Hashimoto off to the races – but has he forgotten something?

The war cries have been heard – a group of more than 2000 will march into a mighty battle (大戦) where only 300 or less will remain standing at the end (日). In other words, Hashimoto Toru’s seiji juku has begun, attracting Japanese dedicated to reform and the upset of the stagnant status quo from as far as Thailand and Singapore.

However the Asahi let through a snippet of information that might be crucial to how successful Hashimoto will be at shaping the “we are the only choice for reform” narrative.

Around 90% of the participants are men. And likely ambitious alpha-males at that (日).

Now Japan’s gender representation statistics in general are still pretty awful. However the female portion of the Japanese electorate has consistently been the most supportive of reform to existing relations of power in Japan, for very obvious reasons.

Furthermore, one of the key things that Koizumi and Ozawa, as engineers of large lower house majorities, understood is that emphasis on images of youth and particularly success and competence of the feminine sort played well. Of course we had the “female assassins” of 2005 and “Ozawa’s girls” in 2009 (and the historically “high” percentage of females in the DPJ’s 2009 lower house allotment). Both derogatory conceptualizations and completely missing the point to be sure but nevertheless likely relevant to some degree of electoral success. Moreover, in those crucial electoral seats a strategically placed young, recent mother with a formerly successful professional and non-political career background could be the perfect contrast to a greyed, wrinkled sexagenarian-plus establishment politician who has never changed a nappy or worked an honest day in his life, and with views of women going back to their grandfather’s generation (who was probably also a politician). Absolute electoral gold.

Hashimoto may need to be wary of the Ishin no kai turning into a sausage party when he makes his final selections, if for no other reason that militant-sounding calls for fascism (even if theatrical) with a feminine touch may be less disconcerting.

NB: Actually I can’t remember where I read it but it seems that the establishment’s drive to brand Hashimoto a dictator is only having a slight impact on public opinion. Which does not surprise me, all other things being equal.

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Time for a “death pool” on the DPJ?

If you come here for the foreign policy content I have a post on the ‘Three Principles of Arms Exports’ over at Japan Security Watch. They have, for those that are interested, changed. Here is a summary of the statement from the Chief Cabinet Secretary. I will be writing a little more on the changes later in the week.

Anyway domestically, it will by now be obvious that there is a little, perhaps unexpected, tension in and around Nagata-cho heading into the new year. I share with Michael Cucek a large degree of exasperation around what it is exactly the Noda Cabinet is trying to achieve. Noda has completely lost control over the narrative about what his prime ministership stands for. Cucek also provides some pretty good reasons here as to why the overall political situation has very quickly come to a head at a time of year when everybody should be taking a step back and reflecting on the events of the year. Jun Okumura as always provides some solid and sensible reasons for commentators to not get ahead of themselves in speculating on whether Japanese politics is about to undergo the now seemingly mythical political realignment (政界再編) that many have been predicting for a while. Like ‘regime change’ (政権交代) this almost seems to have become a meaningless phase despite the perhaps misplaced hope placed in it.

Nevertheless I will ignore Jun’s caution somewhat as I feel there is something a little different this time around. The party is much closer to splitting now than any of the other times when, according to the Japanese media and many foreign commentators, Ozawa apparently was threatening to tear the party apart, but suspiciously never really got close.

The reason why I say unexpected is that given how clumsily recent events have been handled it could be argued that this latest round of tension has surprised a number of stakeholders, including the Noda and his cabinet. Tension was expected over the TPP given what was (as I have argued, falsely) believed to be at stake. However it seemed that the one thing the Noda Cabinet was supposed to do was to promote party unity by giving a little bit to everyone, something the Hatoyama and Kan Cabinets did not attempt. A little bit to the Ozawa camp, to the differing camps within the “mainstream” group of Sengoku, Noda and Maehara, and then to some of the other factions-that-aren’t-really factions. Noda’s seeming comprehensive election victory seemed to suggest to Japanese commentators and media analysts at least that the issue of whether the consumption tax should be raised had been settled within the DPJ. Ozawa would hopefully be quiet.

And for the most part Ozawa has. He has even gone as far as to publicly state that now is not the time for DPJ newbies to jump ship. So that can’t be it. With Ozawa not being the current cause of tension, and no elections for the foreseeable future, the mainstream media seems to have no possible way to understand what is happening. So it is going (jp) with the Ozawa factor anyway in grappling for explanations. And this is precisely why the Japanese media, with its focus on personal politics and policy symbolism over the politics of policy making (reinforced to be sure by the actions and statements of the senior leaderships of all parties, big and small), struggles at times like this. Ultimately if this was all about Ozawa a much bigger split would have happened a longer time ago – recent differences appear to be very much over policy than personality.

