Japan-U.S. relations are at a turning point and the Futenma base dispute — which has strained bilateral ties since the Democratic Party of Japan took power a year ago — is also symbolic of the broader and longer-term changes that affect the alliance, American experts said at a recent seminar in Tokyo.

It looks as if both countries were operating on autopilot without making sufficient efforts to keep up the “high-maintenance” alliance, the experts said, calling for a strategic dialogue between the two countries to set the vision on the future of the bilateral relationship.

“A lot of people would just say Futenma, Futenma, Futenma, and they would say suddenly we are unable to solve the problems that we have, and for that reason this is a turning point (in Japan-U.S. relations). I do think it’s a turning point, but for a different and broader set of reasons,” Kent Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at the School of Advanced Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, said at the Aug. 27 seminar organized by the Keizai Koho Center.

One of the reasons, he said, is the significant political changes in both countries — the shift from the Bush administration to the Obama administration in the United States and the change of power from the Liberal Democratic Party to the DPJ last year.

And despite the change of power in Japan, “we’re still in a situation of considerable domestic uncertainty,” with the DPJ-led government already having two prime ministers — Yukio Hatoyama and then Naoto Kan — in its first year, Calder said.

Such a domestic political confusion — the “revolving-door” changes in the top leadership that have continued from the final years of the LDP’s rule — has made it hard for Japan to take initiatives in the changing international situation, he said.

Much attention was paid when China surpassed Japan in terms of second-quarter gross domestic product, but Calder said a fall from the world’s second-largest to third-largest economy in itself does not make such a difference.

“The crucial point is not economic scale beyond a certain point, but rather the relationship between economic resources and the strategy or the political coherence,” he said. The political transition and the internal conflicts that the nation has had in recent years “probably hurt Japan much more” than its decline from No. 2 to No. 3 in the world economy, he added.

The shift from G8 to G20 as the key forum of international governance, for example, “is not totally unrelated either to the rise of nations like India or China, or to the fact that Japanese politics has been confused and it’s been so hard for Japan to be making major initiatives,” Calder pointed out.

Japan has a potentially important role to play in the area of international finance, and for the U.S., Japan is the country with which it could cooperate more intimately than with China in this area, Calder said. “But again, the ability of the political system to act decisively — and coordinate with the bureaucracy — becomes very important” for such cooperation to take place, he said.

Turning to the Japan-U.S. bilateral relationship, Calder said that although there have been some successes under the Obama administration, “Futenma has made the U.S.-Japan relations more difficult. . . . It has caused more frustration.”

The attempt by the Hatoyama administration to review the 2006 Japan-U.S. agreement to move the U.S. Marine’s Air Station Futenma in Okinawa to another part of the prefecture severely strained the bilateral ties over the past year. The DPJ-led coalition eventually gave up on moving the base’s functions out of Okinawa, but progress on the issue remains elusive as local opposition to the relocation within the prefecture remains strong.

Calder said the confusion over Futenma “has made it harder for American leaders — high-level officials in the Pentagon and the White House — to take the idea of broad strategic cooperation with Japan seriously because they wonder whether Japan can implement agreements.” Over the past year, “Futenma has been the cause of the problems” in the bilateral relationship “most seriously because it prevented us from focusing on what’s really important,” he added.

At the same time, Futenma is “also a representation of some other, broader forces in history and in the U.S.-Japan relationship,” Calder said. He went on to say that the original bilateral agreement reached back in 1996 to close Futenma — on condition that its functions would be taken over by a replacement facility — was “not cognizant of some important changes that have been going on in the broader U.S.-Japan relationship over the years.”

Calder said holding military bases on foreign soil is “historically an unusual phenomenon” that only became common after World War II, adding that building new bases is especially rare.

“It usually is a complicated thing politically — particularly if you have a new party in power. If there is a new government and major shift in the political party, then there will be problems in base relations,” he said.

“So it is not surprising that the U.S. and Japan had trouble coming to and implementing the agreement on Futenma,” he said.

William Brooks, an adjunct professor at SAIS who had earlier monitored Japan-U.S. relations at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo for 15 years, observed how Futenma — which was put on the political agenda in the mid-1990s as a key part of the plan to reorganize U.S. military bases in Japan — “is still unresolved and is still a thorn in our side.”

It is “not a good omen” that people’s emotions involved in this issue — particularly in Okinawa — “are probably as high now as they were in 1995” after the rape of a local schoolgirl by American servicemen triggered massive anti-U.S. base movements on the island, Brooks said.

Brooks said that Japan-U.S. relations appear to be at a standstill because “nothing seems to be happening” despite all the suggestions and proposals for reinvigorating the bilateral ties.

He emphasized that the Japan-U.S. alliance is a “high-maintenance alliance.” It is “like a very complicated machine – if you don’t fix it, take care of it, it falls apart. We’ve got to pay attention to it, we’ve got to put the efforts into it on both sides,” he said.

