April 21, 2010

April 21, 2010 | Commentary on Asia, China

Futenma Cast Shadow Over US Japan Alliance

Like a child who played with matches and then begged others to put out the fire, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is now desperately seeking a solution to his self-inflicted Futenma crisis. Washington deflected the prime minister’s attempts to dump the problem on the U. S. by instead insisting that any Japanese alternative to the existing plan must be both operationally and politically feasible. The Obama administration thus avoided being dragged into acting as an intermediary between Tokyo and Okinawa.

Prime Minister Hatoyama has made so many promises to so many groups that an immaculate solution is now impossible. It is inevitable that he will alienate important domestic constituencies or his critical U.S. ally…or both. Hatoyama’s ineptitude on the issue has strained relations with the United States and intensified the DPJ’s plummeting public approval.

Japanese public opinion polls show rising anxiety that Hatoyama has damaged the important relationship with Washington. Over 50% of respondents now believe the prime minister should resign if he is unable to resolve the Futenma dispute.

U.S. officials see the Futenma dispute as the initial indicator of potentially worse difficulties to come in the alliance. This has triggered broader U.S. unease over the DPJ’s long-term security plans and Japan’s reliability as an ally. As one U.S. official commented, the DPJ is raising issues that question virtually every aspect of the fundamentals of the alliance.

DPJ Boldly Changed Course…and Headed For the Rocks. The DPJ assumed office last year eager to display a new assertiveness in Japan’s relations with Washington. But by choosing to dramatize the Futenma issue, Hatoyama disastrously misread the Obama Administration’s commitment to maintaining the security capabilities necessary to fulfill its bilateral defense treaty requirements.

The DPJ has yet to articulate its security and foreign policies nor defined its vision for Japan’s global security role. Despite clamoring for an “equal alliance” with the U.S., the DPJ has failed to define its terms nor displayed a willingness to assume greater responsibilities commensurate with such a role.

The DPJ has shown itself unable to speak with one voice. Cabinet members publicly refute each other, are contradicted by the prime minister who then reverses policy course. US officials complain that the DPJ, by distancing itself from the bureaucracy, has broken the normal channels of communication. Instead, Washington receives a procession of DPJ legislators providing conflicting policy statements which breeds confusion.

U.S. Muted Early Concerns Over the DPJ. At the time of the Japanese election, the Obama Administration was concerned by some of the long-standing DPJ security recommendations, but adopted a wait-and-see attitude to allow the new DPJ government time to define its security policies. Despite U.S. hopes that the Hatoyama administration would moderate its campaign rhetoric after assuming office, DPJ officials continued to advocate security policies contrary to U.S. interests.

U.S. officials' unease increased after meeting with DPJ counterparts. As time progressed, Washington felt that its subtle messages were being ignored or rejected by the DPJ and that U.S. public silence was being interpreted as acquiescence to new Japanese security proposals. As a result, the Obama Administration sent Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to deliver a more direct, transparent message affirming U.S. positions and delineating concerns.

Impact on the Alliance. Futenma has had a corrosive effect on the alliance and paralyzed Washington’s ability to engage with Japan. This corrosive environment has fueled suspicion. U.S. officials comment that Washington should be able to understand, predict, and rely on the views of an ally. But this is not the case with the DPJ. While the Hatoyama administration issues platitudes about the importance of the alliance, its actions call its commitment into question.

In January, Prime Minister Hatoyama characterized solving the Futenma issue is a litmus test for developing the U.S.-Japan security arrangement. If Hatoyama fails to accept the Guam Agreement or provide a viable alternative by the end of May, it will be hard to keep the alliance from taking on serious water. While it is unclear what dynamics are set into motion, it is easy to see things unfolding.

The Obama Administration must remain resolute on the need to implement the force realignment agreement but do a better job publicly explaining the importance of U.S. military forces for the defense of Japan and other security contingencies. U.S. Marines on Okinawa are an indispensable and irreplaceable component of any U.S. response to an Asian crisis.

For its part, Tokyo should realize that allowing the Futenma wound to continue to fester distracts both nations from more important issues and strains important bilateral military ties. It is important that both countries understand that Japanese and U.S. national interests are best served by maintaining and strengthening the alliance. U.S. forwarddeployed forces in Japan and South Korea provide a tangible sign of Washington’s commitment to defending its allies as well as the values that these countries share.

Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the Jiji Press