So over and above the obvious and persistent reasons for tension in Japanese politics, I feel there there is an under-discussed aspect of the DPJ that need to be understood to truly make sense of the current situation.

That the DPJ is a party with no broadly uniting policy or ideology is already well-understood, and now that its reason for existence has vanished (removing the LDP), it is no surprise that it is violently thrashing around for coherence. From this point of view the fact that the party is split between old school socialists, social progressives, foreign policy hardliners, and experts in the cynical politics of patronage led by the likes of Ozawa, suggests that we can understand policy outcomes by reference to the machinations of various intra-party factions. And I in point this out I am not suggesting I don’t do it, to be sure.

The power of the factions however in the DPJ is only relevant when it comes to intra-party elections however. A problem this surely is, to be sure, due to the fact that the political situation has necessitated the need for so many of these tortuous exercises, but not necessarily the overall explanation for all outcomes related to the DPJ’s time in government.

The DPJ’s factions clearly play a role in these elections and in doling out the baubles of office by structuring election and candidate choices, and providing a ready made rhetorical frame for the public to understand the outcomes – and thus ultimately forces those outside of the various factions to go along with the prevailing politics of compromise in the short-term.

However, it does not necessarily apply to policy making, which is perhaps the major difference of the factions between the DPJ and the LDP, where in the LDP era policy conflict would be managed in order to mutually prolong the power of all of the respective power nexus. The TPP debate I feel showed this quite well – there was little factional coherence in terms of who came out for and against the TPP, or was lukewarm one way or another. Rather stakeholder interests, and election prospects and local considerations usually directed individual decisions. Furthermore, it is often forgotten however that there are well over 400 DPJ Diet members, and no where near enough factions to ‘contain’ all of them. As it was it took the LDP years, some would say decades to perfect its system of factional patronage and compromise.

In short, there is a large number of, often younger, DPJ Diet members who care not for factions, tolerate them to ensure they don’t unnecessarily make enemies, and whose personal political ambitions was initially forged upon the desire to actually be involved in reform of some kind, even if the exact contours of that reform were not ideologically and rigidly predetermined. They did not leave successful non-political careers where their talents were being put to productive use to waste time away in a do nothing parliament, and their support for Noda at the last party election was not simply a vote of confidence for party unity and/or simply for the consumption tax increase.

As has very much come to the fore in this latest round of tension, is that a consumption tax increase without either at least a symbolic cut in the number of Diet members (and therefore one assumes without reform of the electoral system of both the upper and lower houses), and preferably some kind of a start in administrative reform is a political disaster. Raising taxes without dealing with the oversized budget through actually cutting some of the shiwake programs, and/or dealing with other pressing drains on the governments fiscal health, like amakudari, would be simply unacceptable for these members if they had to go into a general election sometime soon under the DPJ banner. In this sense their thoughts would seem to be precisely in line with the publics’ general line of thought. Many politicians throughout the political spectrum still struggle to realize that the public’s lukewarm support in general for the consumption tax increase is intimately connected to some genuine political sacrifice being offered up, and then appear genuinely surprised when the public then comes out strongly against specific tax rise policies.

And thus many of the aforementioned DPJ members understood that Noda would push for the raising of the consumption tax and voted for him as the superior option over Kaieda Banri – if he would also take seriously the needed administrative reform, that incidentally Maehara Seiji discussed and recommended the party focus on in during the Noda era in his effective DPJ leadership  concession speech (well it was his appeal for votes but it more or less sounded like a concession speech).

Many of these aforementioned members have actually been deliberately been biding their time, knowing the current political situation is hopeless and not going to enhance their political ambitions or their policy agendas. Bold statements of symbolic value or on specific policies have not been in their self-interest, and ultimately in the interest of their policy aspirations. Many seemed resigned to venting their frustrations in private until the appropriate time.

However it seems that the restarting of the Yamba dam project, that was part a large symbolic part of the manifesto and seemingly a simple decision to make, and the pressure put on them to commit to a tax increase by the party leadership without making the necessary sacrifices, has really pushed the conflict to the core of the party.

