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Will Obama hit the ‘reset’ button on U.S.-Japan relations?

Will Obama hit the ‘reset’ button on U.S.-Japan relations?

Now that Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has fallen on his sword, and the United States Japan have an opportunity to "reset" their relationship, which suffered due to the personal discord between Hatoyama and President Obama and the lingering dispute over a base in Okinawa. But will they take it?

For now, the battle over the Futenma air station seems to be tabled, with the new prime minister, Naoto Kan, pledging to largely stick to the deal struck in 2006. But there are lingering doubts as to whether either Washington or Tokyo is ready to revamp the rest of the alliance, which needs an update as it crosses the 50-year threshold.

So far, Kan seems to be sounding the right notes.

"The new prime minister has done everything possible to underscore the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance," an administration official close to the issue told The Cable. "This is a very complex set of interactions but we’re reassured by what we’ve heard so far from Prime Minister Kan."

Japan hands in Washington note that Kan, in his swearing-in remarks, affirmed the U.S.-Japan alliance as "the cornerstone" of his country’s diplomacy and pledged to honor the 2006 agreement. But Kan also said he would place equal emphasis on improving ties with China.

That struck many in Washington as a sign that the Democratic Party of Japan, which took power last year for the first time, is still hedging against what party leaders see as an Obama administration that just isn’t giving Japan the respect and attention it feels it deserves.

As for the recent cooling in relations, "I don’t think it’s over, but a change in leadership is a chance to reset," said Randall Schriver, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia. The U.S. problem with Hatoyama was personal, based on his style and inability to meet his own deadlines, resulting in a lack of trust, Schriver said.

"Japan’s a democracy and Hatoyama brought himself down," said Devin Stewart, senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

So is everything OK now that Kan is in charge?

Not exactly. The new prime minister’s comments on China suggest that Washington and Tokyo aren’t yet on the same page regarding larger issues of security, economics, and diplomacy.

"The relationship is bigger than Futenma, but that’s all we talked about," Schriver said. "So somebody has to raise this to the next level and start to talk about the broader regional issues and that’s got to be us."

Kan’s not likely to take the lead on trying to revamp the alliance, mainly because he has to focus on Japan’s economy and keeping his party’s control of the parliament.

"Prime Minister Kan is treading on the eggshells left behind by Hatoyama," said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia security program at the Center for a New American Security, the think tank founded by Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. "He has to carry his party into uncertain July elections whose outcome may determine the next ruling coalition, the next cabinet, and possibly even the next steps on military basing."

And Kan has every reason not to want to reopen the Futenma issue, which Hatoyama seemed to resolve just before he resigned.

"The tough decision had been made," said Tobias Harris, former DPJ staffer and author of the blog Observing Japan. "Now all Kan has to do is say that he stands by the status quo and hope that Okinawan resistance gradually loses steam as the two governments hammer out the details."

Some Japan experts in Washington lament that the DPJ is still not getting a lot of respect in Washington. At a conference this week being hosted by CNAS, the theme of alliance renewal is front and center.

But will new ideas get a fair hearing?

Not only are there no Okinawans invited, the one DPJ lawmaker speaking is Akihisa Nagashima, a powerful lawmaker for sure, but also a well-known hawk with long ties to the Washington "alliance managers" who still hold the reins of the relationship.

"It’s clear that the voices of a ‘status quo’ U.S.-Japan security relationship will get the most air time at this meeting," argues the New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons.