Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Which Comes First, TPA or TPP?

The assumption always has been that the Obama administration needs the fast-track Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in order to secure conclusive concessions from the other parties in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) negotiations. Senator Baucus did table a TPA bill but promptly packed his bag for Beijing to take up the US ambassador’s office there, leaving no one of significance to push an already unpopular initiative back in Washington. Richard Katz reports as the latest round of ministerial negotiations get under way that the White House is now pushing the line that an acceptable TPP package is necessary to secure TPA—which was supposed to be the prerequisite to a conclusive TPP package. So what gives?

In fact, the alleged new White House line is not as absurd as it seems at first glance. There will surely be some senators, largely but not limited to Democrats, that will find themselves willing to let the negotiated TPA pass but unable to afford not to push an amendment or two on behalf of their respective favored lobbies and key constituencies. They could vote in favor of TPA, then cast a “principled” vote against the TPP in a losing cause. Yielding on a procedural supermajority so that the simple majority on the substance can come into play is a common feature of legislative action in the Senate, no? We most recently saw it with regard to Ted Cruz’s filibuster on lifting the debt ceiling. But try explaining all that to the other negotiating parties and their own sets of lobbies and constituencies and convincing them that it’ll actually work.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What If the Japanese Public Had Reacted Differently to the Koizumi Overtures to North Korea?

One of the great what-ifs of contemporary East Asian history is this: What if the Japanese public had reacted differently to the Koizumi overtures to North Korea? More specifically, what if the Japanese public’s response had been measured enough that the prime minister could negotiate for normalization of bilateral relations? He put a lot of political capital on that bet and managed to salvage some political dignity when he extracted the families of the surviving (according to North Korean claims) abductees with a tiny fraction of the cash that would have been forthcoming in the process of normalization.

Trolls in a forum that will go unnamed will argue that right-wingers killed any chances of following up on the North Korean admission when it insisted on keeping the families of the abductees in Japan. They will put the blame on Shinzo Abe, who as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary argued against returning them to North Korea. I wonder if these are the same right wingers who, after more than a decade of steadily worsening relations with China and South Korea managed to raise 12.4% of the vote for their candidate of choice Toshio Tamogami in a Tokyo gubernatorial race with a historically low turnout. In any case, the Japanese public drove the media response, not the other way around, though the calloused brains of those trolls will never allow them to admit. It is also to be remembered that the Socialist Party (JSP) and Asahi Shimbun, who would normally have been expected to be sympathetic to North Korea, could not speak up on this matter because of their earlier dismissive attitude towards the existence of abductees (and the possible implication of the JSP in the liquidation in one of them). If nothing else, there was an extremely high price to be paid politically if Koizumi had decided to send them back.

The most significant effect of all this was that it hobbled Japan in the Six Party Talks, where it became more of a nuisance to the other four, who were trying to negotiate a deal on the nuclear weapons—not that in hindsight it had been a realistic goal in the first place. But when and where hasn’t domestic politics dictated diplomacy? Was it Yogi Berra who said that that diplomacy is domestic politics by other means?

The Obama “State Visit” Revisited

Just to wrap up a thread that I’d opened here, it looks like President Obama will stay only one night in Tokyo but the two sides will work together to cram the trappings of a full state visit—audience with the emperor and a state banquet hosted by the prime minister—into the time available. That means that there will be no side trip to Hiroshima and/or Nagasaki, the scene of America’s crime against humanity—or does the end justify the means?—which would be awkward, except the Japanese side, including the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has always been a good sport about it.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida telegraphed some such an outcome during his Feb. 7 talks with Secretary of State John Kerry when he stated: “And concerning President Obama’s upcoming visit to Japan, we are inviting the President as state guest. But when the United States makes its decision, the Japanese side will cooperate so that we will be able to make sure that President Obama’s visit to Japan is a great success.” Which is when I lost interest in this small matter except to note that a) in diplomacy, there will usually be a way as long as you obey the law of physics, and b) Japan does not get as worked up about these rivalry issues as much as South Korea or even China does. That is beginning to change on history issues with the Abe administration in charge. But not on matters like this.

The video of the February 7 remarks—no questions from the media—after the meeting between Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kushida’s and US Secretary of State John Kerry got top billing on the State Department website. (The transcript can be found here.)