There was already internal angst within the DPJ over the shiwake administrative review process. It yielded little by way of actual cuts to actual programs and more frustratingly, those programs that had been cut in this process arose in different ministries under different names. This was not lost within the party. A large number of DPJ members have become increasingly vocal at DPJ policy committees and combative towards what they see to be unresponsive bureaucratic advisers and party leadership, who appear to be ignoring their policy preferences and coming back to the committees with the same proposals with only cosmetic changes. It seems a lot of the rank and file of the DPJ which exist between the factional power nodes, have very little patience left.  It now appears obvious to them that Noda is not going to deliver.1

These members have been called “manifesto fundamentalists” by some, for example Watanabe Yoshimi, if they are not calling them Ozawa’s children. This view perpetuates the idea that Noda’s, or any PM’s deviation from the manifesto is the cause of intra-party tension. But this is not entirely accurate.  These members are realistic enough to understand that in a situation of political complexity stubborn devotion to a less than strategically coherent manifesto from a policy point of view was never going to be a winning strategy – and that the public would probably forgive some deviations if some other aspects of the manifesto, particularly the administrative ones, were executed.  But the Yamba Dam decision and the sacrifice-less tax increase proposal seems to have snuffed out any chance that these members, if they were to campaign as rank and file members of the DPJ at any future election,  would be able to appeal to the public’s sense of reasonableness. Now some will be asking, “what do we have left?”

So how is this different from previous intra-party eruptions? Aside from all fruitful avenues for burnishing one’s political and policy credentials being exhausted, I believe this time it is  unlike for example earlier this year when a group of strongly Ozawa affiliated DPJ members threatened to leave the party (sort of) around the time of the no-confidence vote against Kan. This eruption was easily understood – as the most loyal Ozawa-ites they were leverage for Ozawa in his battle with Kan at the time, and since all of them were elected on the PR system, and not particularly electorally attractive, (despite being described as “young politicians” when they were anything but) they had very little left to lose given that as Ozawa acolytes and PR Diet members they were doomed the moment Kan lost the Upper House election in 2010.

This time however the ones that are the cause of trouble for the Noda Cabinet were not solely elected through proportional representation. Saito Yasunori and Uchiyama Akira are leading this charge and are both representatives of their own constituencies. As I described of the pseudo-revolt earlier this year:

While they have at times, amusingly, been described as “young” by the Japanese press (若手 – only 3 of the 16 are under 45 ) they all are likely to suffer the most from an upcoming election under the DPJ banner, having not had even a local constituency to represent while trying to raise their personal profile in the last 2 years. A lot of the first-time candidates who were elected to local constituencies in 2009, under Ozawa’s direction took straight to using their new found status to raise their profile and have worked assiduously at a local level to consolidate their position, hardly touching 0n policy at all. These members in particular might find it most advantageous to distance themselves from the party at a later date – something they could well credibly do considering their lack of DPJ “institutionalization.”

For me, the movements of the likes of Ishizeki Takashi will be very instructive. Ishizeki recently came out in effective support of his Gunma counterpart (Nakajima Masaki), who perhaps initiated the recent round of defections (now reaching 9 members as I type – jp). Ishizeki said that he felt very much the same way about the party’s decision and wanting to break away. Ishizeki is young at 39 but has considerable political experience. A former government bureaucrat who graduated from Waseda and has spent time at the University of London,  he is very ambitious while at the same time has a strong belief in the need for reform in Japan in various forms. He is a ‘graduate’ of ‘Ozawa Juku’ and a part of the ‘Ozawa Group’ but has his own interests to look after as he was not elected on the PR block and represents Gunma constituency no.2. I would suggest that he, among many others dispersed throughout the party’s weak factional system,  is an appropriate weather vane of the mood of those I have described above within the DPJ. That he has echoed his displeasure but stayed within the party is suggestive. Noda et al will have to tread very carefully, which is exactly what he has done by putting off (ja) a decision on a specific percentage for the consumption tax increase, and a specific timetable for its implementation. But it may be close to all over for the party notwithstanding a miracle. It seems the issue is now really about the timing.

The rise of Osaka Mayor/self-appointed destroyer of vested interests in government (jp) Hashimoto Toru comes at a very interesting time for the DPJ members I have discussed in this post. Despite Kamei, Ozawa and other political opportunists’ nakedly transparent attempt to court Hashimoto, Hashimoto has kept his distance.2 And while I have all but given up on Watanabe Yoshimi and co. to contribute anything of value to the political process other than soundbites, there may be some chance for future cooperation. After all, there is almost no issue left for the government to address, even badly. That is, except for the growing unconstitutional affront to democracy that is the inter-regional vote disparity (一票の格差) that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reported (ja) had grown in overall numerical terms in both houses of parliament, and crucially included a big jump in the number of electoral districts in the House of Representatives that passed the constitutionally acceptable 2 to 1 ratio. Ultimately I believe it is unlikely that too many DPJ malcontents will want to leave the party before this little issue is resolved – as long as it is unresolved they likely won’t have to contest an election and not knowing the outcome of this reform won’t help the formulation of future electoral strategy – nor would diminishing one’s influence over the singular issue that is left that would affect one’s chances of re-election.

