April 21 2010
Tokyo wobbles on the American alliance
By David Pilling
When Japan's prime minister visited Washington this month, Japanese officials lobbied intensely to get him a one-on-one with Barack Obama. In the end, Yukio Hatoyama had to settle for just 10 minutes, and even that during a banquet when the US president was presumably more interested in the appetisers and wine. These things matter in Japan. One senior politician called the put-down – as it was inevitably viewed in Tokyo – "humiliating". He even noted that the Japanese prime minister was shunted to the edge of a group photo, the diplomatic equivalent of banishment to Siberia.
It would be wrong to read too much into these titbits of protocol (though it is always fun trying). But behind the snub lies something real. The US-Japan alliance, the cornerstone of security in east Asia since 1945, has not looked so rocky in years.
There is a proximate cause. Mr Hatoyama's new government has annoyed Washington by reopening negotiations over the relocation of a marine base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. But beyond the immediate is a nagging suspicion that something bigger is afoot. That is the possibility – remote, but real – that the base squabble is an early warning of a strategic realignment as Japan grapples with the fact of China's rise and an erosion of US influence in east Asia.
Ever since 1995, when rage boiled over in Okinawa after the rape by three US servicemen of a 12-year-old girl, the US and Japan have been seeking ways to reduce the island's heavy military burden. The solution worked out, with the then-Liberal Democratic government, was to close down Futenma, a base dangerously close to a big urban centre. In its place, a new runway would be built in a less populated part of the island. The Futenma transfer would trigger a series of moves that would lead to a big reduction of the US presence in Okinawa, culminating in the withdrawal to nearby Guam of 8,000 marines.
The election of Mr Hatoyama's government, whose Democratic Party of Japan ended 50 years of LDP dominance, has thrown the plan into confusion. The prime minister raised the hopes of put-upon Okinawans by suggesting there was no need to build a new base at all. Instead, Futenma could be shut and its functions shifted outside Okinawa or Japan altogether. The only problem was, Mr Hatoyama had no idea where. The US has already rejected all alternatives as virtual non-starters.
Mr Hatoyama, branded as "hapless and (in the opinion of some Obama administration officials) increasingly loopy" by Al Kamen, a Washington Post columnist, has boxed himself in further. This week, he repeated a pledge to resolve the Futenma issue by the end of May. Given the chasm between the US and Japan, that looks reckless. Even some allies have suggested that, should Mr Hatoyama fail, he should resign. Washington would probably not stand in his way. But electoral mathematics dictates that, whatever happens, the US will have to deal with a DPJ administration for several more years to come.
Worried Japanese backers of the alliance say the longer the issue goes unresolved, the more dangerous it becomes. They fear growing anti-base sentiment in Okinawa. That could erupt if, for example, there was a repeat of the 2004 accident in which a helicopter slammed into a university. In such an eventuality, they say, anti-base sentiment could spiral out of control, forcing rash decisions.
That is probably a little far-fetched. The alliance, a bedrock of Japanese prosperity and crucial to US security policy in the Pacific, has survived ructions before. Moreover, any unravelling of the alliance would have profound implications neither side could tolerate. Without the absolute protection of the US and its nuclear umbrella, Japan would either have to develop an independent nuclear capability or forge a new kind of partnership with China. The former is extremely unlikely given Japan's deep nuclear taboo. The latter is almost unthinkable so long as China remains a one-party Communist state and Japan continues to be uncertain of its military intentions. Japanese officials are almost unanimously jittery about China, particularly its development of a blue-water navy.
Even China has not pushed back against the US presence in the Pacific. This has served to keep old regional enmities in check, allowing Beijing to get on with the business of doubling and quadrupling its economy. But as China's power and capability increase, it may begin to rethink its attitude to the US military presence in its backyard.
The new DPJ administration, many of whose senior figures grew up in the anti-Vietnam war era, has openly flirted with the idea of forging a different kind of security arrangement. Ichiro Ozawa, considered the power behind the Hatoyama throne, has gone so far as to suggest the US does not need bases in Okinawa at all. It could make do with the Seventh Fleet alone.
Flirting with the idea of reduced US presence is a luxury of opposition, say alliance supporters. Now the DPJ is in power, it will have to forget such foolishness and drink from the fountain of realpolitik. In the short term, that is probably just what will happen. But look two decades ahead, and it would be a brave person to predict that the status quo can hold.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.