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October 18, 2011

“High Hopes…and Skepticism for Prime Minister Noda”

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U.S. officials express greater optimism about Japanese stewardship under Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda than under his lackluster predecessors. The DPJ abandoned the naïve foreign and security policies of the Hatoyama administration after Chinese and North Korean belligerence underscored the wisdom of a strong alliance with the United States. And Noda is perceived as more capable of reaching across factional and party lines than Kan.

But increased hope is accompanied by lingering skepticism that Noda -- or any Japanese prime minister, for that matter -- will actually implement critically needed policy changes. My mid-September discussions in Tokyo with senior officials, including DPJ and LDP legislators, resulted in a long list of “you must understands,” i.e., explanations why Noda will be unable to make progress on any policy: “You must understand, he must focus on maintaining harmony amongst factions for the first year,” “you must understand, he can’t do anything until after the DPJ or general elections,” etc.

To Japanese officials, these caveats -- and why they inhibit progress toward redressing the country’s dire economic problems or altering its self-imposed inertia on security requirements – make perfect sense. Tokyo says more time is needed to reach consensus on difficult issues and chafes at U.S. impatience. Yet, after decades of Japan failing to take any action to overcome these constraints, they appear to Washington merely as excuses.

The distinction between Japanese and U.S. policymaking resembles the differences between a Japanese tea ceremony and American instant coffee. A tea ceremony is ritualistic, complicated and time-consuming. Eventually, it results in a cup of warm liquid. Instant coffee achieves the same result in 30 seconds. Each side is baffled by the mindset of the other.

Media reports that President Barack Obama and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell pressed Prime Minister Noda to make tangible progress on the Futenma Replacement Facility accurately reflect rising U.S. frustration with Japanese inaction. Some U.S. officials even privately question the viability of Japan as an ally.

DPJ indecision is also reflected in its efforts to straddle the fence on the Futenma issue. Senior officials pledge to press ahead on Futenma even as they appeal to Washington to “further reduce the burden on the Okinawan people.” Tokyo seeks to appease both U.S. and Okinawan audiences while doing little to actually move forward. By the way, Americans bristle at the term “burden” since pledging the blood of our sons and daughters to defend Japan is a U.S. burden that Japan does not reciprocate.

In reality, implementing the Guam Agreement would substantially reduce the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa. The agreement calls for moving a U.S. Marine air unit from a crowded local area to a less-populated one, redeploying 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, and returning several U.S. bases to Okinawan control. However, this requires the construction of a replacement air base on Okinawa. The United States has made clear that if Japan fails to fully implement the agreement, none of the redeployments will take place and the U.S. military footprint will remain exactly as it is today.

In an attempt to “improve the atmosphere with Okinawa,” the Noda administration decided to renew Japanese subsidies to Okinawa at current levels, even allowing local autonomy to determine their allocation. Tokyo resisted recommendations that it link the subsidies with tangible progress on Futenma. One senior official cautioned that “a cold northern wind from Tokyo should be abandoned in favor of warm sunshine to convince Okinawa.” Instead, Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima quickly pocketed the concessions while reiterating his opposition to the replacement airfield.

Continued Japanese inaction on Futenma will make U.S. congressional budget cuts more likely for associated construction on Guam. Though not irreversible, such cuts could be the first domino to fall in a steadily unraveling of the Marine Corps realignment. Okinawan opponents would thus have undermined the best means to accomplish their objective of reducing the U.S. military presence on the island.

A collapse of the Guam Agreement would also renew strains in the Japan-U.S. alliance and increase the potential for anti-American demonstrations in Okinawa. If that were to happen, it could lead the U.S. Congress – desperate to find additional cuts to the defense budget – to advocate reducing American forces in Japan. A similar congressional inclination arose after anti-American protests in South Korean in 2002.

If Washington were to reduce U.S. forces in Japan, Tokyo would face a choice between increasing its own defense forces and budget to compensate for decreased U.S. capabilities or more readily acquiescing to Chinese adventurism.

Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation

First appeared in Mainichi Shimbun

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