1 Their existence also explains why Kamei Shizuka’s sought after reform to Post Office Privatization has not proceeded, even though all of the main factions aside from perhaps Maehara’s would gladly play political football with this issue.

2 Interestingly last Sunday Hashimoto and Maehara were on television together and were at great pains to not agree too warmly with each other – Hashimoto not wanting to be too close to anyone in the current government, and Maehara not wanting to be too closely associated with the maverick least he have his position of responsibility as DPJ policy chief undermined, which had already been called into question by his public explosion on the Yamba Dam decision.

All on track for Hashimoto?

At 1pm today the voting participation rate in the Osaka City mayoral election was a full six percentage points up on the equivalent time in the last election, at 23.94% of eligible voters. (ja)

One would assume this bodes well for Hashimoto Toru and his plan to create a more streamlined and stronger “Osaka-to” region. If I was to hazard a guess it might be on the back of an increased youth vote as Hashimoto had very vigorous youth participation in his supporter groups. Polls close at 8pm. The youth participation rate was only 20% total in the previous election.

In other news Kamei turned out to be as deluded as expected. Not only did Hashimoto dismiss the idea without a second thought but Hiranuma Takeo, who Kamei assumed he could count on for his retro-conservative grand plan to create a third pole, humiliatingly dismissed the idea ridiculing Kamei as marching to his own tune. The smell of desperation is really stinking up Nagata-cho.

Update: At three pm the rate was 32%, an almost 9% point increase (ja)

Kamei Shizuka and the knife-edge of WTF?

Kamei Shizuka’s proposal to create a third “pole” in Japanese politics, as so many have tried over the last few years, should be praised – if he can gather enough of the fossilized political retro-conservative retreads into one party then that would be a valuable indication of who not to vote for in any future election. Meaning people could vote without fear of electing some throwback along with, er, ‘normal’ politicians. Now if we can only get someone like Matsumoto Ryu to form a party of retro-socialists we could be in business.

I have thank Watanabe Yoshimi for so quickly confirming (ja) that I hadn’t been misreading the local politics scene over the last year. Apparently in addition to Ishihara Shintaro, and Tachiagare Nippon’s Hiranuma Takeo, and a number of others, Kamei had his sights on recruiting possibly soon to be Osaka Mayor’s Hashimoto Toru. From what I understand Hashimoto does not exactly have liberal views on some issues, security ones in particular, but joining up with that lot smelled too much of “dumbest political move ever” for my liking. As Watanabe points out, Hashimoto’s confidence that Japan can and should openly compete in a globalized world kind rules him out as a retro-conservative.

The TPP and Japan’s Geopolitical Environment

Previously I have lamented that the discussion over the TPP in Japan was focused on slightly bizarre and narrow conceptions of the debate revolving around what the TPP will or will not do for the Japanese economy. In short, it seems unlikely to me that failing to join the TPP will either destroy Japanese agriculture, or save the Japanese economy and kick it magically into action, depending on which view you take. Simply put, the health of the Japanese agricultural sector, and Japan’s food security/self-sufficiency is already stagnant under the current system (and some argue that the current system has created such a mess). On the other hand joining the TPP is not going to make or break the ‘internationalization’ of Japan’s economy. This point deserves more attention.

Western companies may well lament the lack of access, as any self-interested actor would do, but in all cases things are not what they seem about the ‘closed’ Japanese economy. In addition to the US farm lobby coming out against the ‘closed’ Japanese agricultural sector (it’s true but it is more a case of the pot being introduced to the kettle), the US automobile industry also feigned an interest in the principles of free trade when it opposed Japanese entry into the TPP on the basis of the Japanese automobile sector being anti-competitive. Of course, the problem with that, as the Japanese car manufacturers indignantly pointed out, is that Japan does not have any tariffs on vehicle imports. And if you are worried about those nefarious non-tariff barriers to trade that one just knows the deceptive Japanese must be upholding, you would need to explain the strong and rising popularity of European cars in Japan, especially relative to the fate of the “Toyota” Cavalier.

On the broader level, natural disasters have actually demonstrated that the Japanese economy is not all that insular. The 3/11 disaster, which snuffed out a producer and intermediate-goods led comeback (where Japan is still the most crucial player, cf. consumer goods) created problems in global supply chains. The Thai floods also brought into sharp relief the fact that Japan has been very gradually to be sure, and some may argue very deliberately, been broadening its economy. The Japanese-led expansion of production networks in Asia, and now the mini-shopping spree Japanese companies are going on in the West due to the almost irrationally strong yen, is a much more consequential dynamic in the short to medium term than what are most likely to be efficiency adjustments that the TPP would likely bring.

