By Tim Johnson
Earlier this week, in what he described as his first big speech in English, Diet Member and Secretary-General of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Nobuteru Ishihara had no difficulty expressing himself on one issue – China’s military rise.
Ishihara, son of controversial Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara, called the “aggressive stance of China” the most significant geopolitical change of the past decade in the Asia-Pacific in his remarks at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.
He described China’s rapidly growing military expenditures and its drive to build aircraft carriers as a part of its “ambition to attain complete maritime supremacy” to secure its interests in the oil, gas, minerals and fishing grounds surrounding many of the islands and outcroppings it claims as its own in the South and East China Seas.
While the Obama administration has pushed back against characterizations of U.S. policy toward Asia as either containing or acquiescing to China’s rise, Ishihara articulated a vision of Japan as America’s willing and faithful deputy in China’s containment – “an important member of a newly-evolving regional security network – of which the United States is the linchpin.”
In emphasizing the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance, Ishihara downplayed disputes over U.S. military basing in Okinawa and criticized the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) handling of the bilateral relationship.
Ishihara further suggested strong moves to bolster Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) and fulfill Japan’s role in answering the military and political challenge presented by a China:
- Ishihara volunteered that the LDP is considering raising Japan’s defense budget above the informal ceiling of 1% of GDP that has been in place for decades, in response to cutbacks in the U.S. defense budget.
- Asked about Taiwan, he proposed that a SDF vessel could be rapidly deployed into the Taiwan Strait from nearby Ishigaki Island before the U.S. could itself respond to a cross-strait incident.
- Following the 2010 diplomatic row ignited by the collision of a Chinese fishing trawler with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel near the disputed Senkaku Islands, Ishihara proposed that the islands be brought under state ownership for the purpose of developing a refuge for Japanese fishing boats, and further urged consideration of a permanent SDF base in the area.
Although Ishihara currently speaks with the freedom of an opposition politician, it is worthwhile to pay attention. His bold remarks on regional security, along with his efforts to make the rounds in Washington, suggest his ambition at a time when his name is being floated as a future prime minister.
Following his clear statements on security issues, the LDP official’s careful remarks on the domestically sensitive question of Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement stood out by comparison.
U.S. officials welcomed DPJ Prime Minister Noda’s announcement of Japan’s interest in entering TPP negotiations at the APEC summit in Honolulu in November. However, in evaluating Japan’s possible participation in the TPP, the U.S. and its TPP partners are looking for indications of Japan’s readiness to address domestic obstacles to a “high-standards” comprehensive trade agreement. They will not find them in Ishihara’s public remarks.
Reflecting divisions within the LDP – and indeed within the ruling DPJ – Ishihara addressed Japan’s possible entry into TPP negotiations with words like “complex”, “sensitivities”, “flexibility”, “legitimate concerns” and “big picture” and stressed the importance of consulting domestic constituencies.
On agricultural liberalization, considered the greatest obstacle to Japan’s participation in the TPP, Ishihara remarked that it is “important for Japan, a country that has a food security ratio of less than 40% to ensure that a TPP agreement is consistent with its efforts to revitalize Japanese agriculture.”
In Honolulu, President Obama called for the signing of a comprehensive TPP agreement by the end of 2012. While Japan’s participation greatly increases the significance of the TPP, Tokyo’s ability to work on this timetable is greatly in doubt. If maintaining Japan’s food security is a focal point of Japan’s domestic TPP conversation, it is difficult to envision rapid movement on across-the-board trade liberalization.
For the U.S. and the other TPP partners then, a key question becomes whether it is better to sign an agreement quickly with the existing participants, or take additional time to bring the world’s third largest economy into the process. Ishihara’s remarks on trade support the conclusion that Japan is not yet ready to move on President Obama’s ambitious timetable.
Mr. Tim Johnson is an attorney based in Washington, DC. He has worked in Tokyo and Singapore, to represent clients making investments across the Asia-Pacific. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.