There is concern in Washington over the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance at a time when the two countries should be working close together on a broad range of international issues, including North Korea and Iran, U.S. foreign policy experts said at a recent symposium in Tokyo.

The handling of the relocation of the U.S. Marine base Futenma by the eight-month-old government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has triggered worries that Tokyo may be moving to dilute the strategic value of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, said Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution.

Talbott and two other experts from the Washington-based think tank were joined by University of Tokyo professor Fumiaki Kubo during the April 26 symposium on the U.S. foreign policy of the administration of President Barack Obama and Tokyo-Washington ties, which was jointly organized by the Brookings Institution, the Keizai Koho Center and the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. Tsuyoshi Sunohara, a senior writer for the financial daily, served as moderator of discussions.

Talbott, a former deputy U.S. secretary of state, noted that both Obama and Hatoyama, who came to power in 2009 promising change, face domestic political difficulties with the prospect of setbacks in key elections this year — the midterm congressional elections in November and the Upper House election in July.

Obama’s challenges in securing congressional approval of key legislation that he favors could hinder his foreign policy and national security agenda, including climate change and arms reduction, Talbott said. “These are uncertain times in the U.S. — just as they seem to be here in Japan,” he added.

Talbott observed that, meanwhile, there is “deep concern” in Washington about the state of the U.S. relations with Japan — or specifically a “concern about the future direction of our alliance.” That concern, he said, is “broadly shared among Democrats, Republicans and independents.”

The attempt by Hatoyama’s ruling coalition to change a 2006 Japan-U.S. agreement — concluded by the then Liberal Democratic Party-led government — and move the Futenma base functions out of Okinawa has soured bilateral relations.

Hatoyama recently gave up on the bid and is reportedly seeking slight modifications to the original 2006 plan for relocating the base within the prefecture, but strong local ire makes it unlikely that the dispute would be resolved by his self-imposed deadline of the end of May.

Talbott noted that the Hatoyama government’s response to this issue over the past several months has triggered “apprehension in the U.S. that Japan is contemplating steps that might have the effect of diluting the strategic value for both of our countries of the American military presence in Okinawa and in the process causing the unraveling of the alliance as a whole.”

The changing global and regional situation is “all the more reason to value and maintain a durable U.S.-Japan alliance,” and the U.S. base on Okinawa is “of concrete and objective importance” for the alliance, he said.

A security treaty, Talbott said, depends on capabilities and a long-standing security alliance between the two countries “depends very much on the U.S. having the capability of responding to contingencies” in the region and needs to have a variety of assets — including naval, airborne units and ground troops.

“The Marines on Okinawa are the (U.S. military’s) only ground forces in this region,” he noted.

As discussions were made on whether Futenma can move out of Okinawa, the same question kept coming up: Who is prepared to host the Marine base?

“The answer is nobody,” Talbott observed. “There seems to be a lot of ‘Not in my backyard’-ism in the debate in Japan. It almost seems as though the issue (of moving Futenma out of Okinawa) has been proposed in a way that makes it almost impossible to solve.”

Strained Japan-U.S. relations, Talbott said, could also harm their interests as they cope with the rise of China.

The Obama administration takes a position that China can be “part of the solution or part of the problem on issues such as North Korea, Iran and its nuclear program, climate and energy, trade and international finance,” Talbott said. “These are issues in which the U.S. and Japan should coordinate their policies toward China as much as possible” but the two countries today “are not doing that sort of coordination anywhere near as much as we should be.”

A “positive evolution” of China remains “one of the key challenges of our time,” Talbott said. “And that is more likely to occur if the U.S. and Japan remain closely in sync in their analysis, their diplomacy and their trust in each other.”

Talbott noted that China “seems to inspire in our governments a degree of mutual suspicion.” Ironically, there seems to be concern in Washington that what is seen as the Hatoyama government’s tilt toward Asia makes it excessively accommodating toward China, whereas there is a mirror-image concern in Tokyo that the Obama administration is lavishing attention on Beijing to the detriment of Japan-U.S. ties, he pointed out.

The problem with the Hatoyama government is not just about Futenma alone but that the basic direction of its foreign and national security policies is not being clearly communicated to the nation’s key ally, said professor Kubo of the University of Tokyo.

The agenda set by Hatoyama at the outset to seek a “close and equal” alliance with the United States was misleading, he said. Pursuit of an “equal alliance” implies that the relationship has not been equal so far, but that raises another question of what exactly is an “equal” security alliance, he noted.

It is an “equal” alliance because both Japan and the U.S. are sovereign states, but the alliance can never be equal in that the U.S. is much bigger than Japan in terms of its military power and economy, he noted. An American may say that Japan as an “equal” alliance partner needs to spend more on defense and contribute to regional security, he said.

If Japan is confronted with any security threat — be it North Korea or China’s military buildup — the nation needs to determine whether it can cope with them alone or should cooperate with the United States, Kubo said. If Japan thinks it needs the cooperation of the U.S., then it follows that the alliance with the U.S. becomes necessary, but there seems to be a different logic at play when the administration discusses its security policies, he said.

