Even before the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power, the defeated Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its American allies started running a media campaign in both countries describing the new administration as "anti-capitalist" and "anti-American."
Critics cited an essay by new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in which he criticized "U.S.-led market fundamentalism" and spoke of a world in which the United States struggles to retain its dominance as China strives to become a global power. Mourning the loss of a half-century of LDP rule, these doomsayers accused Hatoyama of wanting to dump free market economics, shift Japan's international economic center of gravity from the West to Asia, and adopt a security stance "equidistant" between the United States and China.
This characterization is as accurate as labeling U.S. President Barack Obama a socialist. Hatoyama is hardly unique in blaming excessive deregulation for the economic crisis. Far from wanting to disengage from the United States, the DPJ has endorsed a bilateral free trade agreement -- something the LDP never dared. And DPJ leaders are not naive advocates of abandoning the United States only to be left to the mercies of an ascendant China. Rather, the DPJ wants a paradigm shift in Japanese foreign policy, one which makes it a more equal partner to the United States and puts greater emphasis on Japan's ties to the rest of Asia, particularly China and South Korea.
Let's call it the New Asianism. This ideology was on full display this weekend at a Beijing summit for leaders from China, South Korea, and Japan. It was only the second time this group of three has met. And the meeting was far more substantive than in the past, covering everything from coordinating on North Korea and economic stimulus policy to taking initial steps toward the formation of an "East Asian Community," modeled on the European Union.
The New Asianism pushes back against, but does not entirely reject, Japan's prioritization of its alliance with the United States. Too often, the DPJ thinks, conservative governments lined up with Washington even when they believed its policies to be misguided. For instance, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dispatched troops to Iraq and refueled U.S. vessels in the Indian Ocean not out of support for U.S. policy, but to ensure the United States' favor in case tensions arose with China or North Korea.
When it comes to a rising China, the DPJ rejects containment, advocated by neoconservatives in both Tokyo and Washington, as doomed to failure. Given the United States and China's increasing economic interdependence and overlapping strategic interests, Washington will never form an anti-Beijing front, DPJ thinkers say. Nor can Tokyo rely solely on the U.S.-Japan security alliance to counter any Chinese bid for regional hegemony. On the contrary, the greater fear in Tokyo is that the United States will abandon Japan by forming a U.S.-China "Group of Two," relegating Japan to second-level status in the region. In the DPJ's view, Japan needs to draw China into broader regional engagement instead.
This paradigm shift -- articulated by Hatoyama and other DPJ heavyweights, in the Japanese press and in interviews with the authors -- has three broad elements.
First, as Hatoyama told Obama in September, the U.S.-Japan alliance will remain "the cornerstone" of Japanese foreign policy. It makes no sense for Tokyo to distance itself from Washington on security or economic grounds, even if a few Japanese wonks entertain such fantasies.
Realistically, Japan and the United States will need each other to counterbalance China, encouraging it to become a responsible world power in terms of trade, the environment, and other issues. Plus, it would be impossible for Japan to cope with a nuclear North Korea without a strong alliance with United States (and China). Some difficult bilateral security issues -- such as the long-standing problem of U.S. military bases on Okinawa -- remain. But DPJ leaders, stronger negotiators than their LDP counterparts, are seeking compromise on this issue and others ahead of Obama's November visit to Japan.
This realism has deep roots. For instance, Hatoyama and other DPJ party leaders supported expanding Japan's security role within the framework of a strong U.S. alliance from the days when they were still members of the LDP. In 1992, they spearheaded Japanese participation in overseas peacekeeping operations. Earlier this decade, they backed a dispatch of Japanese naval forces to the Indian Ocean in response to the September 11 attacks. And this week, an envoy from Tokyo visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, a clear sign that Tokyo will continue to provide assistance on that front (though via economic, not military, aid).