NEW YORK — Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama promised U.S. President Barack Obama that Tokyo will remain a close ally of Washington, but it’s not yet clear how the bilateral relationship will develop under his administration, which seeks more equal ties with the United States.
In their first one-on-one talks in New York on Wednesday, Hatoyama and Obama agreed that the bilateral alliance remains the cornerstone of their security policy and that the leaders will tackle in close coordination a host of issues facing their countries as well as the rest of the world.
Some analysts, however, say a new chapter could be in store for the relationship, which is built upon a security treaty signed about 50 years ago, following the Sept. 16 launch of the government led by Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan.
The new government has been in power only a week, and since it hasn’t articulated any specific policies yet, exactly how different its ties with the U.S. may become in the years ahead remains unclear.
Since the moment when the DPJ’s victory in the Aug. 30 election became a certainty, some Washington officials have expressed a mixture of concern and expectations over the DPJ government, with some fretting potential changes to a bilateral alliance that was kept stable under more than 50 years’ worth of Liberal Democratic Party-led administrations.
The DPJ has said it wants to build a foreign policy that puts Tokyo on a close but more equal footing with Washington, claiming that hitherto Japan has been subservient to the United States and needs to be able to propose more proactively what role the two countries should play on the international stage.
“Keeping alive the (Japan-U.S. security) treaty forged during the Cold War era is to fall out of step with the times,” said Kazuhiro Asano, a professor at Sapporo University, underscoring that it is time for the two countries to review and alter the framework.
Next year will mark the 50th year anniversary of the 1960 bilateral security pact that inherited features of a security treaty forged in 1951.
Asano also argued that the two countries may not be able to avoid a certain degree of tension in their relations before becoming true friends who can talk to each other sincerely.
To show a more independent stance, the 11-year-old DPJ, which comprises LDP defectors and former socialists, has proposed re-examining the accord on realigning U.S. forces in Japan, a deal that took several years of complex negotiations to complete.
During his first diplomatic trip abroad as prime minister, Hatoyama has made remarks suggesting that his government may end the ongoing Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission and help reconstruct conflict-ravaged Afghanistan with more humanitarian aid instead.
The DPJ, meanwhile, envisions stronger relations with China and other Asian countries, with Hatoyama proposing the idea of forming an East Asian Community — a regional framework inspired by the European Union — during his talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday.
James Schoff, associate director of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Cambridge-based Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, said the bilateral relationship “is definitely going to be different” under the DPJ-led administration.
The expert in Japan-U.S. relations said the DPJ seems to believe that the “alliance” and “relationship” are two separate things, and that even if it modifies the form of the security alliance, it can still maintain a strong overall relationship with the United States.
That is the main difference from the LDP-led administrations, he said.
Schoff pointed out, however, that the question is how the DPJ will strike a balance, which he said would be challenging for a party made up of a number of lawmakers with little experience in diplomatic negotiations.
He said he has yet to see the party floating plans for any “aggressive international contributions” such as dispatching Self-Defense Force troops on a peacekeeping mission, which might serve as leverage in exchange for occasional refusals.
“There’s the potential for the relationship to become even stronger in some way and more stable. But if they don’t get the balance right, it could be weaker,” he said, claiming that neither Hatoyama, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada nor DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa seem to understand the importance of achieving such a balance.
Another academic, Takushoku University professor Takashi Kawakami, is concerned that a series of DPJ proposals, especially those laid out by Okada, could result in “disharmony” in the bilateral relationship.
Okada, a former DPJ chief who is often described as a stubbornly determined man, has argued that the United States should refrain from pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons and proposed the creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Northeast Asia.
Since taking office last week, the new foreign minister has also declared that he will focus on the U.S. forces relocation issue as well as the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean during his first 100 days in office.
Some analysts think Okada holds the key to future bilateral relations, saying he has a more solid foreign policy vision than Hatoyama, who has been known to flip-flop on key policies, such as the refueling mission, Japan’s three nonnuclear principles and a free-trade accord with the U.S.
They believe such inconsistency mirrors Hatoyama’s indecisiveness on exactly where he wants to situate Japan in its relationship with the United States, while Okada appears to know what he wants and is determined to achieve his goals.
But others are watching developments more calmly than the media in Japan and the United States, which have been “overly sensitive,” Schoff said.
“For Japan to shake off its tag as ‘the 51st’ state of America, a certain number of tiffs are likely to occur between the two countries,” said Asano of Sapporo University.
“We are about to see a new era, changing from one in which the world always sees the United States behind Japan to one in which Japan can handle its own foreign policy vision as an independent state,” he said.