Now back to work.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Might-Have-Been of the Tokyo Gubernatorial

…some doodling for which I find no immediate practical use…

The pro-nuclear media is taking Yoichi Masuzoe’s landslide victory over antinuclear candidates Kenji Utsunomiya and Morihiro Hosokawa as an endorsement of nuclear power by Tokyo voters. Not necessarily. In fact, the election appears to have had the potential of being even more of a toss-up than I had guessed. A few things turning out differently for Hosokawa, and he could have been another example of a governor of a key prefecture using his bully pulpit to affect an issue on the national agenda*.

First, the voting outcome.

Yoichi Masuzoe:       2,112,979 votes
Kenji Utsunomiya:    982,594.767** votes
Morihiro Hosokawa: 956,063 votes
Toshio Tamogami:    610,865 votes
(The most any of the other 12 candidates received was 88,936 votes.)

(982,594.767 + 956,063) ÷ 2,112,979 = 0.91749977969

Is an eight-percentage point difference—a four-point swing—that unlikely in a Japanese election? Remember that most pundits believed that the 2003 “postal reform” election would end in a decisive defeat for the LDP at the time that Prime Minister Koizumi called it. And gubernatorial and mayoral elections in metropolitan areas are even more volatile***. And look at the negatives that Hosokawa carried (in descending order of importance): the disastrous non-launch of his campaign, the moment of truth when the media and voters define the candidate and his candidacy; the failure to dispel the lingering clouds of the circumstances around the 100 million yen loan and his 1994 decision to resign as prime minister instead of fully accounting for it; and his opposition to the highly popular 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Yes. Change a few conditions, and the outcome of the election could have been very different even if the public’s support or lack thereof for nuclear power had been the same. A single-issue candidate can prevail even in an election where that issue is seen as secondary, especially when there is little perception of distinction on other issues between candidates.

What would have been the effect on the national debate on nuclear power? More to the point, how would that have affected the return of nuclear power units to the regional grids, commissioning of the units under construction, and the construction of others planned and yet-to-be planned? There would be even less practical use to any answers to that question. For now, I’m satisfied to have reached the conclusion that Hosokawa’s campaign would have had realistic hopes of winning with a better candidate and a better-prepared campaign.

A few caveats and/or unknowns.

First, we do not know enough to confidently say that Utsunomiya would have abandoned his campaign under strong public pressure. I believe that if the Communist and Social Democratic Parties had threatened to abandon him for Hosokawa, he would have gone along instead of hanging on as a true fringe candidate. I’m assuming that his idealism is leavened by a strong streak of pragmatism nurtured through a successful career as a leading member of the bar. But you never know.

Second, some of the Utsunomiya votes would have gone to candidates other than Hosokawa. Some of the progressives would have voted to the fifth-place candidate, a youthful internet entrepreneur/social activist, some would go for Masuzoe, and some with a maverick mindset would cast their votes for the hard-right (and only firmly pro-nuclear) candidate Tamogami. With the same voters, the real swing required was probably larger than four percentage points.

Second, we do not know what the effect on voter turnout, at 46.15% the third lowest in Tokyo history, a more competitive two-man race would have been. I suspect that interest and therefore turnout would have been higher. Moreover, obviously less committed, abstainers are more likely to be the “floaters,” who produce wild swings, particularly in urban districts. They would at least have injected a significant measure of uncertainty to the outcome.

Third, the Hosokawa camp puts part of the blame on the Sochi Olympics and the record snowstorm on the day before the election for the low turnout. Too busy watching the Olympics to vote? Perhaps. But I am of two minds about the Hosokawa camp’s spin on the weather. The sky had cleared up well before the voting stations opened, but any snow remaining—enough snow remained on some side streets to pose an obstacle to pedestrians—would have deterred some people from every voting bloc except Sokagakkai, which went overwhelmingly for the Komeito’s candidate of choice Masuzoe. Another point of note is that the elderly, presumably more inclined to support the conservative candidate, particularly someone like Masuzoe, who has a reputation as a social welfare expert and on a more personal level someone who cared for his aging mother, are more likely to be cautious in venturing out in the face of unfavorable weather or its aftereffects. All things considered, there is no way of gauging the impact of the voters who stayed home because of the effects of the weather the day before without detailed statistics.

