Sunday, February 17, 2008

Japan Consistently Bucks US on the Palestinian Question. Will It Distance Itself Elsewhere in the Middle East and Beyond?

The Jewish Virtual Library provides a list of US vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel between 1972-2006. According to this list, the US has always been alone in casting vetoes*. Although from time to time, other UNSC members have abstained, Japan, in all but one case, voted for the resolutions. Japan has been an elected UNSC member in 71- 72, 75-76, 81-82, 87-88, 92-93, 97-98 and 2005-06. In1983-present, the years for which the list gives the names of the abstaining members for each resolution, the US did receive some support of sorts between 1984-88 and 2001-2006, when an assortment of mainly Western European nations** would abstain when the US exercised its veto. However, Japan abstained only once, in 2006, on a draft resolution calling for Israel to halt its Gaza operations, where it joined three other abstaining UNSC members***.

Much of this Japanese accommodation of the Arab position on the Palestinian Question is surely attributable to its heavy reliance on Middle East oil. But there is also our history, or lack of it to consider. Japan’s involvement in the politics of the Middle East is quite recent, since its imperialist ambitions never extended to the Middle East. In fact, as the enemy of Russia and later the West European empires, Japan appears to have enjoyed a favorable, if somewhat vaguely informed, reputation with the Moslem nations in the Middle East. True, imperial Japan was one of the four powers in the 1920 San Remo Conference that, among other things, gave the UK the Mandate for Palestine and reaffirmed the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which stated that the UK government viewed “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and that it would “use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object”. In any case, post-WW II Japan was obviously not in a position to take a stand in the 1947 UN partition of Palestine. Shielded by the Yoshida Doctrine and the Peace Constitution, Japan has been at most a passive actor in the geopolitics of the region.

So far, the Japanese stand on the Palestinian Question has had little by way of consequences. Domestically, the issue rarely registers on the political scene. The US has never made an issue of it as far as I am aware, and neither has Israel, with which Japan also has a sound, if somewhat distant, relationship. More importantly, this particular US-Japan rift has never spread to other issues in the Middle East. Most recently, Japan has docilely followed the US lead there in putting boots and boats in Iraq and Afghanistan and, far more painful with regard to national security, forfeited most of its exploration rights to the Azadegan oil fields in Iran in keeping with the wishes of the US.

We have already seen the DPJ intransigence on the Japanese presence on the Iraqi and terrorism fronts. DPJ leaders have also been taking a hard line on the US military presence on Japanese territory. This maneuvering is in part the consequence of the political game being played between the DPJ and the LDP-New Kōmeitō coalition. As such, it faces dissent within the DPJ itself. But even mere political posturing can interact with the underlying situation to create a momentum of its own, and national security should be no exception. I suspect that the broader debate will become a feature of the Japanese political scene sooner rather than later. In a thoroughgoing review of Japan’s national security, the Middle East would surely come right after the near abroad.

The dissonance within the DPJ (and to a lesser extent the LDP as well, if you listen carefully) with regard to national security is but one of the many fault lines within the two major parties (and between the LDP and New Kōmeitō. Other contentious examples are: the history issues, imperial succession, gasoline taxes (and road-related expenditures) and human rights protection legislation. These and other contradictions, to resuscitate stock Marxist terminology, have led many observers and some participants themselves to expect/hope for a major realignment of the political parties along ideologically more coherent lines. I have been moving away from that line of thinking. The fault lines are too many to allow political actors to coalesce around two to three distinct groups sharing an across-the-board policy manifest without serious reserves. Instead, I think that some relaxation of the party-line voting will become visible along the line as the Diet works its way through possibly two more Upper House elections before the Upper House/Lower House split is resolved****.

* I assume that no other UNSC permanent member has cast a veto during this period.

** The return of UK abstention precedes 9.11 and coincides with Tony Blair’s appointment as Prime Minister.

*** It replaced Peru, which was the fourth abstaining member in an earlier draft resolution.

**** I think that it is telling that Naoto Kan only demanded that the proportional-district Diet members give up their seats if they were going to vote in favor of the extension of the gasoline tax surcharge.

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