That said, I believe it is hard to make any more specific judgement upon the TPP than what I have outlined without the Japanese government actually getting involved in the negotiations.

However since I wrote my original post over a month ago on the broader meaning of the TPP within Japan’s diplomatic world view (a more polished version appeared at the East Asia Forum here), there has been a gradual move of the discourse in Japan towards discussing these broader, more strategic issues. And in the last month the geopolitical environment has started to see some interesting developments as well, which will put Japan’s ultimate choice about joining the TPP in a longer-term context.

First there was the accusations from LDP President Tanigaki and Ishihara Nobuteru that a foreign policy that seeks to exclude China in some way from was inappropriate, or literally (ja) “tone-deaf.” This may sound somewhat opportunistic coming from the LDP, but on the other hand Tanigaki in particular is on reasonable ground here as he has always been less antagonistic toward China within the LDP. Koizumi Shinjiro then took a shot at his own party for putting their heads in the sand on the issue, which in itself is not unreasonable as a criticism, but then went on and suggested that the US should be the axis of both Japan’s economic and security policies. He accused (ja) the leadership of the LDP of pursuing a “Hatoyama-like” policy of East Asia regional integration. These kinds of discussions have been echoing throughout Nagata-cho and Kasumigaseki for the last month or so, and the discussions are certainly not confined to the LDP. Which is good.

While Koizumi the younger often has many insightful, sharp and witty things to say, I think he has misunderstood why the name “Hatoyama” has become a foreign policy epithet in Japan at least. And it demonstrates that the US remains the Koizumis’ Achilles’ heal in terms of foreign policy thinking.

The problem with Hatoyama’s thinking was that he suggested that in the short to medium term a clear choice needed to be made about aligning Japan comprehensively with one or the other sphere of influence in its broader foreign policy. While others quickly exaggerated his intensions, Hatoyama did come close to pushing the idea that Japan should align itself with East Asia more, both in economic and security and diplomatic terms, and away from the US.

If Koizumi’s statement was describing the overall debate about the TPP then I would have to agree – some of the “either/or thinking” is a bit reminiscent of Hatoyama’s binary rhetoric, imagined or otherwise.

But Hatoyama didn’t advocate a Japanese foreign policy that made Asia the major economic diplomatic focus, and the US/West as the security focus, which is probably where Tanigaki, and a fair amount of others in Japan, sit right now. As mentioned above, the Hatoyama policy supposedly looked to Asia as the comprehensive focus Japan (economically, culturally, diplomatically, militarily etc)- which is actually very close in logic to Koizumi’s own statement that the US should be the axis for Japan’s economic and diplomatic/security policy!

Another pervasive mistake, implicitly contained within Koizumi’s statement, is assuming that economically Japan can’t have its cake and eat it too. A problem with some of the more passive, multilateral conceptions of Japan’s security policy is that it can be difficult to play various sides of the coin coherently. And security policy requires coherence for it to be effective and for partnerships and responsibilities in times of conflict to be expressly understood. But in the economic, intercultural and diplomatic fields, a Janus-like foreign policy seems seems perfectly reasonable if you can get away with it- and often actually preferable.

In reality an economically integrated East Asia probably complements Japan’s security, including its security relationship with the US, better than an economically narrow ‘littoral-Pacific’ orientation, as suggested by the TPP. A number of reasonable people see stronger East Asian integration as something that would empower the US-Japan alliance in its accepted role of keeping stability in East Asia, and not undermine it. There is another school of thought that suggests, coming from the other direction, that Japan can only pursue a strong relationship with Asia on the back of a comprehensive partnership with the West and the US in particular. This is probably what Koizumi Jr. was really aiming for in his statement. However, this conception ignores the diplomatic sensibilities, and frankly the post-colonial antagonisms that still remain in East Asia, and also diminishes Japan’s own diplomatic capabilities, strengths and distinct advantages it has in Asia compared to Western countries (notwithstanding the obvious weaknesses as well). Despite protestations to the contrary there is no pressing reason for Japan, and other nations in East Asia, to align themselves strongly with the US on all dimensions of foreign policy, including the security and economic dimensions. If the price of having the US in the region while being able to pursue closer economic relations in East Asia, is more burden-sharing in the military dimension to offset US demands, then I am sure Japan and other East Asian nations would take that choice if it came to that.

