Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why Not Help the South Korean Navy?

I’m usually far more interested in figuring out what the Japanese authorities are up to than in trying to tell them what to do. It’s better for business; besides, the authorities don’t listen to me. But I’m making an exception here. The online Asahi carries a February 22 report headlined South Korea Sounds Maritime Self-Defense Force on Refueling in Offshore Somalia; Japan Refuses(韓国、海自に給油を打診 ソマリア沖で 日本は拒否) telling us that the Japanese government rejected refueling Munmu the Great DDH-976 (the destroyer that the ROK Navy will be dispatching to escort South Korean ship in the Somali neighborhood) under the Japanese Counterterrorism Act—these are pirates, not terrorists, so that’s understandable. However, the Aso administration reportedly is also reluctant to include the necessary provisions for this in the legislative bill to upgrade authorization for the two JMSDF that will be dispatched next month under the current, more restrictive laws on the books, fearing potential trouble in the Diet.

If true, it looks like the Aso administration will be making a big, big mistake. On the domestic side, prospective counter-piracy activities enjoy the support of a healthy majority of the Japanese public—in contrast, the majority of the Japanese public consistently opposed sending troops to Iraq, while the public has always been divided over the counterterrorism refueling activities in the Indiana Ocean. With 2000-3000 ships of immediate Japanese interest passing through the dangerous waters each year and an actual seizure in recent headlines, this is a cause that will have the public and, just as important, the media behind it. This will put the DPJ on the spot: its collective instincts probably tell it to support helping the South Koreans. But it is constrained by the need to appease the “no troops” Socialists, whose votes the DPJ needs for an Upper House majority in the case of a Lower House victory in the next election. The Socialists in turn are likely to blackmail the DPJ on this issue to appease its own ever-more-narrow constituency on the diehard left-wing of the Japanese political spectrum. In other words, this is a chance to force the DPJ to make up its mind and take a difficult stand on a publicly popular issue. It’s a chance to make the DPJ look weak and waffling, a welcome, unusual switch for the LDP.

It would also be an excellent piece of diplomacy. It not only would be great payback for the Lee Myung-bak administration, which has moved much closer to the Japanese position on North Korea, but also a great show of solidarity between the two militaries that would help put local issues into proper perspective, first and foremost the Takeshima/Dok-to so that the South Korean public doesn’t go flying off the handle every time the Japanese authorities issue a reminder that there are conflicting claims over the islets, but also history issues so that the South Korean public won’t see every dislikable comment from a Japanese politician as a national affront. If this is the only thing that the two JMSDF destroyer squadrons achieve, I’d say it will be money well spent.

So I don’t see what they’re worried about. Maybe I’ve missed something.


Jan Moren said...

How would the assertive nationalists in the LDP - perhaps one of Aso's last bastions of support - take to a mission to refuel Korean warships? Aso doesn't exactly have supporters to waste anymore.

Jun Okumura said...

LDP nationalists will be the first to support such an arrangement. It’s not quite the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, but they’ll appreciate the hints of a possible new alliance with the Lee Myung-bak administration. The Japanese and South Korean left will likely feel differently, which is where the opportunity arises for the Aso administration to drive a wedge between the DPJ and its sometimes-ally Social Democrats. Or so I’m guessing.