Fifty years after the current Japan-U.S. security treaty took effect, 2010 looks to be a watershed year for the bilateral relationship between Japan and the United States.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s insistence on revisiting a 2006 bilateral agreement calling for the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma on Okinawa to a less populated site on the island to the north, is straining Japan-U.S. relations. More than 100 days after becoming prime minister, Hatoyama has yet to decide whether to honor the accord.

There are four major problems with the Hatoyama administration’s pursuit of its policies toward the U.S.: (1) Hatoyama’s lack of understanding of America and Americans, the result of which has led to mismanagement of the alliance relationship and damaged Americans’ self-esteem, (2) failure by Hatoyama and his colleagues to build personal ties with the right people in Washington, (3) the Hatoyama administration’s inability to draw up long-term strategies for bilateral relations, and (4) Hatoyama’s failure to appreciate the cost to Japan if the U.S. withdrew its troops from the country.

Hatoyama does not seem to understand that Americans, who are sometimes criticized for being arrogant, are quite easily hurt. For example, even the administration of President George W. Bush was openly upset when France and Germany did not fully support his war efforts in Iraq. Bush jumped at Japan’s decision to support him.

It was against this background that President Barack Obama experienced utter shock when his junior partner in the Pacific appeared to be trying to renege on an earlier promise.

At their meeting in November, Hatoyama told Obama to “trust me” in handling the base relocation issue. Hatoyama is to blame entirely for the discord that ensued. He should have known that Obama would interpret the words from a presumably competent politician as reassurance that the issue would be resolved before yearend, and that Hatoyama would forfeit respect if he intentionally betrayed Obama.

Mutual trust is the prerequisite to any alliance between nations. Should Tokyo lose Washington’s trust, Japan would face serious consequences — involving shared military information, commerce, exchange rates and resolution of global issues. Hatoyama has forgotten that his predecessors such as Zenko Suzuki and Morihiro Hosokawa strained relations with the U.S. by hurting Americans’ pride.

Before taking over the government, Hatoyama relied on Jitsuro Terashima, chairman of the Japan Research Institute, for advice on diplomatic and security issues. For his part, Terashima had distanced himself from American Japan hands such as former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; Michael Green, the former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council; and others. In Terashima’s view, Japan should work closely with “mainstream” people in Washington.

Hatoyama has kept this posture since becoming prime minister. The trouble is that he has failed to show Washington what global strategies he seeks to pursue other than bilateral ties with the U.S. He has not succeeded in establishing bonds with key figures in Washington as they thought his “diplomacy of fraternity” seemed empty.

Meanwhile, in pursuing his pet theme of reducing reliance on bureaucrats and getting elected politicians to play key roles, Hatoyama has all but put an end to the strategy-building tasks undertaken by the Foreign Policy Bureau of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, created in the early 1990s when the now-opposition Liberal Democratic Party was in power.

Democratic Party of Japan politicians, including Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, are so inexperienced in diplomacy that they have been busy learning the basics and have had little time to think strategically. Under these circumstances, how does the prime minister expect to translate his oft-repeated slogan of building a “more equal” relationship with the U.S. into action?

Continued indecision on the relocation of the Futenma functions on Okinawa could lead to one of at least two consequences: the base remaining at its present location for as long as no serious military conflict occurs or, in the event of a serious accident involving base aircraft, withdrawal of all U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa because of local pressure.

Hatoyama is known to have long entertained the idea that, under the Japanese-American security arrangement, U.S. troops should come to the aid of Japan only in times of emergency such as a military conflict with a third nation and that no American forces should be stationed in Japan during peacetime. DPJ secretary general Ichiro Ozawa has echoed this view, adding that Japan needs the presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet only for protection from outside aggression.

Voices within the U.S. military stress that American troops would be glad to withdraw to Guam or Hawaii, but that there would be no guarantee that the troops would come to defend Japan in case of armed conflicts.

It has been estimated that if Japan, which is flanked on the west by nuclear-armed military powers, were to follow the ideas promulgated by Hatoyama and Ozawa, the nation would have to increase its ¥5 trillion defense budget by 10 percent annually for the next 10 years. Hatoyama’s idea that there would be no need for such a military buildup if Japan built a relationship of trust with China is unrealistic.

So, if Japan, while following the fancy of Hatoyama and Ozawa, manages to wreck the relationship of trust built up with the U.S. over decades, the costs could be extremely high.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the January issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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