Tokyo's Relationship Anxiety

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has survived the challenge of Democratic Party of Japan founder Ichiro Ozawa for the premiership, and now the real work begins. The party must focus on repairing its image with voters, crafting a clear policy agenda for returning Japan to economic health, and strengthening relations with the United States. The last of these may be the most elusive goal for Mr. Kan, given how little of his own views of Japan's most important foreign relationship he has shared since taking power.

There is an ambivalence at the heart of the DPJ toward the U.S. It can be seen in the various statements of Mr. Ozawa, questioning the need for U.S. troops in Japan and his preference for linking Japan more closely to United Nations security operations around the globe. It came to the fore in former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's public writings that openly mused about the decline of American power and the need for Japan to move closer to Asia. It has been shown by the DPJ's hesitant response to solving the U.S. troop relocation crisis on Okinawa, and the inability to reach an intraparty consensus on the issue.

Such ambivalence may be natural in a relationship as long-lasting as that between Washington and Tokyo. The problem for Mr. Kan and the DPJ is that they have not found a realistic alternative to the alliance that provides Japan a stronger security presence in the world. Tokyo has no other close partners in Asia and certainly none that will commit to its defense. It has no signal diplomatic initiatives globally, and finds its political influence waning in comparison with China's. It has gradually shrunk its military budget over the past decade, just as China has dramatically increased its own. Talk to Japanese political and business leaders, and they bemoan the drift they feel their county is experiencing.

In meetings with foreign observers, DPJ officials give little hint that they have a plan for dealing with the local political opposition in Futenma or know what they will propose to the Americans to resolve the impasse.

It is precisely this sense of ineffectiveness and lack of options that fuels resentment of the dependence on America. While some younger DPJ members and staffers seem more comfortable with the American relationship, the party elders are defined in part by their opposition to what they perceived as the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party's lockstep support for U.S. policy throughout the postwar period. In Messrs. Ozawa's or Hatoyama's eyes, it is entirely natural that Japan should play a role more independent of the U.S.; leverage its economic wealth and technological prowess to influence regional and global issues; and think and act globally within a multilateral framework, such as the evanescent East Asian Community rubric or under United Nations auspices.

Unfortunately, Japan has been less successful in translating that vision into reality. From North Korea's nuclear program to China's growing military capabilities, Tokyo finds itself more reliant on a close relationship with Washington than ever before. Yet, if the DPJ's leaders do not work to husband and strengthen those ties, they risk further incurring Washington's pique and straining the working relations that several generations of bureaucrats have patiently developed. This will then lead to the very marginalization that Tokyo so publicly fears.

Thus the importance of Mr. Kan's re-election as party leader, and therefore prime minister, Tuesday. He will have at least three years in which to govern without having to call another national vote. The U.S. has been waiting for such stability since 2006, as have Japan's citizens. But Mr. Kan cannot afford to let U.S.-Japan relations drift. As hard pressed as he is to restore Japan's economic vigor, he and his cabinet must devote considerable time and effort to deciding what Japan can realistically do in its foreign policy, and what its true long-term interests are.

One of his biggest immediate challenges will be the 2006 agreement to relocate U.S. Marines out of the crowded Futenma base in southern Okinawa. Mr. Kan agreed to honor the laboriously negotiated plan. Unfortunately, a vote in Nago City, Okinawa this week resulted in the election of a majority of municipal assembly members opposed to accepting a new U.S. Marine base in their town. The Nago City vote will likely have its greatest significance on November's gubernatorial election in Okinawa. Current governor Hirokazu Nakaima will find it hard to give any more support to the 2006 plan, and might possibly oppose it outright. This would doom the agreement, regardless of Mr. Kan's wishes, and spark a new crisis in U.S.-Japan relations, which also may prevent the prime minister from successfully focusing on Japan's domestic troubles.

As I wrote a few months ago in these pages, such a victory for anti-U.S. forces could well embolden other base opponents, including on Japan's mainland. This would represent a fundamental challenge to the U.S.-Japan security alliance. It is unclear whether Mr. Kan and the DPJ are up to the test of defeating the activists in the court of public opinion. In meetings with foreign observers, DPJ officials give little hint that they have a plan for dealing with the local political opposition in Futenma or know what they will propose to the Americans to resolve the impasse.

Japan is at a crossroads. If the DPJ decides that the U.S. alliance is secondary to Japan's future, then party leaders need a credible alternative that ensures Japan's security. If they reaffirm the trans-Pacific bond, then they need concrete proposals for fully sharing the burdens of maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific and ensuring the continued viability of basing U.S. troops on Japanese soil. With a Washington distracted by its own economic woes and increasingly disinclined to shape the global environment, Mr. Kan has little time to prove the importance of Japan to the world.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: CIA World Factbook

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