Global Policy Forum

Japan Voters Could Deal US a Blow in Iraq


By Paul Eckert

August 16, 2005

Japan's election next month could end up costing the United States another ally in Iraq, a symbolic blow to Washington even if Tokyo's overall pro-U.S. foreign policy doesn't change, experts said on Tuesday. Both Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party support the decades-old U.S.-Japan security alliance, and the Sept. 11 vote is being fought largely over Koizumi's financial reform agenda.

Koizumi has forged close ties with U.S President George W. Bush, bucking opposition to provide logistics support for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and to send 550 Japanese troops to Iraq in Tokyo's first significant overseas deployment since 1945.

The Democratic Party's policy platform includes pledges to withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq by December -- following other countries like Spain, Poland, Ukraine and Italy. "If the Democrats should win, it would be a pain for the United States because we'll probably see yet another ally on the long list of those who have pulled out," said Thomas Berger, a Japan expert at Boston University. Barred by law from a combat role, Japan's troops are doing reconstruction work in Samawa in southern Iraq and have suffered no casualties. Koizumi has not said whether he would extend the mission beyond its mid-December expiration. While Bush would probably be disappointed at a Japanese withdrawal, "in terms of material effect on Iraq, it doesn't make much difference," said William Breer, Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Very Good Sync"

But Breer said the unpopular U.S. adventure in Iraq would give Tokyo pause the next time Washington comes knocking. Media polls suggest two-thirds of Japanese oppose the deployment. "It's going to be cold day in hell before a successor Japanese government or even a Koizumi government does something else that we might want them to do that is not a U.N.-sanctioned operation," he said.

U.S. officials have avoided substantive comment on the election, citing a policy of staying out of Japan's affairs. The top U.S. diplomat on Asia, Christopher Hill, said Washington and Tokyo are "in very good sync" on the task of persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs at talks also involving China, Russia and South Korea. "I know there's an election in Japan, but it doesn't mean there isn't going to be a government in Japan, so I'm sure we'll be able to work closely together and I'm sure there will be real continuity in what we need to get done," Hill said.

The nuclear talks will resume in late August, and the United States and its allies have voiced optimism that North Korea is serious about ending the nearly three-year-old row. But if the six-party talks fail to disarm North Korea and Washington seeks coercive measures such as economic sanctions, a less hawkish leader than Koizumi might balk, Berger said.

"The only sanctions that would have any bite at all, given that the South Koreans and the Chinese are not likely to go along, are the ones which Japan can apply," he said. "We may not get a leader who is as cooperative as Koizumi," said Berger, who credited Koizumi with ending taboos born out of World War Two that denied the United States Japan's military help in 1990s crises with Iraq and North Korea.

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