Hatoyama’s talk of ‘equal’ ties leaves U.S. in dark


Japan and the United States need to rethink their relationship and expand their ties from a narrow alliance to a partnership that can deal with a broad range of global challenges, American foreign policy experts said in a recent symposium in Tokyo.

President Barack Obama’s visit to Tokyo in November provides a good opportunity for the new government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who took office in September, to set a new direction in Tokyo-Washington ties, they said.

But Hatoyama will need to clarify what he means when he advocates an “equal” relationship with the U.S., the experts said.

The new administration also should make clear its assessment of Japan’s own defense needs and security priorities as it discusses with Washington issues related to the realignment of U.S. forces here, they added.

Two experts from the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank, were joined by former diplomat Yukio Okamoto to discuss diplomatic challenges facing the two countries during the symposium organized by Keizai Koho Center on Oct. 16.

The discussions were held just as tensions appeared to be rising between Tokyo and Washington over the planned reorganization of U.S. forces, especially the Hatoyama Cabinet’s efforts to review the 2006 bilateral agreement on the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

“The alliance between the U.S. and Japan — while necessary — is no longer sufficient,” given the changing nature and widening scope of challenges that confront the two countries today, said CFR President Richard Haass.

Most of the global challenges today — ranging from the financial crisis to climate change to fighting terrorism — go beyond the scope of traditional alliances that “tend to be formal relationships in which countries agree on what they are against and what they are going to do in certain situations,” said Haass, who served as a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and later as adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell in the administration of George W. Bush.

“Increasingly essential to the U.S.-Japan relationship,” as they deal with these new challenges, “will be consultation in the most creative sense of the word,” Haass said.

“That is going to require on both of our parts a rethinking of the relationship, a willingness to expand what it is we talk about,” he said. “We should not be spending the bulk of our time thinking about how many U.S. soldiers are going to be located where in Okinawa — that should not be the centerpiece of conversation between the U.S. and Japan.”

For Japan and the U.S. to become “effective partners” to deal with the global challenges, they also need to make domestic efforts, Haass said.

While this means the U.S. will need to put its finances in order and cut its huge deficits, for Japan it involves building up “relevant capabilities for involvement around the world,” he said.

Tokyo will also need to “stretch” its politics so the new and future governments “have the political freedom for Japan to play a larger role,” he said. Japan will not only need to build up capacities for involvement in global issues but also to “condition its political system for Japan playing a larger role if the U.S. and Japan are going to be able to be partners at dealing with the broad range of global challenges,” he noted.

The two countries are advised to develop new “alliance management practices that match Japan’s new politics,” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at CFR.

Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan swept to power in the Aug. 30 election, ending the Liberal Democratic Party’s virtual five-decade rule.

“U.S. alliance management has to respond to the political realities of Tokyo. Now you are moving in a different direction, so our alliance management policies will have to change,” she said.

The transition in power, which also involves the new administration’s efforts to change the governance system under the LDP, “makes it very hard” for Japan-watchers in the U.S. “to understand where policy priorities lie and how you are going to be able to affect the new conversation with the U.S.,” Smith said.

“What is difficult for us in Washington to understand,” she noted, “is the new government’s strategic assessment of Japan’s own defense needs and its security priorities.”

Relocation of the Futenma airfield out of the Okinawa city of Ginowan remains the centerpiece of discussions for the realignment of U.S. forces, with senior U.S. officials urging Tokyo to abide by the 2006 accord to move it to a new facility to be built in Nago, northern Okinawa Island, in response to the new administration’s moves to review the accord.

The DPJ — along with its coalition allies the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) — has also advocated a review of the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement. A recent media report suggested Hatoyama may propose revising the SOFA to get the U.S. to agree to hand over to Japan, if requested by Tokyo, any military personnel suspected of committing a crime prior to indictment.

But aside from these issues, “I think there is a certain absence of understanding (on the part of the U.S.) how the new government sees Japan’s own strategic needs — and the place of the alliance (with the U.S.) in that strategic concept,” Smith noted.

“My suggestion for the new government is to help Washington understand that strategic vision as it proceeds to talk about” the issues related to the U.S. forces in Japan, she said.

Smith also suggested the DPJ’s call for a “more equal” Japan-U.S. relationship — which was repeated by Hatoyama in his first policy speech to the Diet this week — needs clarification.

In advocating a “close and equal Japan-U.S. alliance,” Hatoyama said it will be a relationship “in which the Japanese side, too, can actively make proposals and cooperate on the role that the Japan-U.S. alliance can play for the sake of global peace and security and on concrete guidelines for action.”

What Washington’s Japan hands hear in the call for “equal” relations, Smith said, is “a little bit of the sense that the relationship has not been equal . . . that there is a legacy issue that the new government may feel needs to be corrected.”

Japan and the U.S. are equal in the sense that both are sovereign states and either has the choice in their bilateral relationship to do something or not, Haass said.

But the two countries are unequal because their histories and capabilities differ, he said. “So the U.S. cannot dictate to Japan, and Japan cannot dictate to the U.S.”

In fact, the Japan-U.S. alliance, Haass said, is increasingly becoming a “discretionary” relationship. “There are very few situations that arise where Japan and the U.S. have to do something. In most cases, one or both countries continue to have a degree of discretion or choice, and that will increasingly be the reality of this relationship.”

Haass said it would not be desirable if Japan’s quest for an “equal relationship” is to take on an anti-American tinge — or that of Japan that can say “no” to the U.S. Such a concern arises because one of the policy steps the new administration took in its initial days was the announcement that it would terminate the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and near Afghanistan, he pointed out.

Senior members of the Hatoyama administration say Japan has relied too much on the U.S. and instead should keep a certain distance from Washington, said Okamoto, who served as special adviser to the prime minister in the administrations of Ryutaro Hashimoto and Junichiro Koizumi.

“These statements suggest that when the new administration talks about an equal partnership with the U.S., they mean Japan should no longer follow what the U.S. says as it used to,” said Okamoto, now president of consulting firm Okamoto Associates, adding, “But people in the U.S. would say they welcome an ‘equal partnership’ with Japan if Japan is willing to become more involved” in dealing with global challenges.

If so, the two sides can be talking about an entirely different concept, “and efforts need to be made to close the gap,” Okamoto said.