September 4, 2009
By Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.
Sixty-four years ago this week, the Japanese formally
surrendered to Allied forces on the USS Missouri, ending World War
II. Thus began a long era in U.S.-Japanese relations characterized
by a shared strategic vision and broad cooperation on security.
That era may be over. This past weekend's elections ended five
decades of dominance by the Liberal Democratic Party. Yukio
Hatoyama, leader of the victorious Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ),
has questioned some of the most basic assumptions of the U.S.-Japan
relationship. While it is too soon to know what direction Mr.
Hatoyama's party will take Japan, the Obama administration should
not simply sit back and wait for events to unfold.
The new Japanese leader claims he wants a foreign policy more
independent of Washington. While Mr. Hatoyama emphasizes that the
U.S.-Japanese alliance should "continue to be the cornerstone of
Japanese diplomatic policy," he has also said that Japan is
"caught" between the U.S. and China. He wants Japan to focus more
on Asia and less on America. He has even called for an Asian
economic bloc, similar to the European Union, that would use a
common regional currency and provide a permanent framework for
That is not all. Mr. Hatoyama has declared that he would not
renew Japan's refueling mission that helps support anti-terrorism
operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The DPJ also insists that
the U.S. Marine Corps air units on Okinawa vacate the island
completely. He disagrees with the already negotiated agreement for
sharing the costs of redeploying 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to
Guam. And he has even called for reopening the Status of Forces
Agreement between the U.S. and Japan.
All of this would be heady change for Japan, a country not known
for sudden shifts in policy. For years, the U.S. has prodded Tokyo
to take on more global responsibilities for international security
and to update the alliance. The DPJ's victory will make achieving
these goals even harder.
If the Obama administration sits back and simply reacts to
events in Japan, our long-standing alliance may simply wither away.
Or worse, Japan may begin to realign itself with other countries
such as China in a way that undermines our interests and the
security of Asia.
What to do? For starters, the Obama administration should make
clear that the United States expects Japan to continue
participating in the anti-terrorist refueling operation. How the
Japanese handle this issue will be a test of the entire
relationship. This operation has never been popular in Japan, so it
would be politically easy for the DPJ to jettison it as way to
satisfy its constituency and to demonstrate distance from the U.S.
The Obama administration should signal that abandoning Japan's
obligations on this front will have a political cost
A second test will be whether the new Japanese government will
reopen the Guam agreement. Mr. Hatoyama may try to reshift the U.S.
air base on the island, reduce Japan's financial contribution or
even move all the U.S. air units out completely. This would be a
setback for U.S. military presence in Asia. It could also have
unforeseen political consequences for the U.S.-Japan alliance,
feeding anti-American sentiments inside Japan, while producing a
stateside backlash that would lead Congress to downgrade America's
commitments to Japan.
In addition to pushing back on Guam, the Obama administration
should emphasize the importance of missile-defense cooperation with
Japan. In the past, Japan has been a stalwart U.S. partner on
missile defense owing to its concern over the North Korean threat.
Highlighting the importance of continuing this cooperation would
strengthen an important tie when other threads in the relationship
may be fraying. It's also critically important for America's own
missile-defense protection that cooperation with Japan continues
and be shown to be successful.
The biggest danger to U.S. interests, however, may not be what
the Japanese do, but what the Obama administration does in response
to the elections. Mr. Hatoyama has not hidden his preference for
reaching out to China. But neither has the Obama administration.
While some analysts think there are limits to how far Tokyo might
cozy up to Beijing, others fear that, when it comes to China, the
Japanese are pushing on an open door in Washington. Things like the
U.S.-Japan-China dialogue proposed by the administration may
suddenly become much more relevant.
It's fine for us to talk with China, but we should not be
inserting Beijing in the middle of our alliances. To do so only
increases the chances of Japan embracing a strategic realignment
that brings it closer to China. Instead of opening a
U.S.-China-Japan dialogue, we should continue to build on the
existing three-way dialogue -- the one with Japan and Australia --
with the aim of adding more like-minded countries from the
That way we can keep our strategic relations with Japan strong --
and see the alliance with the Japanese continue as the true
cornerstone of a peace in Asia that began on that day long ago on
the USS Missouri.
Holmes is vice president of foreign- and defense-policy
studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in The Washington Times
Sixty-four years ago this week, the Japanese formally surrendered to Allied forces on the USS Missouri, ending World War II. Thus began a long era in U.S.-Japanese relations characterized by a shared strategic vision and broad cooperation on security.
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.
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