President Obama Goes To Tokyo—Time To Reaffirm The US-Japan Relationship

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By Yuki Tatsumi – President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan on November 12-14 is the last stop of his four-nation Asia tour; its primary focus is the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.  His trip to Asia’s major democracies – emerging powers, India and Indonesia, and key allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan – sends the message that the United States intends to revitalize its engagement with the countries in the region that share its democratic values. 

Obama’s bilateral visit with his Japanese host, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, is not expected to produce any dramatic outcomes.  Still, both leaders should take this opportunity to publicly reaffirm the importance and multi-dimensionality of the US-Japan relationship, as well as reset the environment in which Tokyo and Washington engage in dialogue on bilateral, regional, and global issues. 

One cannot deny the current challenge that dominates the US-Japan alliance.  Whether justified or not, the relocation of the Marine Air Station in Futenma, Okinawa, continues to set the tone of the US-Japan alliance, with no sign of a meaningful settlement in the foreseeable future.  Despite calls from many outside of both governments to broaden the discussion beyond this issue, this impasse has prevented the two governments from engaging in a deeper dialogue on broader alliance issues.   

On a more fundamental level, the tentative attitude of Hatoyama toward relations with the United States during his nine months in office gave the impression that Japan, now led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), was drifting away from the US-Japan alliance and was investing more in its relationship with China.  While Prime Minister Kan and his government try to demonstrate that the previous nine months under his predecessor were rather anomalous, it is still unclear whether the current government’s commitment to the US-Japan alliance is genuine or if it is merely trying to say the right things to not repeat its predecessor’s mistake.  In the meantime, the growing perception of a “weakening US-Japan relationship” is spreading concerns in the Asia-Pacific region that views the alliance as a stabilizer for regional security.

In recent months, this perception has been acute in Tokyo.  Two recent flashpoints –  the quick escalation of tension between Beijing and Tokyo over the collision of a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese Coast Guard ship near the Senkaku Islands (followed by the arrest of the Chinese ship captain), and Russian president Medvedev’s decision to visit the disputed Northern Territories – are attributed to the weakness of the DPJ.  Some believe that neither would have happened if the two DPJ governments had been able to take concrete steps to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining Japan’s strong alliance with the United States.  In particular, the Kan government’s response to the Senkaku Islands incident raised many questions in the United States about Japan’s ability to manage crises and its key security relationships.        

The two countries should acknowledge the immediate challenge in the alliance.  After all, the mutual decision to forego the public celebration of the 50th anniversary of the US-Japan alliance alone is illustrative of the current state of affairs – officials in both countries had initially hoped to take advantage of President’s Obama’s visit to commemorate the occasion.  Nonetheless, President Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Kan will offer an important opportunity to reaffirm the importance of the US-Japan relationship, thereby resetting a context in which the challenges in the alliance management are handled. 

In fact, the upcoming meeting can provide an opportunity for both leaders to demonstrate that a strong relationship is important despite the current challenges in alliance management.  Tokyo and Washington need each other more today than ever.  As allies that share critical values in their political systems and their economies, the two countries have a significant stake in maintaining a strong bilateral relationship that goes well beyond bilateral political-military ties.  The anticipated agenda for President Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Kan – Korea, Iran, Afghanistan – demonstrates the breadth of regional and global security challenges that concern both countries.  In addition, Tokyo and Washington share an agenda on rich nontraditional security issues such as climate change and energy security that provide opportunities for cooperation. 

In the weeks and months following the official meeting, however, both sides must continue to work to dispel the perception that US-Japan relations are weakening.  Of course, Washington has an important role to play in this process.  For the last year, the United States, while stating that the US-Japan relations are “not only about the bilateral alliance,” allowed the bilateral alliance management issue -Futenma- to dominate the dialogue between the two countries.  In this regard, the United States needs to seek a more balanced approach toward its dialogue with Japan. 

Tokyo clearly bears a greater burden on setting US-Japan relations back on track.  For far too long, Tokyo has been too distracted by domestic political turmoil to engage in world affairs.  Heavily criticized by the public for its handling of the arrest of the Chinese fishing boat captain and Medvedev’s visit to Northern Territories, approval ratings for Kan’s government have plummeted, facing a danger of falling apart on the eve the APEC Summit.  In order to successfully host the APEC Summit and to have a meaningful bilateral meeting with President Obama, Japan has to think through how its government will manage Japan’s relationships with key countries, the United States at the forefront.  A prolonged perception of weak US-Japan relations is not in the interest of Tokyo, Washington, or the broader Asia-Pacific region.  It is up to Prime Minister Kan and his foreign policy team to take advantage of the upcoming presidential visit to revitalize their efforts to demonstrate their commitments in Japan’s key national security and foreign policy interests.  


Photo Credit:  The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) ship JDS Hiei (DDH 142) pose abreast each other for an aerial photo to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S./Japan alliance. June, 2010 (Official Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Photo)









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