Fourth, Masuzoe was lucky that this was Japan, not the United States. Masuzoe has some serious issues from his personal history—charges of domestic violence from his first wife, who now happens to be an LDP Diet member, and allegations of insufficient financial support for one of two children of his sired out of wedlock—that would have doomed him under American media rules, which consider such matters fair game as revelation of the candidate’s character. The tabloids are willing to venture into such territory, but the mainstream media ignores those stories unless they are relevant to policy issues or involve misuse of public office****.

Fifth, an argument could be made that Tamogami could have been convinced to give up his candidacy in favor of Masuzoe if Utsunomiya had thrown his support to Hosokawa. Possible, but unlikely. Masuzoe hedged his bets by saying that he wanted to minimize reliance on nuclear power. That surely did not go down well with Tamogami. More importantly, Tamogami would have been loath to support a pragmatist who, as drafter of the LDP proposal for a new constitution, eschewed most of the nationalist trappings that are so dear to nationalist conservatives. Tamogami may voice thoughts that many LDP politicians hold dear but are afraid to articulate, but Masuzoe does not appear to be one of them. Tamogami would have put the support from his constituency in jeopardy if he had held his nose and supported Masuzoe. A movement figure who is not angling for a political appointment cannot afford that.

*Case in point: Toru Hashimoto, whose domination over the Osaka electorate as Osaka governor and later as mayor of the city of Osaka, took the city to the brinks of dismemberment in line with his vision for an Osaka renaissance. Prospects for that outcome turned south, though, when he tried to take his local movement to center ring. Progressives also had some success in the 1960s and 70s in leveraging their prefectural and municipal footholds to influence the national agenda.
** The fraction .767 is the sum of Utsunomiya’s prorated share of the votes cast simply for “Kenji,” the given name he shared with another candidate.
*** Case in point: Yukio Aoshima, who entered the Tokyo governor’s race in 1995 with the promise to cancel the World City Expo Tokyo ’96 less than a year before it was scheduled to be held, and left Japan during the campaign period, only to return to realize that he had won. Ironically, his lackluster regime was seen as generally under the control of the bureaucracy.

**** For example, a governor can sleep around all he (or she) likes when off-duty, but must not use public property in doing so. Do not use the official car in tending to an assignation. And the governor’s mansion is off-limits for sex with anyone other than one’s spouse. 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

So Which Is It Going to Be, The Kaiserreich, or the Third Reich?

While attending the annual Davos meeting, Prime Minister Abe caught some flak when he responded to a question about the possibility of military conflict between Japan and China when he raised the example of Great Britain and Germany as two nations that went to war with each other despite strong economic ties. He talked about it as an outcome that must be avoided, not to suggest that a similar outcome was possible*, but it was nevertheless, as most reasonable people would agree, an inappropriate example to raise as the sitting prime minister of one of the parties to the greater dispute. But the Philippines’ President Aquino more recently made a more specific reference to Nazi Germany and Hitler in an interview with the NYT.

Now really? Not really. But they do reflect the fact that the Chinese navy and maritime authorities are increasingly better-armed, increasingly aggressive, and have not pulled back on any of the moves that it has made in the disputed areas or on the undisputed open seas, and has refused the Philippines’ offer to settle their dispute in the UN tribunal.

* One journalist did use the incident to suggest more nefarious intentions. Specifically:

Title: “Abe Finds Jarring Parallel for China-Japan”
Lead: “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered an ominous history lesson to crowds at the World Economic Forum in Davos Thursday.
End: “Mr. Abe said last year that historical interpretation should be left up to academics when he found himself in hot water after questioning the definition of the term “invasion” pertaining to Japan’s wartime aggression on the Asian continent. It seems the history buff prime minister is having a hard time taking his own advice.”
From this account, it’s hard to escape the impression that Prime Minister Abe is issuing a veiled threat, a threat of war. But this narrative omits the reason why he made the analogy(in my opinion inappropriately, though surely for different reasons than the journalist wants to suggest), according to FT (A more complete version of the exchanges can be found here):
Naturally enough, Mr. Abe also made it clear that he would regard any “inadvertent” conflict as a disaster – and he repeated his call for the opening of a military-to-military communication channel between China and Japan.