The good news is that while the Noda administration has made a somewhat untidy political entry into discussions about negotiations on joining the TPP, Japan is moving ahead reasonably quickly with the “plus 3” negotiations (China, Japan, Korea) within the context of discussions on the TPP. At a trilateral summit in Bali the three countries agreed to push (ja) on to starting negotiations next year after a collaborative study group finishes its investigation on the key issues for getting agreement. Overall Japan-China relations seem to be going well and there is talk of strengthening the relationship by going deeper than just looking at a ‘mutually reassuring strategic relationship’ (戦略的互恵関係). Discussion on resource sharing in the East China Sea between the two countries has also restarted. Caution and skepticism is always the appropriate default for understanding Japan-China diplomatic relations, as so strongly emphasised by 2010’s events, however China-Japan relations did get off on the right foot after Noda’s inauguration (en), with both sides deserving credit. It may well be that the TPP, Japan’s interest in it, and Obama’s recent strategic victories in East Asia, may force the Chinese to play softer ball with Japan in the mean time. Developments working in Japan’s strategic favour in the short-term are Myanmar’s rather unexpected about-turn, the Darwin Marines announcement, the TPP and Japan’s interest in this, Japan’s overtures to ASEAN, and the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia in particular, India working closer with everyone but China, potential US military cooperation with Indonesia, and the boost all of this has given to intra-ASEAN relations. Possibly equally important is that on their own any one of these might have made the security environment quite tense, but the sudden and cascading nature of all of these developments seem to have created considerable diplomatic space for Japan to pursue its varied interests. It almost seems of late that Japan has had some diplomatic ‘presence’ which has not been a pervasive description of Japan’s foreign policy for some time. It is not often that a Japanese PM can talk all at the same time of ‘restraining’ China, involving Japan in multilateral negotiations over the South China Sea, while pushing forward on deepening relations between with China with little noise emanating from that direction (ja).

It is in this context the TPP becomes meaningful if talked about and pursued in the right way in the diplomatic context (that is to say, avoid conceptions like Nagashima’s or Koizumi’s). It may well be a way of allowing Japan to participate in what could be a valuable economic development, but it may also give Japan, when pursued in tandem with the potentially more lucrative “plus 3” deal, a bit more leverage in managing its security environment without fear of retribution from one party or another. Specifically, the TPP seems to have allowed Japan to avoid incurring US wrath on Futenma and/or on pursuing East Asia-centric economic regionalism. Irrespective of how the TPP turns out it provides whatever government is in power in Japan some short-term security – after all, one of the number one priorities for any Japanese Prime Minister in the current domestic political environment is to avoid the US, willfully or otherwise, bringing down a government due to said government’s foreign policy credentials being undermined by superficial appearances of strategic discord between the allies (see Hatoyama, Yukio). And while it seems that China might in the short-term be cowed by the strategic blunder that was 2010 and what now appears to have transpired from that, Japan not putting the boot in in the short-term may well be a significant diplomatic enabler later on down the track. Obviously global financial tensions and concerns about China’s own economic stability right now need to be given due consideration.

The Japanese interest in TPP has also seemingly given a bit of a spur to ASEAN plus 6 EPA negotiations, particularly as ASEAN, accustomed to being in the driving seat of regionalism, now faces a renewed “plus 3 threat” as well as the TPP challenge to its prized “multilateral” leadership.

Japan in the various arrangements - Asahi Shimbun 18 November 2011

However, the existing TPP group of 9’s “defensive” decision at APEC to forge ahead without Japan, Canada and Mexico, has made Japan’s accension much less attractive for Noda or the Japanese government in terms of what can be concretely gained from the TPP. The main attraction, perhaps more than the economic benefits, for Japan, was the ability to influence the making of norms and trade rules in what some see to be a pathfinder trade agreement to a broader Asia-Pacific one. The idea here seems to be that now with Japan potentially on board the TPP becomes worth its while, especially for the US. However by excluding Japan from the initial stages they can push the Japanese to accept whatever type of agreement is forged between the group of 9, without giving Japan the chance to raise objections or gain for itself exceptions, except in the drawing up of schedules phase. This is too clever by a long way however. The TPP is not necessarily that valuable to Japan economically, or that crucial to its ‘internationalization,’ that they would necessarily play along with any seriousness. Excluding Japan in this way just makes it all the more easier for Japan to play along for the next year or so and then say no when something not particularly tasty for the Japanese palate is put on the table.

This all assumes of course that things will go as smoothly as the plus 9 countries expect in terms of even negotiations with those countries, which, as belaboured previously, is an assumption one should not bet on. Nevertheless, Japan should enjoy, and perhaps just maybe even aggressively seek to take advantage of, the diplomatic opportunities on offer right now.

The latter of course, requires some domestic stability and consensus, and Noda’s diminishing political prospects as he tackles the thankless job of trying to unite the DPJ around a fiscal plan (including tax rises) for the near future, will be of concern.