Kubo noted that statements by some lawmakers in the ruling coalition raise questions as to whether the “asymmetrical” nature of the Japan-U.S. security alliance is correctly understood.

The rights and obligations of Japan and the U.S. under the bilateral security treaty are not in symmetry in that Japan, which provides bases on its territory to the U.S. military, has no obligation to defend the U.S. in case of military attacks while the U.S. is required to protect Japan, Kubo said.

It would not serve U.S. interests to have to defend Japan unless its military gets access to the bases in Japan, but Japan’s public sentiment tends to focus on the burden of hosting the American bases here, and this tendency is shared by many politicians, he said.

After becoming prime minister, Hatoyama said he would “seal” the idea he had earlier advocated for a Japan-U.S. security alliance without the U.S. troops regularly deployed at bases in Japan. But he has not “retracted” that idea, Kubo noted.

A similar way of thinking appears to be shared by many of the people who support the current administration and that’s perhaps one of the reasons the government tends to put an emphasis on efforts to reduce the U.S. military’s presence in Japan, he said.

Richard Bush, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, said it is understandable that public sentiment tends to focus on the negative consequences of having the U.S. military bases in Okinawa or other parts of Japan. But it is also the obligation of political leadership to ”explain to the public what Japan gains from this alliance,” he said.

From an American viewpoint, there was a time — back in the 1980s when Japan’s economic power grew and trade frictions with the U.S. were in full swing — when Japan was viewed as “free-riding” or “cheap-riding” on the security alliance with the U.S., he noted. “But I think it’s the job of political leaders in both countries to explain why these kinds of relationships are necessary. . . . It’s the job of American political leaders to understand why it is in the American interest to provide security in East Asia.”

Bush also said the Japan-U.S. alliance needs to remain solid for the two countries to cope with key security challenges in the region — North Korea and China’s growing military capabilities.

Countries involved in efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program “must be soberly realistic” and “deal with North Korea as it is, not as we would like it to be,” said the East Asian policy expert.

Despite hopes for progress in the six-party talks involving the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China, Russia and North Korea, “it appears highly unlikely that the present North Korean leadership will give up its nuclear weapons,” he said.

Pyongyang has “always had security and political reasons for keeping its weapons,” and North Korea was “using the six-party talks to create time to complete and perfect the design of its nuclear device and missiles,” Bush noted.

The five powers in the six-party talks “should keep up on the possibility of resuming the talks, but they should put the burden of responsibility on North Korea, not on the U.S., Japan and others,” he said. “Only if Pyongyang provides credible assurances in words and deeds that it is serious about the goal of denuclearization, should we be willing to resume negotiations.”

The five countries, meanwhile, need to contain the dangers posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and key to such efforts will be China and a robust U.S.-Japan alliance, he said.

“We cannot assume that containment, sanctions and other measures will cause the Kim Jong Il leadership to change its mind, but if together we make clear that Pyongyang cannot have both nuclear weapons and an end to isolation, perhaps the next leadership (to take over from the ailing Kim) will change policy,” he noted.

On China’s growing military capabilities, Bush said that Japan will “likely feel more vulnerable” as the U.S.-China balance of power in the Pacific gradually shifts in China’s favor.

The sensible strategy for the U.S. and Japan, he said, is to “shape China’s intentions so that it will move in the benign direction, so that China has more to gain from cooperation than from challenge.”

This has been the basic U.S. policy toward China since the 1970s and is relevant today amid the increasing economic interdependence between the two countries, he added.

To do that requires both engaging China and at the same time maintaining the strength and willingness to “define limits for China’s power,” and to pursue that strategy “the U.S. and Japan will be more effective if they work together, complementing each other’s respective abilities,” Bush said.

Kenneth Pollack, head of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, said Iran’s nuclear program will be a “critical” issue not only for the Obama administration but for the Japan-U.S. alliance in that Iran crossing the nuclear threshold could “break down the nonproliferation norm very quickly.”

Pollack observed that the Obama administration has shifted from its emphasis on engagement with Iran to an emphasis on sanctions, given that the hardliners tightened their grip on power following the 2009 elections, making it unlikely that Tehran will give up its nuclear program.

“Having Japan’s support for the sanctions is critical for the Obama administration,” he said.

If the sanctions fail and are unable to convince the Iranian government to engage in negotiations with the international community over the nuclear issue, “the Obama administration is going to face a very unpleasant choice to make,” he said. While “military options” against Iran “leave a great deal to be desired,” a policy of containment “will almost certainly mean that Iran will be able to bring its nuclear program to fruition,” he noted.

Iran in possession of nuclear weapons will further destabilize the Middle East, but “of equal importance is what Iran’s crossing the nuclear threshold will mean for proliferation globally,” he said, noting that several other Mideast countries will likely follow suit — and possibly those in other parts of the world.

“This is exactly what the Obama administration fears — they can look down the road and see how Iran might potentially be the pebble that begins the avalanche that changes the security dynamics of all parts of the world,” Pollack said. “Iran is the crucial acid test,” and if the international community is unable to stop Iran, it will “not be able to do so for any other country,” he said.