In other words, Abe raised the matter as something that he wanted to avoid, a point that the journalist’s article conspicuously ignores.

Tokyo Gubernatorial Election: A Pre-Postmortem

Between Yoichi Masuzoe’s victory as the foregone conclusion and the treacherous roads from yesterday’s snow, I am not going to cast a vote in today’s election for the governor’s office in Tokyo. Instead, I am offering a brief explanation of where I got wrong-footed with my idea that Morihiro Hosokawa, the former prime minister, had a fighting chance.

It became pretty clear only a couple of days, if that, after he threw his hat into the ring that Hosokawa was going to lose. His best, perhaps only, chance, lay in generating sympathetic and to the extent possible positive media coverage at the onset and sustaining it through the early stages of the campaign so that irresistible pressure would build up for the other substantive antinuclear candidate, Kanji Utsunomiya, to fold camp and throw his support behind him. Instead, he postponed his official announcement while he hastily cobbled together a platform that would go beyond his antinuclear message and backtrack on earlier comments reported in a book advocating the rejection of the vastly popular 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This made him come came across as indecisive and unprepared, an impression that was reinforced when he refused to take part in the customary debates featuring the main candidates. Yoichi Masuzoe, the favorite receiving the support of the LDP and Komeito, claiming that a debate without his purported main rival would be meaningless, also pulled out, causing the debates to be canceled, but Hosokawa deservedly took the blame for the turn of events that robbed the public of the opportunity to hear out the candidates and, most importantly to Hosokawa’s campaign, alienated the reporters covering the election. Hosokawa finally made it to the starting line five days behind schedule, but he’d lost most of his momentum by then. And the nuclear power industry and the Abe administration must have breathed a sigh of relief. And the DPJ, which had offered its support to Hosokawa, found that the pig in the poke that it had bought had for all practical purposes turned toes up.

Hosokawa was stunningly ill-prepared for his run, which in hindsight may have been more or less to be expected from a 76 year-old who had retired from politics when he turned 60 and largely spent his time since then making pottery with his own kiln. However, it is also instructive that it was also reminiscent of his 1994 announcement as prime minister that he would seek a consumption tax hike from 3% at the time to 7% with the proceeds to be spent for “national welfare” purposes. The problem was that he had essentially taken an idea from the Ministry of Finance and made it public with little concern over the possible response from the general public or the coalition parties supporting. Facing widespread opposition, he took his proposal off the table in a couple of days, but the damage was done.

This casual approach to policy issues reminds me of Yukio Hatoyama and to a lesser extent his brother Kunio Hatoyama, two other men born to privilege whose casual attitude towards the politician’s word and its consequences stands out. There is no reason to believe that a noble upbringing breeds irresponsibility. But it is difficult to imagine people with such obvious flaws having the kind of political careers that the three have enjoyed without their family backgrounds.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Off-the-Cuff: Some Thoughts around President Obama’s April Visit

The following are some of my thoughts around President Obama’s April visit to Japan, specifically regarding the new South Korean bid for its own Obama visit. I was quoted here, and I decided that I’d get my full views out there.

According to news reports, wedging the Blue House into the crowded presidential itinerary—Obama is visiting Malaysia and the Philippines—would like end up shortening the Tokyo leg with the result that the Japanese government will not be able to offer Obama the full state visit package, emperor, banquet and all. Stretching the itinerary is unlikely to be an option, given the intense domestic focus of the embattled White House.

You know what this reminds me of? South Korea swooping in with what seemed at the time like a hastily prepared bid and grabbing a half-share in the 1998 World Cup. And the bilateral relationship is much worse now.

I suspect that at the end of the day, Prime Minister Abe will have to just grin and bear it. It’s Obama’s decision to make and he does not want to disappoint either side, but President Park Geun-hye has significantly more to lose politically.

But that doesn’t mean that Abe has to like that. In fact, he and his advisors, and relevant cabinet and sub-cabinet members will resent it mightily. It will make him that much less fond of the Obama administration and more broadly the Democrats and inclined to long for what the LDP has traditionally seen as a more Japan-friendly Republican administration. It is likely to make him less inclined, if only slightly so, to be mindful of US desires when he is motivated to march to his own drum.