Waking up to a new alliance

The day of Barack Obama's first visit to Japan is approaching rapidly and the focus of the allies remains on the future of Futenma and the US-Japan agreement on the realignment of US forces in Japan.

The Hatoyama government is still weighing its options — and Prime Minister Hatoyama has said on more than one occasion that his government will not be treating Obama's visit as a firm deadline for coming up with an alternative to the status quo agreement. Katsuya Okada, the foreign minister, is pushing hard for the Kadena option, which he made clear in response to questioning in the upper house last week is for the moment his personal preference and not the policy of the government. On the other side of the debate is Toshimi Kitazawa, the defense minister, who has emerged as the cabinet's advocate for upholding the current agreement. Last month he stated that he thinks relocating the Marine helicopters at Futenma to the air force base at Kadena is "extremely difficult," and he subsequently suggested that it would not violate the DPJ's election manifesto if the government were to uphold the agreement to build a replacement facility at Camp Schwab.

The US government, not surprisingly, also sees Kadena as a non-starter. Following Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's statement, General Edward Rice, commander of US forces in Japan, told Asahi that Kadena would not work as an alternative. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell is due in Tokyo Thursday for talks , but on Tuesday State Department spokesman Ian Kelly stressed that "it’s up to Japan to decide what kind of relationship they want to have." In other words, the US government has no interest in renegotiating, and the Japanese government can take it (and suffer the political costs at home) or leave it (and embitter the Obama administration towards the new government).

Okada is also under fire from Okinawans, including Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima, who sees the Kadena option as doing nothing to relieve the burden on Okinawa's citizens.

In other words, the Hatoyama government is no closer to having a proposal to present to the US.

While the conventional wisdom says the Hatoyama government's deliberate pace is a cause for alarm for the alliance — see this Jiji article for example — I am still convinced that the complaints about the public disagreements between Hatoyama's ministers are more a product of observers being unaccustomed to the cabinet actually making policy as opposed to genuine disorder in the government. This is normal government. Indeed, this debate over the alliance lies at the nexus of the DPJ's plans to normalize Japan's foreign and domestic policies, as it shows the cabinet shining light on its deliberations — removing alliance management from the shadows of Kasumigaseki — while also not being bullied by Washington into rushing its decision. In other words, the DPJ is doing exactly what it said it would do. Rather than treating the US with "deference" ( remember that word?), the Hatoyama government is weighing its options. It has not ruled out the status quo, but it will not be pressured into accepting the status quo for its own sake either.

Nevertheless, some in Washington seem to feel that the Hatoyama government was in need of — in Michael Green's phrase — a "smackdown." [Although, to be fair, it's possible that he did not choose that unfortunate word for the title of his post.] Upon reading his post at Foreign Policy's Shadow Government one could be excused for thinking that he was discussing the relationship between an empire and its satrap and not two sovereign governments. In addition to his use of the word "smackdown," he calls Hatoyama "defiant" (as opposed to Hatoyama patiently weighing his government's options); Gates's stance, he writes, "sent shudders" through the DPJ; and the DPJ has been "slapping around" the US (instead of articulating a policy approach that happened to differ from its predecessor's).

In a single post Green managed to illustrate why the DPJ's approach to the alliance is merited. During the "golden age" — Green appears to have taken the rhetoric from days of George and Jun and (briefly) George and Shinzo seriously — the US government did not need to deliver "smackdowns," it seems, because Tokyo followed along nicely (which, given the frustrations endured by US negotiators during the Defense Policy Review Initiative talks, was a convenient facade for what was actually a fairly contentious period for the alliance). The difference seems to be that LDP governments kept their disagreements private. The difficulties of the Koizumi years wash away and we're left with talk of a golden age.

The US government is now paying the price for believing that the post-1996 decade was a golden age for the alliance, for believing that pocketing cooperation from the Koizumi and Abe governments meant that it enjoyed the support of the Japanese people as a whole. Green can tell himself that the alliance is popularity among three quarters of the Japanese — which may be true (although the latest figure is actually 68.9 percent favorable, a seven-point drop from the previous year's poll), but the alliance's overall approval rating says very little about what the Japanese public thinks about specific pieces of the alliance's agenda in recent years. Voters may not have had the alliance and foreign policy at the top of the list of reasons to vote for the DPJ, but it is difficult to say that they were voting for the status quo on the alliance. It strikes me as odd that voters would be open to the DPJ's promises of sweeping changes in how their government functions (easily the most popular portion of the DPJ's agenda) but would demand that the government cling resolutely to the status quo in foreign policy. As the DPJ is illustrating, it is entirely possible to support the maintenance of the alliance while demanding changes in how it operates.