“The foundation is solid, but because of the asymmetric relationship (between the two countries in the obligations for mutual defense under the bilateral security treaty), the alliance has certain active fault lines in it that (could crack open) if not taken care of . . . and this is what Futenma has done,” Brooks said.

“Futenma is symbolic of the Okinawa base issues or the American military presence in Japan. And as a symbol, it’s a political cause indeed, so solving that problem has a multiplier effect of resolving a lot of other irritants in the relationship and closing the fault that has opened up,” he said.

Hiroyuki Akita, a senior writer for the Nikkei business daily who served as commentator in the seminar, said the DPJ-led coalition apparently did not make the serious efforts required to resolve the Futenma dispute. Around the time Japan and the U.S. reached the 1996 deal, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto is said to have held a total of 17 meetings with the governor of Okinawa, and Yukio Okamoto, then special adviser to the prime minister on the issue, paid as many as 57 visits to Okinawa, he said, noting that the current DPJ government appears to have made no such efforts.

Perhaps behind such inaction, Akita said, is the lack of consensus among the DPJ leaders on which path Japan should take in its foreign relations: seek a deeper alliance with the U.S. as in the administration of Junichiro Koizumi, or pursue a more balanced diplomacy where Japan would keep the alliance with the U.S. but seek closer ties with Asia, or aim for a diplomacy more “independent” of the U.S. Therefore, the administration lacked the energy to deal with the Futenma issue because nobody wanted to take political risks in such a transition phase right after the change of government, he pointed out.

“In that sense, the Futenma issue is not a cause that is hurting Japan-U.S. relations, but more a symptom of the serious issues surrounding the bilateral ties,” he said.

Both Calder and Brooks stressed the need for the Japan and the U.S. to engage in closer strategic dialogue — which has been noticeably lacking between the two countries in recent years while the U.S. launched, for example, a strategic economic dialogue with China last year.

But it is crucial that such a dialogue has substance to it, Calder said. And for that to happen stability in Japanese politics — and the ability of Japanese political leaders to enunciate a clear set of policies — would be essential, he noted.

“It’s often said that the strength of the U.S.-Japan relationship is based on shared values and interests,” Brooks said. “I think that’s still very much true, but the question I ask for in 2010 is, are we sharing the same strategic vision of where the relationship ought to go — both from the military sense of the alliance, and the non-military sense of the bilateral relationship in a broader, global context,” he said, pointing to the lack of strategic dialogue between the two countries over the past year.

“It is as if Japan — and to a certain extent the U.S. — were operating on autopilot, or on-the-spot, ad-hoc, Band-Aid diplomacy, with only sporadic bursts of some interest” in each other, he observed.

Calder added that Japan and the U.S. need to move beyond the military-security dimensions and broaden their scope of cooperation to other areas including energy, environment, mass transportation and the medical field.

He stressed the importance of cultural and educational ties between the two countries. “The alliance is something much broader than simply political-military dimensions, even if they are at the core. And these can be things that help us to create a win-win environment, rather than just a narrow focus on Futenma, where there is always a sort of scoreboard on who is winning and who is losing. I think we need to broaden our relationship beyond that,” he said.

Brooks expressed concern over an issue that “did not happen over the last year but has happened over the last 10 years.” Based on his study on educational and cultural exchanges between the two countries as well as views of each country based on opinion polls, he observed that Japanese and Americans “seem to be losing interest in each other.”

“Trust can be regained, but interest is very hard to gain back,” he said.

The number of young Americans studying in Japan as foreign students has dropped to a mere 2,000, and the number of Japanese studying at U.S. institutions fell by almost half over the past decade to about 27,000 last year, Brooks said.

“So we’re just losing interest in each other. We don’t care about each other anymore,” he said.

Another factor is that with Japan having five prime ministers since 2006, “there is a general trend in the U.S. as well as in Japan of turning inward,” Brooks said. This inward-looking situation “results in even less attention paid (in the U.S.) to not only Japan but Asia in general,” he said.

Calder said that, overall, Japan and the U.S. are at a turning point in their bilateral relations “with a new administration in Tokyo . . . a new international situation, which demands that Japan be more dynamic and that it play a proactive role so that it does not get bypassed by other countries that are becoming so vigorous in international affairs.”

“This isn’t the end of the alliance, but keeping the alliance relevant for the next decade or the next generation does require new approaches, joint projects, strategic dialogue, more cultural cooperation,” he said.

Calder said the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that Japan will host in Yokohama in November “is a chance to move beyond Futenma and to showcase that (Japan) can do things that are broader” especially because any major initiatives to resolve the Futenma dispute will have to wait until the Okinawa gubernatorial election held in the same month.

Brooks concurred that the APEC summit and the scheduled visit by U.S. President Barack Obama would provide a good chance to “put the bilateral relationship back on track” and the two countries can “take stock of the strength of our relationship and also to set the course for what we want to do in the future — a vision of where the bilateral relationship should go, what we can do together — not just narrowly in this region, but in the global community as well.”

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