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Poll setback could mar DPJ-U.S. ‘reset’

by Ben Dooley

Kyodo News

WASHINGTON — The Democratic Party of Japan’s setback in the Upper House election may complicate attempts by Tokyo and Washington to “reset” their political relationship, strained over the relocation of the Futenma military base in Okinawa, according to U.S. experts.

“The Japanese are going to be embroiled in their own domestic politics for quite a while to come, and there’s not going to be a lot of bandwidth” for dealing with the United States, said Dan Sneider, a Japan expert at Stanford University’s Freeman Spigoli Institute.

The replacement of Yukio Hatoyama by Naoto Kan as prime minister appeared to provide an opportunity for the DPJ-led government to reset relations with the United States, which got off to a rough start following the DPJ’s landslide victory over the long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party last August.

Whereas conventional wisdom in Washington said that the U.S. administration disliked Hatoyama and viewed him as a political lightweight, Obama’s political and personal relationship with Kan appeared to have started on the right foot on issues ranging from the Futenma relocation dispute to their mutual fondness for green tea ice cream.

The DPJ’s lackluster performance Sunday in the election, however, raises serious questions about whether Kan will be able to resolve troublesome cross-Pacific issues such as implementation of the bilateral accord in late May on the base relocation.

Japan has already witnessed five prime ministers in the last four years, an unusual rate for a developed country.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of political turbulence out of this election. I would not be surprised to see a new prime minister,” Sneider said. “It’s a hard one to call.”

The months-long standoff between Tokyo and Washington over the Futenma issue appeared to have been resolved to some extent following a series of grueling and often quixotic negotiations that sapped the DPJ’s popularity and ended in Hatoyama’s resignation after only eight months in office.

Unfortunately, Kan’s ability to address such a touchy issue has likely been weakened by the DPJ’s loss, Sneider said.

“Kan and the DPJ’s ability to overcome opposition in Okinawa is going to be impacted by their weakening on the national level,” he said, adding that “the weaker the government is in Tokyo, the less able it is to strong-arm Okinawans” into accepting the deal.

But some pundits expect the two countries to continue to work closely together, regardless of how the Futenma issue turns out.

“Futenma is probably overplayed as a bilateral security issue,” said Ross Schaap, a Japan expert at the Eurasia Group, a U.S. political risk research and consulting firm. “The U.S. and Japanese security interests in East Asia overlap significantly, which should keep the partners on the same page.”

This view was echoed by Sheila Smith, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who pointed to close cooperation on such issues as Iran’s nuclear standoff and the response to the March sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea.

While the difficulties of working through the base relocation plan are significant, the two governments have been effective on other critical issues of cooperation, Smith said.

Still, Sneider believes that the DPJ’s failure to secure a majority in the Upper House will likely eclipse Japan’s influence in the region.

“The more you have gridlock and weak governments, the less Japan is seen as an effective partner by anybody, not just the United States,” he said.

Looking ahead, Japan’s turbulent politics will require the United States to be more cautious in its interactions with the DPJ.

This is particularly true on Futenma, Schaap said. Because there is a widespread belief that U.S. pressure led to Hatoyama’s downfall, the perception the Obama administration will want to avoid most in the future is putting further pressure on the relationship, he said.