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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 17:29 06/23/2008
June 23, 2008

Regime Change in America: Implications for Japan

Jun OKUMURA (Eurasia Group)

This is a summary of Mr. Okumura's presentation at the June meeting of the Global Communication Platform seminar, which was held at GLOCOM Hall in Roppongi, Tokyo, on June 12, 2008.

It is safe to say that Japanese politicians, bureaucrats as well as businesspersons prefer Republicans over Democrats by a wide margin, as far as the U.S. administration is concerned. This is because from the Japanese viewpoint, Republican administrations tend to place the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty at the core of U.S. policy toward Asia and oppose protectionist tendencies based on their free trade convictions, while Democratic administrations raise fears of a China-oriented U.S. epitomized most recently by the "Japan passing" under the Clinton administration, as well as the broader threat of a renewed wave of trade friction. Thus, the Japanese leadership seems to have the impression that a Republican administration is more problematic for Japan than a Democratic one.

I would argue, however, that we should reexamine this long-standing impression and ask if that is really true, especially with regard to the two presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama. My conclusion is that, to the contrary, a McCain administration is likely to be more problematic for Japan and probably for the rest of the world as well than an Obama administration, given the current economic and political conditions in Asia and elsewhere.

First, McCain's approach to a "League of Democracies" is too exclusive and troublesome for Japan as it would exclude China in particular. While his inclusion of Japan by its most important ally under the criterion of sharing democratic values is very much appreciated, China is Japan's next door neighbor. Given Japan's ever-deepening economic and social ties with China, a forum covering the Asian region that explicitly excludes China is hardly an option for Japanese diplomacy. Obama appears to favor a more inclusive and less confrontational approach, which should cause less trouble from Japan's standpoint. A word of caution here—some of his foreign policy advisors are advocates of a "Concert of Democracies," leading to speculation that the two candidates may have more in common than supposed. However, Obama himself has not endorsed it.

Second, essentially the same thing can be said about the treatment of Russia. In fact, it is more Russia than China that seems to be in McCain's mind when he talks about the "League of Democracies," stemming from his apprehension about Russia's resurgence as an authoritarian nation with an abundance of increasingly scarce natural resources, which it wields as a diplomatic weapon against Western democracies. This approach would likely cause trouble for Japan, which seeks to develop a better relationship with Russia in the Asian context.

Third, with regard to the Middle East, a McCain administration will more likely prolong the war in Iraq. It is also likely to take a stronger position against the Iranian nuclear program. There is a high possibility that a crucial decision will be required in the first year of the next administration, as Iran will probably reach a critical point in its nuclear development. There, even a hint of imminent military conflict would certainly drive up the price of crude oil, which might well destabilize and depress the global economy, especially those countries like Japan that depend heavily on imported oil.

In any event, a McCain administration is ideologically more likely to take unilateral actions with less regard for their international implications and repercussions. Furthermore, Japan might well be asked to contribute more to the cause of democracy from the U.S. viewpoint. On the other hand, an Obama administration would likely be more inclusive and dialogue-oriented, more in line with international approaches adopted by the United Nations. Speaking of the UN, Obama favors a greater role for a number of major developing countries, which actually is better for Japan; Bush and McCain's nod to Japan alone actually serves as a veto for expanding permanent membership in the UN Security Council.

I have argued that a McCain administration is likely to be more problematic for Japan as well as the rest of the world than an Obama administration, but that does not mean that Japan should show support for Obama for the next U.S. president. All I am saying here is that at this stage it is not in Japan's best interest to indicate or suggest to the U.S. that Japan would prefer a Republican administration to a Democratic one, as parts of the Japanese political and business leadership are wont to do. We need to contact and interact with leaders and advisors of the both camps more actively and try to express our positions and objectives more clearly, while working together with the U.S. side to achieve our common goals, regardless of which candidate wins this time. That way, we will be able to handle more easily any problems which might arise between the two countries and contribute to better relations not only with the U.S. but also with our neighbors in the future.

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