Year to see U.S. ties tested, Tokyo trying to woo Asia

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo News

Japan’s ties with the United States are expected to be put to the test in 2010 as Tokyo struggles to settle a row over the Futenma military airfield in Okinawa, possibly as a step toward reshaping the decades-old bilateral alliance.

In contrast, the Hatoyama administration’s pro-Asia stance, as seen in the prime minister’s East Asian community concept, could bring the region closer together, but experts say a quick breakthrough is unlikely in long-standing territorial and other disputes with China and South Korea.

To raise its presence in the international arena, Japan may also explore contributing to global security, such as through active participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

After taking office in September, Yukio Hatoyama made a smooth diplomatic debut, winning international acclaim for his pledge to set an ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction target and sharing with Asian economies his long-term view of building a regional bloc, an idea inspired by the European Union.

But it didn’t take long for the relationship between Japan and its closest security ally to become strained over the Futenma relocation question.

The relocation site was agreed to in 2006 as part of a broader accord on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, but the Democratic Party of Japan-led government has pledged to review the deal as part of its policy to seek more “equal” Japan-U.S. ties.

The U.S. has repeatedly pressed Japan to implement the agreement to move Futenma to a less densely populated area in Okinawa, but Hatoyama said he won’t make a decision “until 2010″ and that he will seek an alternative site.

On Dec. 25, Hatoyama said he will make every effort to reach a decision by May.

“My experience as a politician is telling me that unless we deal with this issue, we may see a situation in which both Japan and the United States seriously lose trust in each other,” Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said earlier in December, indicating the deep concerns Japan has on the issue.

The row has also cast a shadow over planned consultations between the two countries to review the bilateral alliance, with 2010 marking the 50th anniversary of the revised Japan-U.S. security treaty.

Okada said later last month he hopes to “move on” with the consultations while discussing the Futenma issue at the same time, but he admitted this isn’t something he can accomplish “right now.”

While Hatoyama’s indecisiveness and the differences in opinion seen among Cabinet members on Futenma have given the impression that the government is adrift without a clear direction, speculation is growing that Hatoyama is actually focused on the creation of a new bilateral relationship.

“I have had the idea of whether it is appropriate to maintain the presence of another country’s military forces (in Japan),” Hatoyama said in December in explaining a security concept under which U.S. forces would be deployed in Japan only in emergencies. But he noted he “must seal” the idea now that he is prime minister.

Toshikazu Inoue, a Gakushuin University professor, said Hatoyama’s key diplomatic approaches in the last three months have a commonality in that they represent “a departure” from Japan’s dependence on the U.S. seen under previous governments led by the Liberal Democratic Party.

While the Futenma issue may become a litmus test of Japan’s future diplomatic course, experts and other observers are divided over whether the administration will be able to settle the matter in a fashion that marks a historic step toward a less subservient relationship with the U.S.

Government officials are wary about getting stuck in a dead-end situation — either failing to find an alternative relocation site or facing the wrath of Okinawans and possibly fracturing the ruling coalition by implementing the existing agreement.

“(By dealing with Futenma and other issues,) I think the DPJ-led government will start to learn it is impossible to fundamentally change basic national policies related to diplomacy or security,” Inoue said.

But Yuji Suzuki, a Hosei University professor specializing in Pacific politics, speculates that Hatoyama will seek a conclusion to close the Futenma facility and not allow it to be relocated in Okinawa, where people are already unhappy about hosting the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan because of noise pollution and crimes.

Such an outcome would not lead to a “break” in bilateral ties because Japan and the U.S. are already “strongly linked to each other” in economic and “people-to-people exchanges,” and because this is a time when the U.S. appears to be losing its dominant power, Suzuki added.

While ties between Japan and the U.S. are likely to draw attention in the first half of the year, Suzuki said relations with China may be highlighted later in 2010, such as in November, when Japan hosts the summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

“Japan and the United States may see their ties strained over security issues, but in the latter half they will have to make sure that they cooperate to bring China into the regional economic framework.”

The administration will also likely try to accelerate its moves toward building an East Asian community by finding specific areas of cooperation, such as antipiracy efforts and copyright protection.

“If cooperation were to be thoroughly focused on single issues, it may be difficult for China to say no, because it may also serve its interests,” Suzuki said.

While Japan’s ties with China and South Korea are likely to be relatively stable, this alone is unlikely to create enough momentum to settle the dispute with Beijing over gas field development or the territorial dispute with Seoul over the Takeshima islets, known as Dokdo in South Korea, which controls them.

A source close to Tokyo-Seoul diplomacy warned of the possibility the relationship could quickly sour if tensions rise over the territorial issue, given that 2010 is a rather sensitive year for the two countries — the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula.