Clinton-Okada summit falls victim to DPJ infighting
For the protocol-obsessed Japanese, scheduling a cabinet-level meeting and then canceling it is a rare occurrence. But that’s exactly what happened today when the State Department had to withdraw its announcement that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would meet Friday with Japanese Foreign Minister Katusya Okada. The diplomatic SNAFU is emblematic of the shifting ground ...
For the protocol-obsessed Japanese, scheduling a cabinet-level meeting and then canceling it is a rare occurrence. But that’s exactly what happened today when the State Department had to withdraw its announcement that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would meet Friday with Japanese Foreign Minister Katusya Okada.
The diplomatic SNAFU is emblematic of the shifting ground underneath the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which took over the government in September, campaigned on a pledge to reform relations with the U.S., but now in power, they are battling internally to determine how far and wide those changes should go. The latest twist certainly won’t dampen the view of those who’ve proclaimed a “crisis” in the U.S. relationship with Japan since the elections; a State Department official told The Cable that Clinton was still holding time in her Friday schedule, just in case Okada is able to make the trip.
Reports out of Japan suggest that Okada wanted to secure a deal on his pet issue, the Futenma air base in Okinawa, ahead of President Obama’s trip to Tokyo next week. But Okada is being reined in by Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who doesn’t want Okada gallivanting around making policy while the issue is still a matter of intense internal discussion within the Japanese government.
And both sides are trying to recover from a tumultuous couple of weeks in the relationship following the Tokyo visit of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was seen as focusing too much on Futenma, a minor issue for the U.S. but a major emotional hot button for the Japanese.
More broadly, the center of gravity in the U.S.-Japan relationship may be shifting from the Defense Department to the State Department. While Okada might have wanted to focus on Futenma, administration sources said that Clinton’s goal was much broader. She wanted to start engaging the new Japanese leadership on a larger set of strategic issues, from Afghanistan to China and everything in between.
The agenda shows the Obama administration’s desire to focus less on incremental military issues such as military basing and start bringing the discussion with the new Japanese government around to larger strategic issues. But the Obama administration is unable to advance the conversation due to the ongoing foreign policy fight within the Japanese cabinet.
Hatoyama is refereeing a complex battle between various elements of his party and his cabinet over the direction of Japanese foreign policy, especially with regard to the U.S.-Japan alliance. Okada’s interests may lie in making things for Hatoyama as difficult as possible, hence the (maybe) cancelled trip.
Inside the Japan policy infrastructure in Washington, the officials in charge of managing the relationship are taking a two pronged-approach. The first element of their strategy is “wait and see,” letting the new DPJ government settle internal disputes and then come to the U.S. side with policy positions, negotiating stances, and the like.
The second part of the approach is “Don’t blink,” meaning that the U.S. interlocutors are trying to avoid overreacting to what some see as antagonistic or contradictory statements on the alliance coming out of different DPJ leaders. Also, the U.S. managers are determined not to negotiate away any of their positions while the new Japanese government is going through its growing pains.
“We’re waiting for them to give us some indication of where they see the path as leading from here,” said one senior U.S. official dealing with the U.S.-Japan alliance.
There is also a feeling among Obama administration Japan managers that the reports about the “crisis” in U.S.-Japan relations have been way overblown and that while a number of issues in the alliance are now up for discussion, which is new, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
“You can take any of this stuff and make a story out of it, but none of these issues are unmanageable,” the official said, “The U.S. and Japan still rely on each other in a lot of fundamental ways.”
The official said that there is a pretty clear path out of the current tense situation, whenever the Japanese are ready to take it. For example, on the issue of the plan for the relocation of the Futenma air base, U.S. officials believe that ultimately there is no real alternative to the current plan. Okada’s idea, to combine Futenma with the Kadena air base, is seen as a non-starter inside the Obama administration.
However, there are “sweeteners” that could alleviate some concerns of Okinawa residents and allow Hatoyama and Okada to save face by claiming they got concessions before ultimately accepting the bulk of the current plan as is.
But the talks between the United States and Japan haven’t gotten to that stage and probably won’t by the time Obama visits Tokyo next week. Obama himself is said to be too far above the issue to negotiate such details and is likely to simply affirm the strength of the alliance, mark its 50th anniversary, and leave the negotiations for lower officials to resume after the trip.
Traditionally, the Japan relationship inside Washington more heavily managed by the Defense Department as compared to relations with other countries. There are historical and logistical explanations for this phenomenon, but with new administrations on both sides, a change might be in store.
At the National Security Council, the Japan policy is managed by Jeffrey Bader, a former Ambassador and senior State Department official and Daniel Russel, former State Department Japan office director.
At the State Department, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell is in charge of all things Japan, aided by Japan desk chief Kevin Maher. Campbell has been back and forth to Tokyo several times since assuming his post and is scheduled to stop in Tokyo on Thursday on his way home from Burma.
The Japan team at the Pentagon is centered around Assistant Secretary Gen. Chip Gregson, Principal Deputy Derek Mitchell, Deputy Michael Schiffer, and Japan desk officer Suzanne Bassala.
Photo: Pool/Getty Images
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at email@example.com.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin
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