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What does Japan want from Washington?

by Masahiro Matsumura

OSAKA — Three months after the Democratic Party of Japan’s landslide general election victory, the new administration’s foreign and security policy appears to be increasingly at odds with that of the United States. Indeed, there is growing concern on both sides of the Pacific that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama intends to turn away from the declining U.S. hegemon and reach out to a rising China. Indeed, Hatoyama has announced his rudimentary vision of building an East Asian community that excludes the U.S.

Hatoyama has hastily attempted to fulfill the DPJ’s party manifesto and his own public pledges. This includes terminating replenishment support for the U.S.-led interdiction operation in the Indian Ocean, reducing host-nation support to U.S. forces based in Japan, and revising the bilateral status-of-force agreement.

Moreover, Hatoyama is set to expose a secret Cold War nuclear agreement that opened Japanese ports to U.S. naval vessels carrying nuclear weapons in contravention of Japan’s Three Nonnuclear Principles, which have guided official policy since the late 1960s. Last but not least, Hatoyama is postponing implementation of a bilateral agreement with the U.S. to relocate a U.S. Marine Corps base on the island of Okinawa, from Futenma to Henoko, thereby causing confusion for America’s plan to relocate some of its forces on Okinawa to Guam.

The significance of these moves has, however, been poorly understood. Hatoyama’s assertiveness vis-a-vis the U.S. is in accord with Japan’s position as the world’s largest creditor with the least damaged banking sector. But a decisive foreign-policy shift has not occurred — nor will one occur in the near future.

Instead, Hatoyama has simply stressed Japan’s need to be on an equal footing in alliance management with the U.S. Likewise, his proposed regional community would be open in nature, and would welcome strong U.S. involvement, although without formal U.S. membership, on geographic grounds.

Thus, the current U.S.-Japanese estrangement is being driven by a spiral of mistrust that does not stem from geostrategic concerns. Rather, Japan has initiated a series of abrupt policy changes, while the U.S., only dimly aware of the significance of its relative decline, assumes that Japan’s decades-long docility will continue.

Flaws in the transition between Japanese governments are also to blame. Hatoyama’s ministers did not ask their counterparts in the departing administration of former Prime Minister Taro Aso to inform them fully about existing and potential foreign-policy problems. Nor did the Aso government’s members, stupefied by their crushing electoral defeat, offer to do so.

The relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps base — an issue burdened by the competing imperatives of Hatoyama’s coalition government, American military strategy and local anti-base politics on the island of Okinawa — is now a focal point of tensions with the U.S. The base agreement — reached after 10 years of bilateral negotiations — is the most practical option for avoiding potentially disastrous aerial accidents in a heavily populated area, and for reducing crimes committed by U.S. soldiers against local Japanese, including, most notoriously, several rapes.

The base agreement is essential for maintaining the political and strategic viability of the bilateral alliance. Yet, during the DPJ’s election campaign, Hatoyama vowed to eliminate the marines’ presence on Okinawa. To make matters worse, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has threatened to leave the government coalition if Hatoyama breaks his promise — a move that would deny the DPJ a simple majority in the Diet’s Upper House. Nor does it hold the two-thirds majority in the Lower House needed to override Upper House resolutions.

Thus, Hatoyama is forced to subordinate Japan’s alliance with the U.S. to his government’s survival, at least until next summer’s Upper House elections. By then, the government will have enacted more of its legislative program, potentially enabling the DPJ to gain seats.

Hatoyama cannot please everyone all the time, least of all the U.S. While he has repeatedly emphasized Japan’s equal footing with the U.S. in alliance management, this does not extend to Japan’s military capability and defense burden. Obviously, he intends to keep asymmetrical reciprocity embedded in the bilateral mutual security treaty: the U.S. defends Japan, and Japan leases to the U.S. many large bases that are essential to its global military posture. Moreover, he evidently believes that the geostrategic value of the bases enable him to bargain for a major U.S. compromise.

If this approach does not work, and if the existing marine base on Okinawa remains, Hatoyama can pass the buck to the U.S., thereby deflecting antibase pressure from local residents. He would also retain the current U.S. Marine Corps presence as a tripwire for U.S. military intervention in the case of a flareup across the Taiwan Strait, whereas Guam is beyond the effective range of Chinese ballistic missiles.

Hatoyama is certainly a clever political tactician, but that is not sufficient to make him a wise leader. Above all, he must not play with fire: the U.S.-Japan alliance is a public good that is indispensable for the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region.

Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international relations at Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku (St. Andrew’s University), Osaka. © 2009 Project Syndicate.