Illustration: Phil Couzens

From Push To Dove

As the Hatoyama government approaches the end of its first 100 days in office, the air is thick with condemnation of the DPJ-led government's handling of the relationship with the United States, particularly the ongoing dispute over the future of Futenma air station and the US presence in Okinawa.

Smelling blood in the water, the LDP and its allies in the conservative commentariat have gone on the offensive against the government. On Thursday, Sadakazu Tanigaki, the leader of the LDP, said that the government was acting irresponsibly when it came to the hopes of the Okinawan people and harming relations with the US. Compared to what others were saying, Tanigaki was being charitable. Conservative journalist Yoshiko Sakurai, speaking in Kyushu at a forum sponsored by the Sankei-affiliated journal Seiron, said the Hatoyama government was effectively giving comfort to China by taking on the U.S. on Futenma. (Sakurai also criticized the Hatoyama government for neglecting the military to spend money on child allowances, and insisted that Japan is on the path to becoming a dependency of China.) Sankei's prose is no less purple than Sakurai's. In an editorial published Thursday, Sankei accused the Hatoyama government of creating a crisis in the U.S.-Japan alliance, and says that Hatoyama has committed an act of betrayal towards President Obama by prioritizing the stability of his government over his country's security.

Richard Armitage, visiting Tokyo earlier this week along with Michael Green, added his criticism of the Hatoyama government in a meeting with Tanigaki, questioning the government's ability to lead.

It is hard not to conclude that the Hatoyama government has miscalculated, in part I think because Hatoyama assumed that he could resolve the problem by speaking frankly with Obama (which would explain the prime minister's desire to summit with Obama on the sidelines in Copenhagen). In effect, Hatoyama seems to have desired the mirror image of Junichiro Koizumi's relationship with George W. Bush: where the Bush-Koizumi relationship deepened Japan's dependence on the U.S. and led Japan to support U.S. wars abroad, his relationship with Obama would based on mutual trust and would result in the creation of an "equal" U.S.-Japan relationship that would focus on cooperation in non-security fields.

To build this relationship Hatoyama seems to have decided to take a calculated risk. If the two countries could tackle Futenma quickly — an issue which has been a millstone around the alliance for years — the way would be open to the kind of relationship Hatoyama purports to desire. By addressing this issue in the first months of its tenure, his government could signal a break with past practices in the alliance and demonstrate its ability to follow through on its promises and its deftness in foreign policy.

Instead the Hatoyama government faces its worst-case scenario: it has painted itself into a corner, having systematically eliminated alternatives to the current agreement, while appearing incompetent in its handling of foreign policy, deepening the mistrust of U.S. officials (many of whom were already skeptical about the DPJ) in the process. Also, by dangling the possibility of a new agreement that could remove Marines from Okinawa entirely, the Hatoyama government raised the hopes of the Okinawan people, perhaps to unreasonable heights.

I am hesitant to declare this situation a crisis for the alliance because the Hatoyama government may already be moving in the direction of accommodation: Hatoyama has said that all options are on the table (including the agreement on hand), and has indicated that his government's plan will be forthcoming as early as next week. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has concluded that relocating Futenma's operations to Kadena is not an option. After visiting Guam, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa — perhaps the leading defender of the status quo in the cabinet — concluded that relocating Futenma to Guam is not doable. The Hatoyama government is running out of alternatives to the 2006 agreement. Even the Social Democrats may be coming around: a senior member of her own party criticized SDPJ leader Mizuho Fukushima for suggesting that she could pull her party out of the government over the Futenma issue.

If it ends up embracing the 2006 agreement, it will be hard to conclude that the Hatoyama government did not injure itself by dragging out the process only to maintain the status quo. I do not think that it will be a mortal blow to the government because ultimately Futenma is a low-stakes issue domestically. It does reinforce the image that the DPJ is inexperienced on foreign policy, but then the Japanese public already believed that last summer before the general election and still voted the DPJ into power. More significantly, it calls into question Hatoyama's ability to lead his cabinet.

I am more sanguine than most when it comes to the significance of disagreements among cabinet ministers — I do think that the DPJ's model is a prime minister who is first among equals. That being said, on the Futenma issue Hatoyama has not been first at all, despite his periodic interjections to remind the public and the US that the final decision will be his and his alone. Given the sensitivities of this issue, Hatoyama needed to use a heavier hand to guide the deliberations of his ministers. Someone needed to take control of the process of reviewing the agreement. Okada tried, but apparently failed. It needed to be the prime minister. Hatoyama may be trying to correct that now, but the damage has been done.

What have we learned from this dispute?

First, my earlier misgivings about Hatoyama's ability to lead are justified. Hatoyama seems to have some idea of where he wants to take Japan, but he seems to have little idea how to go about it. Hatoyama strikes me as too much of a dreamer and not enough of a strategist. This tendency would be less of a problem if Hatoyama had a Machiavelli in his cabinet, but it is not yet clear to me who in the government will fill this role, if anyone. (For all we know it may be Ichiro Ozawa after all, although I am not convinced of this just yet.)

Second, as noted above, I think the lasting damage from this dispute will be limited, especially if it works out in Washington's favor. Having been burned on this issue and facing an general election upper house election (I hope writing general election where I meant upper house election doesn't prove prescient) and a fight over the budget in the new year, we will be hearing less from the Hatoyama government on foreign policy in the months to come, perhaps clearing the air for a proper discussion of the future of the alliance and the future of U.S. forces in Japan (what Hatoyama, Ozawa, and others are most interested in anyway). This discussion needs to happen, the sooner the better, and Futenma and Okinawa are sideshows to the bigger question of where the DPJ sees the alliance in its Asia-centered foreign policy and what is the minimum level of commitment the US will expect from Japan if the alliance indeed narrows its focus to the defense of Japan. Someone, if not Hatoyama, needs to start signaling how the Japanese government plans to translate its foreign policy ideals into concrete policy.

Third, the DPJ may hold the upper hand in its relationship with the SDPJ. The SDPJ does have the nuclear option of pulling out of the government and reducing it to a minority in the upper house, but it is a one-shot weapon. Once the SDPJ uses it, it's done and who is to say how the SDPJ would fare in a snap election triggered by its pulling out of the government. What would the SDPJ have to gain from pulling out of the government? With Fukushima in the cabinet it has a seat at the table, giving it more influence over policy now than it could expect to have in opposition (just ask the LDP) or as a silent partner in the Diet. While the SDPJ's hand — and, for that matter, the PNP's hand — looks impressive given that it holds the balance in the upper house, its position is weaker than meets the eye.

The Hatoyama government misplayed the Futenma dispute. But it is possible that the prime minister and his ministers will learn from the experience and be a bit savvier the next time around.

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