Japan-U.S. relations during the second four-year term of U.S. President Barack Obama will depend much on the stability of political leadership in Tokyo, a leading American expert on Japan said during a recent seminar in Tokyo.
Obama’s re-election and the upcoming general election in Japan will make 2013 a crucial year to resolve the continuing deadlock over relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, said Kent Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Some modifications to the 2006 agreement between the two governments may be needed to make the plan “politically feasible,” he said.
Calder was speaking at an event organized by the Keizai Koho Center on Nov. 14 to discuss the outcome of the U.S. presidential election and its policy implications, including relations with Japan.
Obama’s Nov. 6 victory after the close race against Republican candidate Mitt Romney “gave him an opportunity to create a legacy” in the next four years, Calder said. “Up until now, he has had to worry about re-election, and now he can look more toward (the) future — toward the question of what he leaves behind to history as president of the United States.”
One possibility is that Obama could go back to a certain degree to some parts of the agenda he set in 2009, “things he said in the first few months of his administration and then was unable to follow through as his political problems mounted,” Calder said. While the president did not stress his environmental agenda during the re-election campaign to avoid alienating voters in coal industry areas, the “environment is an area where he would want to revisit,” Calder noted.
Meanwhile, expansion of the U.S. military’s role in international affairs “is not likely for budgetary reasons,” Calder said. “We simply don’t have the money to get into major new commitments overseas,” although this will not affect the existing commitments the U.S. has with its allies including Japan, he said.
Anticipated changes of top personnel in at least three key departments into Obama’s second term will also have policy implications, Calder said. Although it remains uncertain who will take over, the likely exit of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner signals the departure from the administration of two people “who had quite a bit of experience with and a strong interest in Asia,” he said. At the Treasury Department, “there will be more emphasis on domestic budgetary issues and getting the U.S. domestic budget in order and beginning to fulfill the president’s promise to rebuild America at home, rather than spending large amounts of money on military operations of different kinds,” he said.
Along with likely changes also in the sub-Cabinet level positions in these departments, Calder suggested that the post-election personnel shakeup may make it more uncertain whether Japan’s interests and positions — or the importance of the U.S. alliance with Japan — will be properly presented within the administration.
Still, Calder said that Obama’s re-election and the likely emergence of a new government in Japan after the Lower House elections in December make 2013 a crucial year to confront the Futenma relocation issue in Okinawa.
“There will be a significant period” until the next gubernatorial election in Okinawa in November 2014, and once Japan holds the general election and has a new government, “we will be in a position — a rather unusual position — to deal more seriously and pragmatically with the important questions relating to Okinawa,” he said.
Tokyo-Washington ties were strained in 2009 and 2010 when the Democratic Party of Japan-led government under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama tried to change the 2006 bilateral agreement to relocate functions of Futenma in Ginowan to a new site in northern Okinawa — only to give up later and aggravate local opposition to the plan.
Calder said that the existing plan will require some modifications “to make it politically feasible,” although he noted that the basic framework for closing the base and moving some of its facilities “within Japan” needs to be maintained.
“And this needs to be achieved during 2013,” he said.
He also said that regardless of what the Obama administration wants in relations with Japan, “an awful lot depends on Japan — the future of Japanese politics and leadership,” he said. “Japan loses influence in the global community and in Washington if there is uncertainty about Japanese leadership. A stable political situation where the Japanese policies are predictable — and not so uncertain because of domestic political uncertainties — is quite important at this crucial time in world affairs.”
Japan has had four prime ministers since Obama came into office in 2009, and media forecasts point to the likelihood that the DPJ, which replaced the long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party in 2009, will lose its hold on power in the Dec. 16 Lower House election that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called after dissolving the chamber last week.
Calder also said Japan needs to “go beyond the old pattern” of Washington setting the agenda in bilateral relations and Tokyo responding to it.
“The idea of a serious and proactive agenda from Tokyo is important to the health of our alliance, to give it more symmetry and balance, and in order for that to happen, a stable leadership in Japan is going to be absolutely crucial,” Calder said.