Edit: Micheal T. Cucek has an uncanny habit of providing very useful and succinct summaries of my posts. This latest one  is so helpful it is worth providing it here as the effective conclusion to this post:

The key takeaway is that the TPP does not detract from Japan’s options as to strategic alignment but adds to them, forcing other actors within the East Asian drama to be cognizant of Japan’s more varied ecosystem of strategic choice.

And then there were 12

At risk of sounding like a broken record one of the under-appreciated aspects of the TPP is the fact it is a multilateral negotiation that sits somewhere between the seemingly hopeless WTO negotiations and the more familiar bilateral negotiation. That is, not a Japan-US bilateral despite domestic Japanese rhetoric suggesting otherwise. This insight is of great strategic importance both for the negotiators who will go into battle, but it should also be of great importance for the domestic debate, wishful as that might be.

In this sense today’s news (ja) that Canada and Mexico want to join the TPP should be viewed positively by the Noda administration. We now have 12 potential members: Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, and Brunei (the P4 ie the actual TPP), but also as the interested parties we have Vietnam, Peru, United States, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Malaysia. Not only does it raise the stakes of missing out for Japan, if the Noda government and its allies on this issue had more influence over the TPP narrative, it also brings on potential “allies” in the negotiation. Canada certainly is not going to compromise too much on its public medical system, and Canada also has a number of minor agricultural protectionist issues of its own. Mexico may be one of the “cheap produce” threats agriculturally speaking, but someone in Japan needs to aggressively attack the almost absurd idea that the price elasticity of Japanese produce is anything but extraordinarily inelastic, ESPECIALLY rice. In fact this could almost be argued by a creative negotiator as a non-tariff barrier to trade, along with the Japanese language.

This has two potential and interrelated strategic consequences. First if the domestic situation really does become too difficult the added complexity will likely slow down the negotiating process, giving breathing room to the Noda government, and time to mollify key stakeholders. This in turn will give the Japanese government more time to present a convincing strategy to reform the agricultural sector which is in its current incarnation a threat to itself and Japan’s long-term food security.

Secondly, should certain changes really be a bridge too far then Japan does have allies to lean on to make only the minimal necessary changes. This will be particularly important for negotiations over pharmaceutical procurement within Japan and others’ medical systems.

The general dilution of US “influence” should be of great rhetorical advantage in the domestic debate over the TPP for its proponents. I’m skeptical that the US influence would be all that bad if countries negotiated with a firm and clear understanding of their national interests in mind. But there is in Japan a sense that Japan’s bureaucrats will somehow relent under sustained US pressure in any negotiations, in addition to looking out for their own in domestic turf battles. However the enemy this time isn’t other Japanese but overseas interests.

In any respect I believe this worry, while not unreasonable given public disillusionment with the bureaucracy in Japan, confuses two quite different strands of the US-Japan diplomatic relationship, if we must really simplify the TPP down to this dynamic. On security issues and the alliance the MOFA may well from time to time be willing to relent on issues of national importance for the sake of diplomatic cordiality, ie Futenma. However those with long memories will remember that Japanese trade negotiators are a completely different breed – tactically aware and extraordinarily familiar with the details. As we all know Japan bureaucratic institutional memory is strong – sometimes to Japan’s detriment – but in this case the pool of knowledge from the 80s still remains and successors have been cultivated.

Nevertheless, bringing more countries into the TPP should be viewed positively, not negatively in terms of the political messages that can be leveraged from such developments. And ultimately if Japan does have to make an diplomatically undignified withdrawal as some are worrying (insincerely I believe), then it is all the more likely it will not be alone.

Ad-hoc reflections on the meaning of the TPP

The one thing I’ve noticed since arriving in Japan and having reflected on the TV coverage of the TPP discussions and debate, is quite how earnest, and I would argue, over-earnest the debate really is in Japan, notwithstanding the potential future impact on an over-represented voting bloc in Japan.

The fact of the matter is, no one really knows what the TPP is going to be and (from the point of view of the Japanese at least it would seem) its main sponsor, the US itself, may well be the biggest spanner in the works of any eventual TPP deal that even half way meets the expectations originally articulated in regards to this “high quality” trade and investment agreement.

The one thing we have to remember is that while the US is committed to a certain kind of a liberal trade order, it has a pretty chequered history in regards to its commitment to the liberal political and trade order in general. There are a number of nations involved (including the one from which this author comes) that are extremely sceptical about any deal eventually negotiated by any American administration, and given that the 60 vote necessity in the Senate now almost appears semi-constitutional, these nations will be even more sceptical going forward.

