Time for the US to accept new realities

According to Helene Cooper of the New York Times, "President Obama will arrive in Tokyo on Friday, at a time when America’s relations with Japan are at their most contentious since the trade wars of the 1990s."

Cooper then proceeds to list the ways in which the transition to the DPJ has made for a "more contentious relationship."

The bill of particulars includes the Hatoyama government's decision to withdraw MSDF refueling ships from the Indian Ocean, the decision to revisit the roadmap on the realignment of US forces in Japan, the loss of "shyness about publicly sparring with American officials," and plans to revisit the bilateral Status-of-Forces agreement (SOFA). In addition to all that, she implicitly criticizes Prime Minister Hatoyama for failing at his "kiss-and-make-up session" while visiting New York and Pittsburgh, when he "responded with the usual diplomatic niceties" but was the last to arrive at a dinner for G20 leaders in Pittsburgh.

Reading this article one gets the impression that the US-Japan alliance was in perfect shape right up until the DPJ took power in September. The onus is apparently entirely on the DPJ for being disagreeable and contentious, for sparring with American officials when they try to dictate what the Japanese government should and should not be doing. The article only hints that there might be structural forces tugging at the alliance beyond the drama involving the senior officials of both countries, beyond Hatoyama's late arrival or Gates's "snubbing" the defense ministry when in Tokyo.

The current tension — if tension is the right word for it — is the product of structural change in two areas, neither of which works in favor of the US.

First, that the DPJ is in power is alone an indicator of profound changes occurring within Japan. For all the speculation by analysts about whether the public favors this proposal or that proposal in the DPJ's manifesto and about whether the public actually expects the Hatoyama government to be able to deliver, the DPJ's victory spelled the end of the old system of government. While the new system is still coalescing, I think it is already safe to say that there will be no going back to the old regime of cozy ties among LDP backbenchers and bureaucrats. The old system meant that the alliance rested in the hands of a small number of LDP alliance managers and MOFA and more recently JDA/MOD officials. As analysts like the Washington Post's Jim Hoagland, who rushed to the defense of Japan's bureaucrats after the August election, realized, the US benefited greatly from this system. Alliance cooperation was predictable, even if the US government would have preferred that Japan contribute more.

This system, however, made it difficult for the Japanese government to secure the approval of the Japanese people when it came to things like sweeping changes in the configuration of US forces in Japan. Indeed, after the fiasco of the 1960 treaty revision, the Japanese people and their representatives were rarely consulted when it came to alliance cooperation with the US. And the US government had little reason to object to this — indeed, while the Obama administration may have forgotten or may not appreciate the role the US played in propping up the LDP and its 1955 system, the DPJ and the Japanese public has not.

The old system was also poorly configured for introducing sweeping changes into the nature of the alliance. The alliance managers on both sides certainly tried after 1996, when they thought they could turn the alliance into a global security partnership without having to consult with the Japanese people about whether they wanted their Self-Defense forces participating in US-led wars far from Japanese shores. When the people were finally consulted, it turns out that they had no interest in the "Japan as the Britain of Asia" model. The public had no interest in a robust military bolstered by bigger defense budgets, or in constitution revision, which some officials on both sides thought would be the inevitable product of greater US-Japan defense cooperation. It turns out that if given a choice between maintaining the constitution and cooperating with the US abroad, the Japanese people would prefer the former. The DPJ's victory, while not directly a result of foreign policy, was a product of public dissatisfaction of the LDP's government behind closed doors in which the Japanese people were consulted as an afterthought — including and especially on the alliance.

With the option of a more robust global security partnership foreclosed, the discussion is now turning to what the alliance should be instead, a discussion that is long overdue and might have happened sooner if the two governments had been more honest with each other. What Cooper sees as the signs of tension stemming from the DPJ's coming to power I see as the first stirrings of an honest dialogue between the two governments. Okinawa is just one manifestation of this process. The US was the beneficiary of an arrangement by which the LDP made its life easier politically by foisting the bulk of US forces in Japan to distant Okinawa. It is now paying the price, as the DPJ tries to get the best deal possible for the people of Okinawa.

