Six months after "Japan's Dual Hedge" appeared in Foreign Affairs, Japan's international behavior remains conservative and pragmatic--at considerable cost to its ability to influence the course of global affairs. The twin crises in Iraq and North Korea highlight the degree to which its "dual hedge" makes it difficult for Tokyo to play a leadership role.

Of the two crises, North Korea is by far Tokyo's bigger concern; yet, calculations on Korea have driven Japan's decisions on Iraq. In both cases, Tokyo's priority is to avoid any action that might lead to a break with Washington without putting it conspicuously out of line with other states with which Japan would like to do business.

To avoid abandonment, the Japanese government is convinced it must show some support for the U.S. position on Iraq. But the government is divided on how much support is necessary. On February 18, Japan's ambassador to the United Nations, Haraguchi Koichi, delivered a speech in which he said there were "serious doubts about the effectiveness of continuing inspections." He appeared to throw Japan's weight foursquare behind the United States. The next day, however, Kyuma Fumio, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party's Policy Affairs Research Council and former head of the Japan Defense Agency, said that Japan should show "understanding" for the U.S. position, rather than "support" for it. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro added, "There is a misunderstanding," explaining that the Japanese statement backed a second resolution, not necessarily an immediate U.S.-led attack.

Japan's apparent tilt toward the United States, guarded though it was, led to a blast from Baghdad, which labeled Japan, "Iraq's third greatest enemy." Japanese diplomats have, however, worked to contain any damage to its larger regional position. New multi-billion dollar gas and oil related deals have been signed with Iran over the last six months, including one in December. A project to develop gas-to-liquid capabilities was finalized in February. As in the Afghan case, Japanese diplomats have traveled to Iran and assured Teheran Tokyo will provide assistance with refugees in the event of a war in Iraq. This diplomacy has secured a reliable supplier of oil for Japan in the uncertain months ahead. (In January, oil imports from Iran climbed 60 percent over a year earlier, while oil imports overall grew by only 14 percent.)

North Korea represents a unique problem for Japan. Japan has no economic interests in North Korea, the DPRK's military threat is direct and unambiguous, the United States expects considerable assistance in the event of a crisis, and Pyongyang's isolation means that only the most hard-line position is likely to affect Tokyo's other regional relationships.

Japan stepped out ahead of the United States when Koizumi unexpectedly visited Pyongyang in September 2002 and raised the possibility of $10 billion in additional aid after normalization of relations. Having leaned this far forward, Japan's North Korea policy was thrown into confusion after U.S.-DPRK talks ended acrimoniously in October. In November, Japan reportedly opposed U.S. moves to cut off heavy fuel oil shipments, though it ultimately acceded to the move.

Subsequently, Tokyo fell more closely in step with U.S. policy, though it has continued to hedge. Some Japanese officials have indicated relatively greater willingness to impose economic sanctions on the North than their counterparts in Beijing or Seoul. But in response to leaks from the Bush administration about sanctions planning underway in Washington, both Koizumi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda Yasuo denied that Japan had any plans to impose sanctions or that they were discussing the matter with American officials. If Tokyo does impose sanctions, they will almost certainly be limited to remittances rather than trade and will probably require a U.N. Security Council resolution to implement.

Japan's military posture has also been cautious. It has allowed the United States to stage additional reconnaissance assets out of Japanese bases. But bold statements about its own military measures appear to have been statements of legal principle, rather than policy. At that time, Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru reserved Japan's right to preemptively attack North Korean missile sites where preparations for launch are detected. But at the same time, the government issued an emergency countermeasures plan stipulating only that if a DPRK missile lands on Japanese territory, Japan would hold a Cabinet meeting, inspect the damage, consult the United States, and denounce North Korea. And in early March, Ishiba clarified his earlier statement by saying that despite Japan's legal right to self-defense, Japan would not use its own forces against the North, but would rely on U.S. forces to strike back in the event of hostilities.

Ishiba has expressed renewed interest in missile defense, but in a sign of Tokyo's sensitivity to relations with trading partners (in this case China), there is no sign that Japan will move beyond research to development or testing. And Tokyo has not wavered in its view that even if it moved towards development, it cannot participate in any larger, integrated missile defense network that could destroy Chinese missiles in boost or mid-flight phases. Ishiba's bold comments about preemption and missile defense aside, the main thrust of Japan's response to the North Korean crisis is consistent with its response in other postwar crises in Asia: moral and logistical support for U.S. action in areas close to Japan without estranging other key partners--in this case China, South Korea, and Russia--with whom it has expanding economic interests.

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  • Eric Heginbotham is Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard J. Samuels is Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A more detailed version of this essay will appear in the forthcoming Strategic Asia 2002-03: Asian Aftershocks.
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