by Phillip Charlier
Japan and the East Asian region face a new era with the election of The Democratic Party of Japan. The ousted Liberal Democratic Party had held the reins of the nation since 1955, dominating the political landscape and being closely identified with Japan’s post-war economic development and foreign policy.
Domestically, Japan will now see important changes in economic and social policies, with an increase in welfare and domestic spending, tax reform and some decentralisation of power to regional governments. But it is the foreign policy front that will be of most interest to Japan’s partners and neighbors in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.
It’s almost certain that the new government will re-evaluate Japan’s ties to the US, review the US bases in Okinawa, and explore the possibility of greater regional alliances. Experts are in the ‘wait and see’ stage at the moment. Viewpoints will clarify after the cabinet is chosen and the ultimate direction of long-term trends will be affected by the upper house elections next July. Still, there’s definitely a whiff of change in the air and it’s a rare feeling in a political culture characterised by continuity and consensus politics.
The Democratic Party is a center-left coalition which includes socialists adamantly opposed to the US alliance that has formed the basis of Japan’s foreign policy and defence policy since Japan’s defeat in 1945 and the writing of it’s post-war constitution. Socialist members will be pushing the new government to scale-down the US military presence in Japan and make the alliance more equal. At the same time, part of the 2009 platform is the desire to seek a strengthening of ties with partners in Asia, especially South Korea and China.
South Korean pundits predict the new government in Japan may ease the process of North Korean de-nuclearisation. The LDP was the most hard-line partner in the ‘six-party’ negotiations while the DP is believed to be ‘more accommodating.’
In the international media, the reaction to the DP victory has been cautiously optimistic. Nobody expects any radical change and it’s generally acknowledged that the new government’s mandate is weakened by the fact that they won, not by their own appeal to the electorate but because of the dissatisfaction with the LDP.
An editorial in the China Daily, however, called for a clarification of Japan’s position on the question of Taiwan: “With relations across the Taiwan Straits improving, the new Japanese administration should clarify that Taiwan is not included in its sphere of ‘surrounding areas’.”
Ruling party lawmakers in Taiwan have conceded that changes in Japan’s relationship with the US and China could have an impact on Taiwan.