The new administration Prime Minister Naoto Kan will form next week won’t have much time to act when it comes to foreign affairs.
Japan’s ties with the United States will hinge on his team’s ability to follow through on the agreement recently hammered out by his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma farther north in Okinawa.
Kan said he intended to honor the agreement when he announced his candidacy Thursday for the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidency.
“The U.S. base issue in Okinawa is an extremely difficult problem with factors such as reducing the burden of the Okinawan people and maintaining a trusting relationship between Japan and the U.S. over security issues,” Kan said after keeping a prolonged silence over the issue.
“On the basis of the Japan-U.S. agreement, I think it is necessary to continue making a long, sustained effort to reduce the burden of Okinawa.”
The balancing act will be easier said than done.
Fumiaki Kubo, a professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert on Japan-U.S. relations, said Kan will need to stand firm and reassure the U.S. he will abide by the bilateral accord, which moves Futenma air base in Ginowan to the Henoko coast farther north on Okinawa Island.
At the same time, the new government needs to win over the Okinawans, who have been fighting the base for years.
“The Futenma agreement was just the first step — there remains the even more difficult problem of seeking the consent of the Okinawan people,” Kubo said. “Kan will need to move forward steadily and act persuasively toward the locals.”
The Futenma fiasco was one of the main reasons Hatoyama quit. He struggled for months to find a new site for the base — outside of both Okinawa and even Japan — as pledged last summer in the Lower House election campaign.
But in doing so, he lost the trust of his U.S. allies.
In the end, he failed to keep his promise and chose to step down amid a wave of harsh criticism and plunging poll ratings.
The White House issued a press statement after Hatoyama’s resignation announcement, but Kubo pointed out there was nothing in it praising his achievements.
“I think that the U.S. was relieved that Hatoyama stepped down,” Kubo said. “I think it was a positive thing for the U.S.”
Kan is not a specialist in foreign policy either and will have to depend on the expertise of those around him, Kubo said.
This includes the bureaucrats, the shadowy civil servants the DPJ has been trying to rein in to consolidate its power and exhibit true political leadership.
“The DPJ is caught in a dilemma — it has been fighting the bureaucrats, but when it comes to policies, politicians need the help of these bureaucrats,” Kubo said. “I think the new prime minister will have to try to balance that out. Until now, the government as a whole has been focused more on battling the bureaucrats, and it has been having difficulty implementing policies smoothly.”
The Kan administration must also set out its goals on foreign policy. At the moment, the DPJ is being queried about its stance on the Japan-U.S. alliance, Kubo said. The actions and statements of some of the DPJ’s key members can be interpreted as “anti-U.S.,” he added.
Hatoyama pushed for achieving a “close and equal” relationship with the U.S. and made significant efforts to reach out to Japan’s neighbors — especially China.
On Thursday, Kan said the Japan-U.S. relationship would remain the core of Tokyo’s foreign policy but that ties with China would also be valued.
“I think that Japan’s diplomacy is founded on Japan-U.S. relations, (but) at the same time, Japan is in East Asia and we are seeing a his toric development in Asia,” Kan said. “Japan needs to go in the direction of building a trusting relationship with the U.S. while placing particular importance on China. I think that is the correct way for Japan’s future.”
But Motofumi Asai, president of the Hiroshima Peace Institute, a research center, said Tokyo needs to end its overly dependent relationship with Washington and start taking a fresh look at U.S. relations from a fundamental point of view.
The former diplomat, who noted that Okinawa still hosts most of the U.S. bases in the country, said past governments are at fault for not taking a stronger stance toward the U.S.
“The U.S. thinks it is natural (for Japan to shoulder the bases) because the Japanese government hasn’t said anything,” Asai said. “Japan needs to take a stand against the U.S. and say that the Japanese public is saying ‘no’ and that if the situation doesn’t improve, bilateral ties could be strained.”
Asai also stressed the importance of staying close to China. Experts agree that while overall relations are good, the media are paying close attention to tensions in the East China Sea, where the Chinese navy, the Japan Coast Guard and Self-Defense Forces appear to be antagonizing each other.
Nevertheless, Asai and other experts on Sino-Japanese relations don’t see the tensions as a threat and say the media are “overreacting.”
“Japan is located so closely to China and the two countries are (economically) interdependent,” Asai said.
“There is no peace and stability in Japan without friendly ties with China.”
He also expressed deep concern about the revolving door of Japan’s leadership over the past several years, saying the world will eventually lose trust in Japan.
“Japan’s reputation as a major power is wearing thin and the image of Japan as an economic superpower but a political minnow is growing,” Asai said. “It is a very serious situation.”
Gates eyes alliance
SINGAPORE (Kyodo) U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday expressed hope that Japan’s new minister will clarify the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance soon after taking office.
His comments came before Naoto Kan was named Japan’s new leader by both chambers of the Diet Friday afternoon in Tokyo.
On the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Gates indicated the United States will strive to reduce the burden on the people of Okinawa in hosting U.S. bases.
Gates, who is visiting Singapore for a regional security conference, told reporters aboard a government plane, “The sinking of the South Korean ship by the North simply underscores for everybody that there are security challenges in Northeast Asia.”
The incident has made it clear the Japan-U.S. alliance is important for all countries, he said, voicing hope that Japan’s next prime minister will emphasize the alliance.
On the base issue in Okinawa, Gates said, “I think we have to be sensitive.”