Of course, that the DPJ wants to reconsider the alliance with the US is shaped by another structural change, the transformation of East Asia. To a certain extent the 1996 vision of the alliance was undone precisely because the two governments were unable to decide what role the alliance could and should play in a region in which growing Chinese influence (and interdependence) was an inescapable fact. The answer provided by the Bush administration and the Koizumi and Abe governments was "shared values" and cooperation among democracies, an approach that did not survive the Abe government. And values diplomacy notwithstanding, even Shinzo Abe recognized that jabbing the Yasukuni stick in China's eye was a poor substitute for a China policy. Arguably Japan was already shifting in the direction of an Asia-centered foreign policy after Koizumi, but — with the notable exception of Yasuo Fukuda — its prime ministers were less explicit about the changes underfoot. They dutifully recited the mantras while reorienting Japan away from a security-centered US-Japan alliance. As I've argued previously, what's changed with the Hatoyama government is that it has for the most part discarded with the alliance boilerplate and is actually trying to articulate what Japanese foreign policy should look like in an age characterized by a rising China, a still strong but struggling US, and a region populated with countries facing the same dilemma as Japan.

As Hatoyama's frenetic Asia diplomacy suggests, his government is obsessed with carving out a leadership role for Japan. Devin Stewart is right to suggest that Japan cannot neglect the US dimension of its new realism. But I think Stewart is mistaken when he suggests "the path toward a more 'independent' foreign policy for Japan is not by weakening its alliance with the world's strongest military power." On the contrary, I think Japan's credibility as a leader in the region is enhanced to the extent to which the Hatoyama government is able to show that its foreign policy is not dominated by its alliance with the world's strongest military power. Which is precisely what Fukuda tried to achieve when he stressed that security cooperation would take a back seat — and what some in the US are coming to appreciate. The DPJ still has work to do answering the question of precisely what kind of security relationship it wants with the US, of course, which is why it is good that the Hatoyama government decided not to rush the National Defense Program Guidelines that were originally supposed to be issued in December. Instead the US and Japan will be conducting a bilateral review of the alliance at the same time that the DPJ-led government is conducting an internal review of defense policy going forward.

Meanwhile the Japanese people are sensitive to the need for an Asia-centered approach in Japanese foreign policy. The public had little interest in Koizumi's approach to China. Whatever concerns Japanese citizens have about China, they have little interest in policies in provoking China. Indeed, the remarkable thing is that despite, in Stewart's words, a "bellicose North Korea and an increasingly powerful China," the public does not support a dramatic increase in Japan's military capabilities, an expansion of the roles open to the JSDF, and ever closer defense cooperation with the US. At the same time there is little support for ending the alliance entirely.

Both the US and Japan have considerable room for maneuver within these structural constraints. Indeed, the US is by no means powerless in the face of Japan's push to reorient its foreign policy. For starters, the Obama administration can reverse course on trade policy in Asia, a region which Daniel Drezner contends "has simply bypassed Washington." Instead of viewing the DPJ's initiatives in the region as leaving the US behind, the Obama administration should view it as a spur to join the game.

Moreover, the Obama administration ought to reconcile itself to the DPJ's message. Thus far Washington has mishandled the transition to the DPJ, in what arguably counts as an open-source intelligence failure. Washington did not take the DPJ seriously until far too late, and even when analysts in Washington began listening to the DPJ they still thought that the DPJ was bluffing — or was trying to appease its left-wing members and the Social Democrats — when it talked about the alliance and Okinawa. The DPJ means exactly what it says. Of the examples cited by Cooper, all were articulated by the DPJ well before it won the August election, and articulated not because of the DPJ's left but because there is a broad consensus within the party on the need to reconsider the alliance and recenter Japanese foreign policy on Asia.

It is unlikely that President Obama will use this weekend to begin engineering a shift in how the US responds to the structural forces that have brought the US-Japan relationship to this juncture. As Michael Cucek trenchantly observes, there will be altogether too much left unsaid when Hatoyama and Obama meet Friday evening. But it is time for the administration to realize that the current difficulties are not simply the product of the DPJ, its leaders, and its coalition partners, and that it is not too late for the US to revitalize its Asia policy and its alliance with Japan.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: