The puzzle is how to feel the people's pulse while running a political machine such as a party or government in countries like Japan and Australia or the Philippines and Thailand.
It has not been politics as usual for Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan since the severe setback his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) suffered in the House of Councillors election on July 11. Nor is it politics as usual for Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard ahead of the looming general election she promised after toppling Kevin Rudd in a lightning political strike against him on June 24.
Elsewhere in East Asia, Benigno S. Aquino III has assumed office as President of the Philippines after winning a decisive vote from the people to succeed the unpopular Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. In Thailand, though, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has not so far signalled if and when he might seek the people's mandate to roll back the periodic waves of ‘pro-democracy' protest against his rule.
Of these four countries, Japan and Australia are long-standing military allies of the United Sates in the Asia-Pacific theatre. And, not long ago, the Philippines and Thailand were accredited by the previous U.S. administration as its “major non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) allies” in the Southeast Asian sub-region.
U.S. President Barack Obama's current global agenda is, however, not the defining factor in the politics of these East Asian countries. As an exception, Mr. Kan's rise to power in Tokyo early in June was largely the result of his predecessor's failure to keep his pledge of reducing the U.S. military footprint in Japan or at least in its Okinawa prefecture.
Despite this empirical reality, Mr. Kan's woes in the July 11 election were traceable to his domestic agenda and not foreign policy priorities. The key domestic issue was his failure to carry the people with him over his unpopular proposal to double the sales tax. Prior to this Councillors election, too, his brief political honeymoon was not really marred by the categorical decision he took, immediately after assuming office, to allow Okinawa to stay as the Pentagon's main playfield in East Asia. As evident from the public opinion polls that followed his ascent as prime minister, he was not held to account for not honouring his predecessor's pledge of showing the Americans who the master in Okinawa would be.
Following the latest electoral setback, Mr. Kan's coalition now finds itself without a clear majority in the upper chamber of Diet, Parliament. As this is written, he is in search of a new ally to shore up the coalition's base in the House of Councillors. Although his administration's majority in the more powerful House of Representatives remains unassailable, he requires a similar balance of forces in the upper chamber as well to push through economic and fiscal “reforms.” Only through “reforms” can he hope to pull Japan out of its unending crisis of ballooning public debt and floundering growth rate.
All this is conventional wisdom. Not in the same category, though, is the way in which the issue of American military presence in Japan quickly receded as a factor in the July 11 election to one half of the total seats in the upper chamber of Diet.
Mr. Kan's early-June rise to power occurred in a surcharged political atmosphere that was accentuated by the exit of Social Democratic Party (SDP) from the DPJ-led ruling centre-left coalition. His predecessor had failed to meet the SDP's demand that the American military profile in Japan be scaled down, particularly in Okinawa as the minimal first step. Subsequently, however, the SDP's poor performance in the July 11 election serves as a key pointer. The Japanese, deeply concerned over their personal budgets, do not necessarily see the U.S. as the chief villain of their country's “failing” political plot of much-promised economic growth and fairness.
All this does not mean that Japan can indefinitely postpone tough decisions about its possible equation with the U.S. into the future. For now, Mr. Obama has not had the vision or time to think of creative alternatives to the current network of often-unpopular U.S. military bases in East Asia. Of continuing interest or concern to the U.S. in this region is China's relentless rise as a potential or possible global superpower. Official Washington is taking time to come to terms with this reality. But some American strategic experts have begun to visualise new options for the ‘off-shore balancing of China' in the current climate of popular sentiments in both Japan and South Korea against the idea of timeless U.S. military presence there. One such option is to distance the U.S. troops from China's immediate neighbourhood such as the land mass of Japan and South Korea and to raise the credibility of Washington's long-distance ‘strike capabilities.'
At the height of America's Vietnam War in the last century, columnist Walter Lippmann had at one stage suggested a pull-back of U.S. troops to an utterly friendly terrain like Australia. Today, the U.S.-Australia equation is far more sophisticated, with China being a crucial factor. Within hours of toppling Mr. Rudd, the Mandarin-knowing ‘China-sensitised leader,' Ms Gillard affirmed that she would uphold the U.S.-Australia military-political alliance. However, like Mr. Kan in Japan, she too is aware that domestic economic concerns outweigh foreign policy priorities.
The key issues she has chosen to focus on are education, health care, carbon pricing to address climate change, and taxes on super profits in the domain of minerals.
Unlike Mr. Kan, whose rise to power was in some ways linked to an issue over U.S. presence in Japan, Ms. Gillard's ‘political coup' against Mr. Rudd had nothing to do with the U.S.-Australia-China triangle of complex cross-currents. She wanted to reverse the sudden administrative ‘drift' that began to spoil Mr. Rudd's “good government.” By her own narrative on how she became Prime Minister, Ms. Gillard has indicated that a non-conservative government such as her party's cannot have the luxury of politics as usual. The intended message is that there must a sense of urgency in addressing the people's concerns though cabinet-level consultations and community-level consensus.
For Mr. Kan, who too espouses non-conservative ethos in an essentially capitalist milieu, the puzzle of ‘politics unusual' is how to feel the people's pulse while running a political machine such as a party or a coalition or government.
In the Philippines, Mr. Aquino III, scion of a ‘people power' dynasty, is hardly a stranger to such a message. But he is just beginning to feel the ground realities. For Mr. Abhisit, on the other hand, a clean mandate in his own right may enhance his elbow room for essaying ‘politics unusual.'