of party executives when they immediately opposed the idea of entering a grand coalition with the ruling camp. The idea of a grand coalition had come up during his meeting with Fukuda, held two days earlier. Fukuda, who concurrently serves as LDP president, has strongly called for dialogue with the DPJ on key policy issues.
Ozawa officially retracted his resignation on November 7 and returned to his and the DPJ's long-standing stance of confronting the ruling camp. "We won't think about a coalition," he said. But the fuss over his flip-flops has left deep scars within the party. Opinion polls show a majority of Japanese object to the idea of a grand coalition between the LDP and the DPJ.
The idea of a grand coalition does not seem to be dead, however. It could be revived if the DPJ-led opposition fails to wrest control of the Lower House in the next general election, resulting in the continuation of the divided Diet. Even combative DPJ secretary general Yukio Hatoyama did not rule out such a possibility last Thursday.
It has been widely believed that if the government's new anti-terrorism bill was sent back to the House of Representatives and enacted in the second vote there, the DPJ-led opposition camp would submit a censure motion against Fukuda in the opposition-dominated House of Councilors to pressure him to dissolve the House of Representatives for a general election.
Some coalition officials now believe, however, that the DPJ, still reeling from the recent intra-party imbroglio, would not submit a censure motion in the opposition-dominated House of Councilors against Fukuda because such a move could lead to an early dissolution of the House of Representatives for a snap election. The DPJ is hardly in a position to prepare for a Lower House election, analysts say.
Some DPJ officials have also said that Fukuda could dissolve the House of Representatives as early as mid-December for an election in January to take advantage of the recent blow to the DPJ.
In an apparent challenge to the DPJ, LDP secretary general Bunmei Ibuki indicated on Sunday that Fukuda may dissolve the powerful Lower House for a general election if the opposition-dominated Upper House approves a censure motion against the premier or if the DPJ resorts to tactics to delay deliberations in an attempt to block passage of the new anti-terrorism bill in the current Diet session.
DPJ secretary general Hatoyama said that although the party has not yet completed preparations for a general election, it is ready to take on the challenge. "We have no intention of backing away [from this fight]," Hatoyama said on Sunday. "We will accept the challenge [from the ruling camp]."
Machimura, meanwhile, denied that a dissolution and election is likely any time soon. "We will have to pass the special bill on anti-terrorism measures during the current Diet session and pass the fiscal 2008 budget by the end of March [during the ordinary Diet session], while we will also host the Group of Eight Hokkaido Toyako summit next year," Machimura said on Sunday. "We have no time to think about a dissolution."
In an opinion poll published on Tuesday by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest national daily, 51% of those polled supported the continued refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, while 40% objected to it. The survey also showed that 49% supported the government's new anti-terrorism bill, against 39% who opposed it.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org)