And, meanwhile, a recent report based on a series of discussions among US and Japanese experts convened by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) and drafted by Michael Finnegan and exposes Green's argument about a "golden age" as a myth. Premised on the idea of "unmet expectations" — expectations that were unmet well before the DPJ took power — Finnegan concludes "despite public statements about strength, the alliance is actually quite brittle precisely at a time when both allies are perhaps depending on it more than ever." The idea of mismatched expectations from the alliance is not a new one, but Finnegan provides a frank assessment of the state of the alliance and shows despite the apparently close relationship between President Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi, the relationship among the national leaders did not translate into a frank and realistic discussion of whether the alliance is headed.

What does Finnegan see as the mismatched expectations? He sums of each country's expectations in two words: for the US, "Do More," and for Japan, "Meet Commitments." It is difficult to say whether the report's assessment of Japan's expectations for the alliance continue to hold under the DPJ government, but "Do More" pretty much sums up US expectations going back decades. The irony was that the advent of unipolarity ratcheted US expectations of Japan and its other allies to unprecedented levels — despite (or because of) the US was unchallenged by a rival superpower and towering over all rivals even during the peace divided 1990s, the US decided to bear more burdens than ever, which meant more demands for burden-sharing with its allies. Accordingly, after 1996 the US came to expect greater operational cooperation with Japan and greater Japanese involvement in providing security far from Japanese shores. The failure to strengthen bilateral cooperation for the defense of Japan is particularly glaring, and it falls on the Japanese government's shoulders. This failure raises an obvious question: if the LDP was such a faithful friend of the alliance, why is Finnegan able to provide such a lengthy list of operational deficiencies short of the major sticking point of the ban on the exercise of Japan's right of collective self-defense?

Finnegan concludes the report by offering a list of options available to each government going forward, and proposing that the allies scale back their expectations so to acknowledge political constraints in Japan and refocus the alliance on the core mission of defending Japan. He writes: "The new bargain suggested here would establish a laser-like focus on the core expectation of the alliance, the defense of Japan. Such a recalibrated or tempered arrangement would forgo out-of-area missions, instead recognizing a division of labor within the alliance. On the one hand, Japan would assume primacy in the defense of Japan, focusing all of its defense efforts and resources on this singular mission. Japan would be its own 'first line of defense' for the first time in the postwar period." Having argued for precisely this model of the alliance in the past, I fully agree with this proposal and am glad that Finnegan and the NBR study group managed to flesh out what it means in concrete terms. (Indeed, I argued for precisely this kind of discussion on the occasion of a previous Gates visit to Japan, when the secretary was working for a different president.)

The greatest virtue of the NBR report is that it recognizes that whether or not it was possible to create the expansive global alliance desired by some Japan hands after 1996 , it is not possible today. Even before the DPJ took power Japan's leaders recognized that the challenge for the coming decades is carving out a role for Japan as China solidified its position as a regional superpower. Even Hatoyama's LDP predecessors recognized that they could no longer get away with antagonizing China over Yasukuni and other history questions. Neither of Abe's LDP successors saw it worthwhile to talk about the values shared by the US and Japan and to expend political capital deepening cooperation among the region's democracies. The challenge for the US and Japan is to build an alliance based on the notion that Japan has little choice but to be deeply engaged in regional cooperation, whatever form it ends up taking. Hatoyama, Okada, and other DPJ leaders do not believe they have to choose between Asia and the US, but they do believe that the alliance as it was conceived by alliance managers in the 1990s and early 2000s forces them to pick a side and constrains Japan's freedom of action.

As difficult as the Futenma dispute is, I am still fairly sanguine over the ability of the Obama administration to manage the shift to a deep but narrow security partnership, in which security cooperation is focused almost exclusively on the defense of Japan and embedded in a broader partnership in which the allies cooperate closely in areas other than security outside of East Asia and are free to pursue independent initiatives as necessary within the region. At the very least, an alliance based on Yokosuka and Kadena can still be valuable to the US.

It is time, however, for US officials (and former officials) to stop acting surprised that the DPJ is doing precisely what it promised it would do — and to wake up and recognize that the early 2000s were not a golden age and that there are more points of continuity between the LDP post-Koizumi and the DPJ than most are willing to admit. I am truly dismayed by how Washington — inside and outside of government — has handled the transition to DPJ rule. While the Obama administration deserves credit for having Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meet with Ichiro Ozawa when she visited Japan back in February, the administration seems taken aback by the Hatoyama government's following through on its promises to manage the alliance differently from the LDP. It is time for commentators in Washington to stop clinging to the notion that the DPJ is "badly divided internally" on foreign policy. While the Hatoyama government may be debating how best to resolve the Futenma issue, it is anything but divided when it comes to changing how the alliance is managed and where the alliance should fit in Japan's foreign policy. The Hatoyama government is entirely serious, and it will be running the government in Tokyo for the foreseeable future.

It is time for Washington to wake up to the reality of DPJ rule. The NBR report is an excellent step in the right direction.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: