Tokyo smackdown

Tokyo smackdown

In opinion polls, Americans now rate Japan as one of the United States’ most reliable allies — usually behind only Britain, Canada, and Australia. The relationship between President George W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junchiro Koizumi was particularly close, and Koizumi’s successor Shinzo Abe often described recent years as the “golden age” of the U.S.-Japan alliance. So it was probably something of a surprise for most readers of The Washington Post and The New York Times to see front page stories on October 22 describing an open spat between Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Japan’s new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, over U.S. bases in Japan and the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Hatoyama came into office a month ago vowing to pull Japanese ships out of the coalition effort in Afghanistan; to oppose the U.S.-Japan agreement realigning U.S. bases on the island of Okinawa; to investigate U.S.-Japan secret agreements on nuclear weapons dating back to the 1950s and 60s; and to increase Japanese independence by establishing a new “East Asia Community” that would exclude the United States. Gates’ message in Japan this week was no-nonsense: The Obama administration is not interested in renegotiating previous base agreements and needs the new Japanese government to get behind the alliance. Hatoyama’s response was defiant: He would not rush to decisions just to accommodate Obama’s visit to Japan on Nov. 11.  But Gates’ tough stance sent shudders through Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan.

So much for the “golden age” in U.S.-Japan relations.

Many Japan experts had urged the Obama administration to be patient so that the new Japanese government would have time to figure out its policies. Some of the same experts are now berating Gates on blog sites for provoking an “unnecessary” crisis with Japan. To be sure, there were good reasons to start off with a gentle posture toward the Hatoyama government. The DPJ won its landslide victory because of the economic crisis and the mounting unpopularity of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — not because of the unpopularity of the alliance (supported by 76 percent of the public in recent government polls) or because the Japanese people wanted changes in foreign policy (only 3 percent in exit polls said those issues shaped their choices). Moreover, the DPJ’s main purpose is to move toward a more redistributive economic policy in order to steal constituencies away from the LDP before a critical first test at the polls in next summer’s elections for the Upper House of the Diet. There is little interest in expending political capital on foreign affairs or defense, where the DPJ is badly divided internally to begin with. It therefore seemed likely that the DPJ would move away from some of its more extreme positions on security policy after coming to power — just as the Obama administration did. A gentle stance would give Hatoyama the “face” to begin that shift.

However, it has become increasingly apparent that the Hatoyama government cannot — or will not — move to the center. The Socialist coalition partners are exerting too much control; Hatoyama is afraid of opening a split within his own party by adopting pragmatic governing policies; and the DPJ has interpreted Washington’s gentle touch as a green light to continue slapping around the United States for domestic political purposes while loosely associating with Obama’s idealistic visions for a nuclear-free world.

On the Okinawa basing issue, Hatoyama has said he will postpone a decision until next year (presumably after the Upper House elections), but his dithering will only increase opposition to U.S. bases on Okinawa, causing the whole deal to unravel — whether that is ultimately what Hatoyama intends or not. The half-baked East Asia Community idea has the Chinese and South Koreans as perplexed as it has the Obama administration unhappy, but still sends unhelpful signals to the region at a time when the United States needs its closest ally in Asia on its side. The investigation of secret nuclear agreements may end up a big bore, particularly since the United States has not had tactical nuclear weapons in Asia since 1991. But the special committee of outside academics being established to “investigate” the government’s past understanding with the United States could also turn into a witch hunt against the traditional managers of the alliance within Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

With the U.S. president heading to Tokyo in less than a month, Gates had no choice but to splash cold water on the DPJ on Wednesday. There is some risk that the ever-populist DPJ will now try to use a spat with the United States to increase votes before the election next year.  But Gates is a shrewd judge of his counterparts. He knows that a crisis in the U.S.-Japan alliance would split the DPJ and turn much of the media against Hatoyama, particularly given the strong public support for the alliance and the growing menace from North Korea and China.  Meanwhile, Hatoyama was letting the DPJ leadership play with firecrackers in a room full of dynamite. Letting the alliance drift posed the greater risk.

On the whole, this could be a rough year for managers of the alliance with Japan. But the future looks brighter. The Upper House election next year will probably flush the Socialists out of the coalition and allow the DPJ to move to the center. The next generation of leaders in the DPJ is made up of realists who want a more effective Japanese role in the world and are not afraid to use the Self Defense Forces or to stand up to China or North Korea on human rights.  Gates did the DPJ a favor by forcing the debate on national strategy that the party was never willing to have while in opposition, and that Hatoyama was eager to avoid for his first year in power.

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