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A Shaky Start for Hatoyama'sYuai Diplomacy

Tags: Afghanistan , Asia , Okinawa , Security , United States

Takahata, Akio

November 13, 2009

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A little over a month after popular disgust with the status quo swept the Democratic Party of Japan to power for the first time ever, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama faces a stark choice on several key foreign policy and security issues: honor the platform on which he and his party ran or keep the critical Japan-US alliance on an even keel.

Barely two months after Yukio Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan swept into power on a wave of voter disenchantment with the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the new government already finds itself in a very sticky position on a number of foreign policy and security issues.

Paramount among these are the relocation of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa, lynchpin of the planned realignment of US forces in Japan; Japan's contribution to the US-led war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and Prime Minister Hatoyama's proposal for an East Asian Community, a pillar of his so-called diplomacy of yuai (fraternity).  As each of these bears directly on the core issues of the Japan-US alliance, any misstep on Tokyo's part could jeopardize the security relationship  that has served both countries for almost 50 years.

Realignment of US Forces

Relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, is the central component of a plan for restructuring the US forces in Japan in keeping with the "US-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation," 1 adopted by both governments in May 2006. Under the plan, the United States agreed to return the air base to Japan by 2014, after building a replacement facility inside Camp Schwab in the city of Nago in northern Okinawa. At the same time, approximately 8,000 US troops and 9,000 family members from the Third Marine Division are to be transferred to Guam, with Japan paying $6.1 billion, or 60%, of the cost of infrastructure upgrades on the island. As explained by the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the aim of the agreement was to "reduce the burden on the people of Okinawa" while "maintaining the deterrent capability" of the Japan-US alliance.

The DPJ leaders have taken the position that the agreement should be scrapped, and Hatoyama himself has called for the Futenma Air Station to be moved "out of the prefecture, if not out of Japan."  In the coalition agreement with the New People's Party and the Social Democratic Party after the election, this hard-line stance was softened somewhat, committing the government merely to "move in the direction of reexamining the realignment plan."  Nonetheless, it was generally understood that the new administration was oriented to moving Futenma Air Station out of Okinawa Prefecture.

By late September, however, the government seemed to be wavering. At the end of the month, Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa acknowledged that it was hard to ignore the years of negotiation that had gone into the existing agreement. In a statement on October 7, Prime Minister Hatoyama also equivocated, saying, "What we initially said in the manifesto is a promise, and I don't think we should lightly change it, but I won't rule out the possibility that the time factor could bring about some change.”  The following day, however, he denied any intention of accepting the existing realignment plan.  By this point it was apparent that the government would take no firm position before US President Obama's visit in mid-November.  Moreover, with pivotal local elections looming next year, above all the Nago mayoral race in January and the Okinawa Prefecture gubernatorial election in November, Hatoyama seems unlikely to make any decision at least before the citizens of Nago express their views at the ballot box.

The Futenma issue goes all the way back to 1996, when Okinawa's disproportionate share (75%) of US bases in Japan emerged as a bone of contention between Tokyo and Washington amid popular uproar over an incident the previous year, in which an Okinawan girl was raped by US servicemen. Following the recommendation of a joint Japan-US Special Action Committee on Okinawa, or SACO, 2 the United States agreed to the reversion of Futenma Air Station.  Yet 13 years later, the base has yet to revert to Japan, and local sentiment among Okinawan leaders and citizens has been shifting in complex ways.  Among US officials, there is a sense that "Washington has agreed to relocate, so what's holding things up at the Japanese end?"  If the Japanese government continues to shilly-shally, the prospects for Futenma's reversion can only recede further, and if this opportunity is wasted, there is no telling how long local residents will have to wait before their prayers are answered.

Under the current realignment plan, the transfer of US Marine personnel to Guam and the relocation of Futenma are two integral components of a single “coherent package.”  US President Barack Obama sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Japan in February 2009, when the LDP was still in power, and the two governments signed off on the Guam International Agreement, which stipulates the particulars of the transfer.  Perhaps some in the Hatoyama cabinet are thinking that Japan can have its cake and eat it too by proceeding with the transfer of US personnel to Guam but renegotiating the Futenma relocation.  But the Obama administration has made it clear that it will not tolerate this kind of cherry picking.  This is one reason it has ruled out any renegotiation of the agreement, as stressed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during his visit to Japan in October.

More importantly, the realignment of US forces in Japan is integral to the worldwide reorganization of US forces initiated under the administration of George W. Bush to respond to the new global military and security needs of the 21st century.  Although both Washington and Tokyo have kept silent on the particulars of this reorganization out of diplomatic considerations, responding to the rise of Chinese military power and the North Korean nuclear threat is clearly among its strategic aims.  Any delay in implementing the plan could seriously compromise not only Japan's defense but the Pentagon's strategy in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.  Nor can we ignore the danger that such moves could damage joint operational efforts between the US military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, the very foundation of the alliance.

Japan's Role in Afghanistan

The dilemma facing Hatoyama, in short, is whether the party platform on which he came to power should take precedence over the Japan-US alliance.  The same question applies to Japan's contribution to the anti-terrorist effort in Afghanistan.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the LDP government pushed through the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law, aimed at clearing the way for Japan to support the United States, Britain, and other allies in their counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.  Since then Japan's Marine Self-Defense Forces have been providing such support in the form of refueling operations in the Indian Ocean.  In 2007, however, the DPJ raised questions in the Diet regarding the alleged diversion of Japanese fuel for American warships to US operations in Iraq and demanded that the refueling mission be suspended immediately.

Since before the August general election, DPJ leaders have been besieged with appeals from the United States, Britain, and Pakistan to continue the refueling mission even after the current law expires in January 2010, and their response has revealed a striking lack of consistency.  In the month since the Hatoyama cabinet's inauguration, top government officials have made the following statements:

"We are not considering a simple extension." (Prime Minister Hatoyama)
"We are not categorically saying No." (Minister for Foreign Affairs Katsuya Okada)
"We will withdraw without any fuss, just following the law." (Defense Minister Kitazawa)
"We should revise the legal framework and continue refueling operations if possible." (Parliamentary Vice Defense Minister Akihisa Nagashima)
"This cabinet should go with the decision not to extend." (Mizuho Fukushima, minister of state for consumer affairs and SDP president)

Now it appears the government intends to let the mission die a procedural death when time runs out to extend the Anti-Terrorism Law in the current extraordinary session of the Diet. A maneuver that skirts any rational explanation for such an important policy change is unlikely to go down well with the international community.

The MSDF's refueling mission was intended to provide supplementary marine logistic support for Operation Enduring Freedom, a multinational effort aimed at controlling global terrorism.  Whereas ground logistic support carries high risks in a place like Afghanistan, where troop casualties have soared among both American forces and the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), offshore refueling is seen as a way to provide much-appreciated support to our allies with minimal risk of death or injury to  SDF personnel.  Given the Obama administration's emphasis on stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is bound to be heightened pressure on Japan to contribute to the effort in other ways if the refueling mission is terminated.

Foreign Minister Okada, who visited Afghanistan and Pakistan himself in October, and Defense Minister Kitazawa are discussing new options for providing civilian aid, such as job training or agricultural assistance, to the Afghan people.  But with terrorist and Taliban activity spreading in Afghanistan, no one seems able to answer the crucial question of who will protect Japanese aid workers on the ground, and a feasible solution has yet to emerge.

The Amorphous East Asian Community

As spelled out in the DPJ platform, the two basic components of Prime Minister Hatoyama's diplomacy of yuai, or fraternity, are "building a close and equal Japan-US relationship" and "strengthening Japan's foreign relations in Asia."  The centerpiece of the latter component is Hatoyama's proposal for an East Asian Community.

Under the Koizumi administration, Japan's relations with China and South Korea took a turn for the worse in 2005, causing serious concern in Washington among other places. The US government, far from frowning on Japanese efforts to strengthen and stabilize relations with Beijing and Seoul, welcomes such initiatives.  But to build a regional framework that excludes the United States is another thing altogether.  The greatest concern now is that the Hatoyama administration, by leaving the details of its proposed East Asian Community excessively vague, is fueling suspicion and alarm that the outcome will be a framework that excludes Washington from Asian affairs.

At a press conference held on September 16, just after he took office, Hatoyama said,  “We have no intention of excluding the United States.  To the contrary, we should begin by building an East Asian Community, which should evolve into an Asia-Pacific community.”  It was a mystifying statement though, inasmuch as the Asia-Pacific region already has such frameworks as APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation).

On a September 21 bilateral summit meeting with Chinese leader Hu Jintao, while in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Hatoyama said that he wanted the two countries to "overcome their differences," "establish a relationship of trust," and "build an East Asian Community."  Yet in Japan-US summit talks two days later, Hatoyama apparently made no move to provide President Obama with any explanation whatsoever of his East Asian Community concept . 
Then again, in his address to the General Assembly on September 24, he broached the idea once more, saying, "I look forward to an East Asian Community taking shape as an extension of the accumulated cooperation built up step by step among partners who have the capacity to work together, starting with fields in which we can cooperate—Free Trade Agreements, finance, currency, energy, environment, disaster relief and more."  This discrepancy fueled suspicions among some US observers that Hatoyama was deliberately avoiding sharing the idea with Washington. (No doubt some were predisposed to such suspicions after reading the essay—picked up the US media shortly before Japan's general election—in which Hatoyama discusses his East Asian Community concept while at the same time criticizing the United States.)

Speaking with Hatoyama at the Prime Minister's Residence on October 6, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong frankly expressed his concern lest any East Asian framework exclude the United States, stressing that regionalism must be open to other countries, especially the United States, and Hatoyama is said to have agreed.  Yet on October 7, speaking before the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, Foreign Minister Okada excluded the US from his vision, proposing as members Japan, China, South Korea, ASEAN, India, Australia and New Zealand, and noted that "Japan has its national interests, and the US has its own."  How can the prime minister and the foreign minister be at such cross-purposes, contradicting each other on America's role in the administration's signature foreign-policy initiative?

Then again, the prime minister seemed to contradict his own assurances to President Obama regarding Japan's continued commitment to the bilateral alliance.  In statements he made at the trilateral summit meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Beijing on October 10, Hatoyama again pushed his East Asian Community.  “Until now, we have tended to be too reliant on the United States," he said.  "The Japan-U.S. alliance remains important, but as a member of Asia, I would like to develop policies that focus more on Asia.”  While the three leaders agreed to study the East Asian Community concept in their joint statement following the summit, Hatoyama's initiative remains disturbingly vague, both in its substance and purpose and in terms of the role envisioned for the United States and China.

Some observers believe that Hatoyama is contemplating something comparable to the European Union. But neither the EU nor its predecessor, the European Community, was constituted from countries with sharply divergent political, social, and value systems; indeed, history offers no precedent for such a community. To the contrary, membership in the EU is rightly restricted to states capable of sharing the same systems, rules, and values.  How would Hatoyama's East Asian Community accommodate China, which differs radically from Japan, the United States, and other democracies when it comes to the rules of economics and trade, freedom of speech and the press, business ethics, and intellectual property rights, to say nothing of human rights? Surely the world deserves a clear explanation on this score, along with an unequivocal statement as to whether Hatoyama intends to seek US involvement or shut Washington out.

Trials of a Catch-all Party

Another problematic aspect of the DPJ's foreign policy platform is the pledge to seek revision of the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) 3 and reexamine the role of US military bases in Japan.   But reworking the agreement would be an extremely complex task, since any substantive change would require adjustments in other American security arrangements, including the US–South Korea alliance and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  Washington has no interest in putting the agreement back onto the table, particularly since doing so might give Tokyo a chance to retract its generous host nation support for the US forces stationed in Japan.

In connection with the DPJ's pledge to "work toward a nuclear-free Northeast Asia," Foreign Minister Okada and others believe that the United States should declare a "no-first-use" nuclear weapons policy.  They also suggest that Japan step out from under the US "umbrella" of so-called extended nuclear deterrence, citing Japan's three non-nuclear principles and President Obama's appeal for a world without nuclear weapons.  One analyst said to be on Hatoyama's team of policy advisors recently dismissed the nuclear umbrella concept as a relic of the cold war, and used the metaphor of an “equilateral triangle” in advocating a foreign policy aimed at balancing the mutual influence of Japan, the US, and China. Should these ideas wind up on the official Japan-US diplomatic agenda, they are bound to strain the bilateral alliance even further.

The DPJ is something of a catch-all party, encompassing a wide ideological spectrum from liberal to conservative.  This, together with the necessity of accommodating the SDP and the People's New Party as coalition partners, led many to predict early on that the new administration would have its work cut out crafting a unified and consistent foreign policy to steer the nation through uncertain times.

Looking back on the Hatoyama administration's first 50 days, one can only hope that it finds its footing soon.


1For more detail on the United States-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation, see the website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan at http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/n-america/us/security/scc/doc0605.html--Ed.
2For more detail on the SACO Final Report, see the website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan at http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/area/usa/sfa/pdfs/rem_saco_en.pdf--Ed.

3For more detail on the SOFA, see the website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan at http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/area/usa/sfa/pdfs/fulltext.pdf--Ed.

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