Sunday, August 19, 2007

Body Count and Other Matters in the Defense Ministry Civil War

The preliminary body count is in on the civil war in the Ministry of Defense. Takemasa Moriya, the vice minister, is on the outs, and will be succeeded by Kouhei Masuda (class of 75). Such being the case, it is obvious that MOD Minister Koike Yuriko's first choice, Tetsuya Nishikawa (72), and Shinjirou Yamazaki (74), the vice minister's counterproposal have to go; likewise the two other bureau and agency heads who have seniority over the vice minister-select. They are the collateral damage. But what is the outcome of the war? And the implications for the geopolitical landscape, as it were?

The Abe administration had hoped to clean house and go into the September Diet session with a new team of party leaders and Cabinet members. Yet they allowed a personnel decision to get out of hand and reinforce the image of a pleasant but detached, behind-the-curve prime minister. It is by no means fatal, but certainly narrows the margin of error for the ruling coalition.

Even as it achieved full ministry status in January with the bipartisan blessing of the DPJ, the Ministry of Defense had been plagued with public procurement scandals and repeated information leaks. Particularly in view of the security breaches, it was not reassuring to know that the minister and her deputy had been contacting each other by way of cell phones. That, more than the unseemly sight of an openly rebellious bureaucracy, showed that MOD was not yet quite ready for prime time.

As for the Defense Minister herself, her chances of remaining beyond the August 27 makeover remain strong. As a very recent Cabinet appointee (July 4) Ms. Koike would have been the one obvious holdover candidate in the first place. Although her handling of events showed weaknesses in her executive tool kit and the media and some LDP members has taken her to task for that, it is difficult for the public to understand why a minister cannot hire and fire her own administrative deputies against the wishes of the bureaucracy. With public sentiment already running against the bureaucracy, I do not think the Abe administration wants to put itself in the position of punishing Ms. Koike.

Then, there are the real issues.

There are two major security issues that require attention. One is the realignment of US forces in Japan (and the Pacific) and, most importantly, easing the burden on Okinawa; the other is the overseas projection of Japanese military potential.

According to media reports from both ends of the political spectrum, Okinawa warmed to Ms. Koike during her tenure in the Koizumi Cabinet as she took on the Okinawa/Hokkaido (it's a long story) portfolio while continuing to serve as Environment Minister. Perhaps it was little more than political theater, like the kariyushi wear that she highlighted as part of the Cool Biz energy conservation campaign for the Koizumi administration. But then, so much of the politics of Okinawa is theater high and low. In any case, she most recently showed that her Okinawa ties were in good order when Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, mayor of Nago, showed up "unexpectedly" at a kariyushi promotion event in Okinawa on Thursday featuring Ms. Koike and supported her dismissal of Mr. Moriya (who is not a popular figure in Okinawa). Japan and the US agreed in 1996 to relocate the massive Futenma US air base to Nago on Henoko Bay within seven years maximum. But little could be done until the newly-elected Mayor Shimabukuro agreed in April 2006 to accept the transfer, and difficult negotiations still lie ahead in order to finalize plans, let alone begin construction. Thus, Mr. Shimabukuro's continued support is crucial if the long-delayed realignment is to go ahead. And any progress that has the blessing of the local authorities will work in favor of the Abe administration, even if actual construction could only begin some time in the future. This clearly works in favor of Ms. Koike's continuation as Defense Minister.

The extension of the overseas role of the Self-Defense Forces is a different matter. For practical purposes, this issue currently has two components: providing air transport in and out of Iraq; and refueling allied ships on the Indian Ocean for operations in Afghanistan. Each has its own renewable legislation, and the counter-terrorism act that gives authorization for Afghanistan expires on November 1. The problem for Ms. Koike is that she and Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ chief, have a past. Early in her well-traveled career, she was an Ozawa protégé. However, she declined to leave the coalition government when Mr. Ozawa led his then Liberal Party back into the opposition in 2000, and instead remained as part of the rump Conservative Party that eventually was folded into the LDP. Most recently, she criticized Mr. Ozawa's adamant opposition to the renewal of the counter-terrorism act. This was very much a performance in character for the feisty Defense Minister. Retaining Ms. Koike certainly is not an auspicious turn of events for compromise; the kind of compromise that the coalition government needs to reach in order to secure an extension by Nov. 1.

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