During his Asia trip this Friday, President Obama's itinerary will include a much-anticipated visit with Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama -- a meeting that has been fraught with anxiety and speculation among Japan watchers. One Japan expert sees U.S.-Japan relations at their lowest point in years. With Japan's new government, will Obama find long-time U.S. ally Japan drifting away from the U.S.-Japan alliance, "the cornerstone of U.S. strategy toward Asia"?
Two overarching sticking points have entered into the U.S.-Japan discussion. The first is what precisely the new Japanese government means in recent statements by having a more "equal" relationship with the United States and what that means for Japan's relations with Asia. Japan specialists in the United States have hoped that a Japan on more equal footing with the United States would take more leadership on global issues and security, something that U.S. policymakers have encouraged Japan to do for years.
But others worry that Japan might "turn East" toward China and its regional proposals, such as an East Asian community, could exclude the United States. Never mind the fact that Japan has reiterated that the U.S. alliance will be the centerpiece of Japanese foreign policy; the Chinese received coolly the East Asian community idea; and that the Japanese have been talking about an East Asian economic bloc for years, which would essentially codify what Asian businesses already do. In any case, mixed signals from Tokyo have created an air of uncertainty about the direction of the U.S.-Japan relationship.
The second contentious point gets to the nitty-gritty of the U.S.-Japan alliance itself. For years, Okinawans have resented the fact that a majority of U.S. military presence, including noisy helicopters, in Japan is concentrated in Okinawa. In an effort to respond to local pressure and a nationwide desire for "change" in Japan, the Hatoyama administration has sought to reopen a pact that would have moved an airbase off a congested part of Okinawa.
All of this comes on top of Japan's decision to withdraw its refueling support of the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean and instead contribute to Afghanistan operations through aid funding to the tune of $5 billion over 5 years -- bringing back raw memories of Japan's "checkbook diplomacy" during the first Gulf war when Japan sent money but no troops. Moral leadership will require more.
If Hatoyama wishes to present a Japan that is more "independent" from the United States, these moves could backfire. To say the least, the newbie Democratic Party of Japan's riskiest forays will likely be in the areas of national security, and if the Japanese public perceives the DPJ as making Japan less safe, the party could easily get the boot. The Obama administration has been eager to resolve these issues, while Hatoyama has preferred to punt them down the road to gain more understanding from Okinawans. But consensus-building will be a two-level game, one that will include Japan's closest ally.
In an effort to cool U.S.-Japan tensions, Obama and Hatoyama have agreed to a yearlong review of the alliance. But, says Japanese defense expert Satoshi Morimoto in the Wall Street Journal, "the prime minister needs to feel a sense of urgency and understand that the safety of the Japanese people may be compromised if the relationship with the U.S. becomes shaky."
More broadly, however, the path toward a more "independent" foreign policy for Japan is not by weakening its alliance with the world's strongest military power. Ironically, if Japan wants to have more influence in world affairs, it should strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance, not weaken it. Coincidentally, Hatoyama's moves arrive against a regional backdrop of a bellicose North Korea and an increasingly powerful China that rivals Japan.
With China's growing profile, there is a huge demand within Asia for a strong Japan tied to the U.S. alliance as a counter-balance. Given Japan's own budgetary constraints, the alliance also protects Japanese national interests without requiring the country to develop its own power projection. If Japan truly wants to serve as a "bridge" between the United States and Asia or the West and East, it will need good relations with both sides. As an Obama administration official put it: "Even the most spectacular bridge needs an entrance and an exit for anyone to traverse it." For Hatoyama's sake and political survival, let's hope his administration realizes this point.