Getting Real on Japan

Getting Real on Japan

Two learning curves intersected in Tokyo this week when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to town, part of a Northeast Asian swing that started in Beijing and will finish in Seoul.

One curve is under way in Japan, where the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is learning the difference between campaigning and governing. Ending a half-century of nearly uninterrupted conservative rule, the DPJ came to power in September 2009 vowing to forge a more "equal" relationship with its patron ally and put more emphasis on Japan’s ties with Asian neighbors, particularly China and South Korea.

The DPJ also pledged to reduce the burden of hosting U.S. bases placed on the people of Okinawa, where the bases occupy nearly a fifth of the island. The new government hoped to revisit the unimplemented 1996 agreement to move the helicopters and planes stationed at Futenma Marine air base, dangerously crowded in among apartment buildings and schools on the southern part of the island, to a new base built in its less densely populated northern half.

Since taking power, the DPJ has struggled to reconcile its electoral pledges with the reality of a serially provocative North Korea and an increasingly aggressive China. Yukio Hatoyama’s inability to manage the base issue with the United States became emblematic of his weak leadership, costing him the premiership after only nine months and contributing to the party’s loss of the upper house of parliament last summer.

Americans somewhat smugly congratulate Tokyo for its belated realism. Less acknowledged is Washington’s own learning curve about both the realities of politics in Japan and the enduring value of the alliance. The early days of the DPJ administration were marked by barely disguised U.S. disdain for its political ineptitude and domestic troubles, and even, among some U.S. officials, expectations that a strategic condominium with China could eventually supplant the Cold War alliance with Japan.

Gates’s successful role as alliance manager this week stands in stark contrast to his visit more than a year ago, in October 2009. Back then, he came to bluntly tell the Japanese to drop any talk of reopening the Okinawa base issue. "This may not be the perfect alternative for anyone," Gates said, "but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on." He dismissed any other options as "politically untenable and operationally unworkable."

As for the alliance, Gates forcefully reminded his Japanese hosts that Americans were there to protect their country — allowing the Japanese to spend very little on their own self-defense over the past half-century. At the same time, Obama administration officials talked openly about Japan’s diminishing importance, hinting at China’s potential as a new strategic partner. A senior State Department official told the Washington Post that the U.S. had "grown comfortable" with the idea of Japan as a constant in U.S. relations with the region. It no longer fills that role, he said, adding ominously that "the hardest thing right now is not China — it’s Japan."

The March 2010 sinking of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, shook that illusory view of the region. China’s decision to back Pyongyang and its vocal opposition to U.S. naval deployments in the Yellow Sea surprised some in Washington. Meanwhile the DPJ government in Tokyo lined up strongly behind Seoul, as it did later after North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last November. The new administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Hatoyama’s successor, got its own shock when Beijing purposely escalated tensions over the arrest of a Chinese fishing-boat captain following a collision near Japanese-controlled islands in the disputed oil and gas rich waters of the East China Sea.

By last fall, talk of a "strategic partnership" with China had been replaced by a new emphasis on bolstering traditional Cold War-era cooperation among Japan, South Korea, and the United States. In October, ahead of the president’s visit to Japan, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell admitted that the "learning process is not confined just to Tokyo."

Campbell told reporters in Tokyo that the difficulties of the past year served as "a reminder to the United States [of] how badly we need a good relationship with Japan" to deal with the challenges in Asia. "It is critical for this generation of American policymakers to in no way take Japan for granted," he said, in an obvious swipe at more Sino-centric colleagues back in Washington.

Those two learning curves visibly crossed during Gates’s visit to Tokyo this week. The Kan administration, fresh off talks in Seoul about strengthening security ties, showed much greater readiness to cooperate on regional security. It is ready to ease restrictions on export to third countries of missile-defense technology jointly developed by the two countries, a move the United States has sought.

Gates offered his own upbeat vision of a renewed Japan-U.S. alliance in the 21st century:

"While issues associated with Okinawa and Futenma have tended to dominate the headlines this past year," Gates told the press, "the U.S.-Japan defense alliance is broader, deeper, and indeed richer than any single issue. In this, the 51st year of the U.S.-Japan alliance, it is important to remember that ours is an enduring and equal partnership based on interests and values that unite our two peoples."

As for the base issue, Gates was notably deferential to his hosts. "We do understand that it is politically a complex matter in Japan and we intend to follow the lead of the Japanese government in working with the people of Okinawa to take their interests and their concerns into account."

This represents a real change of tone, if not policy, provided it is sustained. Having reached this point of intersection, Tokyo and Washington are no closer, however, to solving the problem that has bedeviled their relationship. Reading Gates’s words carefully, he still insists on the base being moved to the proposed Henoko location, though perhaps at a slower tempo. Both governments are once again resorting to traditional tactics of trying to buy off islanders with economic subsidies, promises of construction contracts, and gestures such as moving noisy aircraft exercises elsewhere.

Standing on the white-sand shores of the pristine bay, as I have, and looking out onto glistening blue waters into which the United States proposes to dump a mountain of sand and build the new air base, it is easy to understand why this has no more chance of working now than it did during decades of conservative rule. And the victory of anti-base candidates in elections in the last year on Okinawa, both in the locality around the proposed base and for the governorship, made this clear.

The strategic importance of the U.S. presence in Japan, particularly of the 7th Fleet based on the main island of Honshu and the sprawling Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, is not in question. And given recent events, the availability of some Marine forces makes sense. But neither government has made a convincing case for why an entire Marine expeditionary force needs to remain on Okinawa.

Ultimately, both governments are still going to have to find a real alternative to the base problem, while keeping their eyes focused firmly on the strategic horizon. The question is whether both Washington and Tokyo can take what they have learned so far and move forward to a more mature and yes, more equal, relationship.