US-Japan Alliance at 50: Heading Into Uncharted Waters

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By Yuki Tatsumi – On January 19, the US and Japanese governments issued statements commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Japan-US Mutual Security Treaty.  Both acknowledged the role that the US-Japan alliance has played as the critical source of stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and reaffirmed their commitments in enhancing the alliance.  The two governments have already begun the process of exploring how to deepen the alliance in a way that reflects the realities of the 21st century.  

Both sides hope to make a major announcement this year, possibly in November.  The process, however, is going to be difficult.  Since Junichiro Koizumi left the office in September 2006, the US-Japan alliance has been adrift.  Leadership in both capitals so far has failed to find the wherewithal to energize the relationship.  After Yukio Hatoyama became the prime minister in September 2009, the US-Japan alliance seems to have entered a period of great uncertainty.  

The Hatoyama government is largely responsible for the current situation between Tokyo and Washington.  Domestically, the victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the August 2009 election and the inauguration of the Hatoyama cabinet is significant, and brought about the first genuine change of government in many decades.  The DPJ has an ambitious agenda; to change Japan’s policymaking process, and moving the power center from the technocrats in the bureaucracy to elected members of the Diet.  Hatoyama’s effort, if successful, can indeed equip the prime minister with greater authority to lay out his national strategy and the tools necessary to lead the country without being bogged down by bureaucratic infighting.    

When it comes to foreign policy, however, Hatoyama’s government has displayed a great deal of amateurism.  His vague pledge for an “equal” relationship with the United States has a mixed message about his goals vis-à-vis Washington.  DPJ’s alliance with the Socialists and a conservative People’s New Party has also been making it difficult for the Hatoyama cabinet to form united positions on foreign policy issues.  Most problematically, his cabinet came to power with the mentality of “anything but the LDP”, rejecting the policies established by the previous Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) governments without either seriously examining the actual policy decisions themselves, or offering viable alternatives.  This, as a consequence, has led to the lowering of Japan’s presence on the international stage.  For instance, the Hatoyama cabinet decided to terminate the eight-year-long refueling mission by the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) in the Indian Ocean, which symbolized Japan’s active participation in the ongoing  global war against terrorism.  Since then, it has not been able to offer a meaningful or tangible way to join international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.   

The Hatoyama cabinet should be blamed particularly for its handling of the relocation of US Marines in Okinawa.  To be fair, this particular challenge itself is not new.  After all, previous LDP governments failed to live up to their commitments to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma as agreed to by the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) in 1996, which was replaced by a new agreement under the Defense Policy Review Initiative (DPRI) in May 2006.  Under the May 2006 agreement, the air station in Futenma was to be moved to an offshore site in the proximity of Camp Schwab, in a less populated area in Okinawa.  Insisting on “moving the Marines out of Okinawa” without seriously reviewing the SACO and DPRI processes, the Hatoyama government decided not to immediately move forward with the implementation of the May 2006 agreement.  It launched its deliberation process which is expected to come to the conclusion by the end of May 2010.  Such a decision by the Hatoyama government signaled to Washington that its government is willing to sacrifice steady management of the US-Japan alliance for the mere sake of proving that they are different from the LDP.          

Washington may have aggravated the situation by unintentionally misleading the Hatoyama cabinet on its intentions.  When the Hatoyama cabinet was first formed, the Obama administration took the position of “wait and see” to gauge how the Hatoyama cabinet develops its policy toward the United States.  When asked, senior Asia policy officials in the Administration repeatedly stressed that they were “ready to discuss” with the Hatoyama government the salient issues in the US-Japan relations, including Futenma.  Its message of “we are ready to discuss,” however, was unfortunately misunderstood by the Hatoyama cabinet as US may be open to renegotiate these issues.  By the time US government began to state its position clearly and publicly, it was too late.

One may argue that the Futenma relocation issue is an alliance management issue, and that Tokyo and Washington should not lose sight of the strategic importance of the US-Japan alliance for both Tokyo and Washington by focusing only on Futenma relocation.  Indeed, the US-Japan relationship is about more than the US forces in Japan.  There are a number of areas in which the two countries can and should cooperate, ranging from climate change, alternative energy, and nuclear nonproliferation.  In fact, some of these issues are being discussed between both countries as a part of their efforts to identify ways to deepen the US-Japan alliance.  However, the strategic importance of the alliance can only be buttressed by genuine confidence between the United States and Japan—and effectively managing the alliance is an important component of building such confidence.  Failing to address the Futenma relocation issue, therefore, can adversely impact this intangible dimension of the alliance.     

How should the two countries move forward?  As hard as it may be, both Tokyo and Washington first must come to the shared understanding of why the US-Japan alliance still matters today.  If Prime Minister Hatoyama’s national security team can use this opportunity to articulate its vision for the US-Japan alliance and Japan’s role within it (and thereby clarifying what they envision as an “equal” relationship with the United States), it will go a long way towards restoring the confidence which may have been lost in the last few months.  In the meantime, the United States should continue to articulate to the Hatoyama cabinet that, while the two countries share many interests in global issues, bilateral discussion on them can deepen in a meaningful way only with a genuine sense of confidence which demands the effective management of the alliance.

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