Strong undercurrent as Obama comes to test the waters


First of two parts

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama routinely refers to “yu-ai” (fraternity) when he talks about policy, including diplomacy. But since taking office in September, he appears more focused on pursuing fraternal ties in Asia rather than boosting relations, like his predecessors, with the United States.

Critics have warned that if the Hatoyama administration continues to distance itself from Japan’s top ally, bilateral relations could suffer serious consequences.

President Barack Obama is coming to Tokyo this week to meet with Hatoyama, who will thus get the chance to calm such worries.

Fumiaki Kubo, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo, points out that the Hatoyama-led Democratic Party of Japan’s policies are relatively similar to those of Obama and his Democratic Party.

Gone are the days of U.S. unilateralism, and both countries are more focused on dealing with disarmament, denuclearization and environmental issues.

“Now is the perfect time to deepen the relationship between Japan and the U.S.,” Kubo said. “But the Hatoyama Cabinet is throwing away the opportunity by refusing to budge instead of compromising over issues like the Futenma base relocation and refueling activities in the Indian Ocean. . . . Japan’s security may be at risk if it continues to alienate itself” from the U.S.

The relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa has been a nagging issue for more than a decade.

In 2006, the U.S. and Japan, then ruled by the Liberal Democratic Party, signed an agreement to relocate the base’s flight operations from Ginowan to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab farther north on Okinawa Island, by 2014.

The DPJ has issued several versions of its “Okinawa Vision,” an overall outline of its policies for the prefecture.

This vision has boasted rather radical concepts, including a “one country, two systems” approach to ensure greater autonomy for Okinawa, a “drastic reduction” in U.S. bases, and promoting deeper relations with East Asia by allowing people from Taiwan to visit without tourist visas.

Hatoyama meanwhile has repeatedly said he wants the Futenma base moved either out of Okinawa or out of Japan altogether.

Critics say the issue must be resolved soon.

“It took this long for the Japanese government to get this far, and I don’t think it’s possible to reverse” the Futenma plan, Kubo said, adding it would take years to find a new site and woo an amenable host community.

“It may cause serious damage to the Hatoyama administration, but I think the DPJ should apologize and say it cannot fulfill all of its (August campaign) promises and stick to the LDP-forged plan.”

But Futenma is not the only source of U.S. concern with the Hatoyama administration. The new prime minister has called for an “equal” Japan-U.S. alliance and says he intends to conduct “a comprehensive review” of the alliance as the bilateral security treaty approaches its 50th anniversary next year.

“This ‘equal’ relationship is one 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,” Hatoyama said in his policy speech to the Diet late last month.

But Kubo notes it is difficult to grasp Hatoyama’s “equal” alliance concept because the agreement itself is not symmetric.

“In an alliance, there is the aspect of helping each other when one is in need,” Kubo said. “I think it is highly questionable for Japan to keep demanding one thing or another, like having the U.S. properly deal with North Korea over the abductee issue or ensure Japan’s security while saying Japan won’t do anything for (America) and instead ask that the bases be relocated outside Japan.”

Hatoyama’s desire to create an East Asian community has meanwhile sparked U.S. concerns that Tokyo is leaning away from Washington as it tries to enhance its relations with the rest of Asia.

But a senior Foreign Ministry official brushes off concerns about bilateral tensions.

“I think it is a show of fresh puzzlement (over the new government),” the official said. “The only people who are making a fuss are the Asia specialists in Washington. But there must not be any sense of uncertainty, so we must ensure there is thorough communication.”

Another major topic Hatoyama and Obama are expected to raise is what to do about the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of multinational warships involved in counterterrorism operations linked to Afghanistan.

Hatoyama has said he won’t “simply” extend the MSDF mission when it ends in January.

His government has instead created an alternate civilian aid package that includes funding vocational training for former Taliban fighters and developing farmland in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Critics, including Takashi Kawakami, a professor at Takushoku University and an expert on Japan-U.S. relations, said ending the Indian Ocean support mission itself is not a big deal, but considering the current dangerous situation in Afghanistan it would be wiser to send Self-Defense Forces elements instead of civilians.

“By stopping the hard power (MSDF refueling mission), the DPJ needs to find an alternative hard power . . . like sending the SDF and finding an effective way to use the forces,” Kawakami said.

“I don’t think the refueling activities were appreciated all that much. Japan should contribute substantially in areas of international cooperation in which it can participate.”

Sending the SDF to Afghanistan, however, would pose a huge problem for the administration because of the DPJ’s partnership with the Social Democratic Party, which adamantly opposes any overseas role for the forces.

As long as the SDP is part of the ruling coalition, Kawakami says, the DPJ won’t be able to order such a deployment.

But the situation could change after next summer’s Upper House election if the DPJ wins a majority and no longer needs the SDP.

“The SDF is a major bottleneck for Hatoyama,” Kawakami said. But “if (the DPJ) decides to cut the SDP out of the coalition, it would be able to pursue” an SDF deployment.

Obama will stage his presidential debut in Japan on Friday, and critics note that his making Tokyo the first stop on his Asia tour signifies the importance he attaches to relations with Japan and his expectations for the Hatoyama administration.

Kawakami stressed that the success of the summit depends on whether Hatoyama promises to set a deadline by the end of December on settling the Futenma relocation.

“If Obama goes back empty-handed, Japan would be labeled as (undependable),” Kawakami said. “The Obama-Hatoyama summit is extremely important — the outcome could determine the future bilateral relationship.”