The additional problem that some countries will have is that they will in trying to meet US requirements potentially risk aggravating some of their own key political constituencies while possibly getting nothing much in return. In New Zealand for example any proposed changes to the government procurement systems in health, and IP laws (which will only advantage US companies – something which came up pretty quickly in the debate in NZ) which the US is pushing for through the TPP, will be looked upon quite suspiciously. In fact the very popular government in New Zealand was not willing to risk even a little bit of political capital on this and ruled out any fundamental changes to the Pharmac model due to TPP negotiations, without a single bit of discussion. If a popular government is unlikely to give the US what it wants, it is going to be a considerably harder road for other nations – including Australia and Japan, whose domestic political situations are much more precarious.

There is also some suspicion arising among some fellow TPP travellers in regards to the US’ primary motives toward accession to the TPP. The original P4 countries (which involved New Zealand and hence why a pesky little non-important country genuinely committed to free trade like NZ cannot be brushed away in the discussions) that are at the “core” of the TPP, and not a few of the 5 negotiating to join are somewhat concerned about just how eager the US became toward the TPP in 2010 in particular. In fact top Australian and New Zealand political figures concerned at some of the external rhetoric floating around the TPP in Washington have had to communicate to key figures supporting the TPP  in no uncertain terms that the moment they (NZ and Australia – and likely Malaysia and Singapore wouldn’t be far behind in echoing the sentiment) smell a China containment policy, they are gone from the negotiations.

After all Australia had to sign a FTA with the US which did not go anywhere near as far in liberalizing the US agricultural market as hoped by the Australians, and due to the same range of interests and stakeholders a NZ-US FTA has not been a realistic consideration. Perhaps these comments are unfair and that the Obama administration in particular is more genuine. But in terms of US commitment to trade liberalization when it doesn’t suit them – well I guess many of these nations will believe it when they see it.

That is not to say that the TPP is a dead duck or negotiations are of  no value. In the short-term it could do good things in terms of clarifying rules of origins, procedures for trade remedies, and may even be a useful mitigating dynamic pushing back against tendencies towards protectionism that some are predicting will arise in the next year or two. However on the trade front – the most important front for most of the nations involved – this is likely to take a very long time and it is unlikely any deal – at least one as high in quality as initially desired – will be wrapped up in the space of a few years (unless some kind of security or economic jolt makes it more diplomatically and politically feasible).

What does this mean for Japan? Well first of all Peter Ennis gives a run down on the current inter-personal and diplomatic dynamics between Tokyo and Washington that I have no additional insights to add to. Essentially he argues that Tokyo and Washington, surprise surprise, might well be on different pages in regards to the symbolic and diplomatic dimensions of Japan’s agreeing to start negotiations.

However from my point of view it seems the Noda government’s signalling about the meaning of the TPP is somewhat curious overall. In one, simplistic sense, Japan has little to lose from joining negotiations as it is unlikely to be the only one with baggage coming into the negotiations. It is just more up front and earnest about them. The time scales here are in the order that Japanese agriculture and the government would have ample time to respond to any changes. After all, in the Australia-US FTA the US implementation of the limited amount of agricultural liberalization was somewhat tardy. These sort of dynamics do not appear to have been communicated very well in the Japanese media. In a sense, Kan’s concept of a “third opening” was somewhat of an over-exaggeration to the degree that Kan seemed to be focused solely on the TPP which took on more symbolism than it perhaps deserved.  The TPP could  be very big. But there is a long way to go. I thus found it quite interesting watching one Japanese TV program where it remarked how the production of certain agricultural goods had in the space of 25 years (or so) reduced a number of times over since liberalization. An economy can change quite a lot in 25 years and for the most part, it probably should. I don’t doubt that trade liberalization had something to do with these reductions but little mention was made of the redistribution of capital and labour resources that likely happened in the interim period.

Secondly, there is the question of whether the TPP as important as some of the other developments in global finance and trade. It may or may not have escaped the attention of some that a certain neighbourly competitor (South Korea) has already signed an FTA with Europe, and bilateral agreements with the US and Australia appear to be just around the corner. For the record, South Korea is only somewhat interested in the TPP.

Or perhaps all of the talk around the TPP, as Ennis in more polite terms suggests, a good way to placate the US diplomatically in order to relieve pressure over the Futenma issue? It may also be a valuable way to draw domestic fire away from Japan’s other more interesting trade projects, namely the already signed agreement with India, continued and redoubled efforts with the EU and Australia, and the start of China and South Korea trade discussions.

Japan also fundamentally likely shares concerns about the TPP turning into not just an economic hedge against China but also a full on “anti-Chinese” project. In this sense, the US should be secure enough in its relationship with Japan, and understanding enough of Japan’s own national interests, and recognise that the pursuit of simultaneous trade agreements with key Asian neighbours is actually a very good idea for Japan in terms of how it effects its long-term ability to manage diplomatic, economic and security tensions in East Asia.