The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Japan’s Easy US Marriage Becomes a Ménage à Trois

March 4, 2010

The Tokyo Foundation organized a dialogue with the US German Marshall Fund titled “What Does Japan Think?” in Tokyo in December 2009 with the aim of promoting mutual understanding among Japan, the United States, and Europe. Western journalists and others were invited to Japan to exchange views with Japanese opinion leaders and to deepen their understanding of the shifts taking place in Japan following last year’s change of government. Financial Times associate editor Philip Stephens wrote the following article after returning from his visit.

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Tokyo these days is full of Americans with furrowed brows. US pre-eminence in Asia is being challenged by the rise of China. Barack Obama's administration is searching for a grand strategy to safeguard its place as the region's pivotal power. Now, Japan is challenging the terms of its long-standing security alliance with Washington.

The proximate cause of the angst is an argument about the relocation of one of the US military bases on the island of Okinawa. Behind the spat, however, is an emerging divergence of perspective. Bluntly put, the new generation of politicians that has swept to power in Japan is unwilling to accept the subservient role allotted to them by Washington.

The election victory in September of Yukio Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan marked a revolution in Japanese politics after half-a-century of virtually uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. The US has struggled to grasp the significance of the transfer of power from its faithful allies in the LDP to a party of political insurgents.

The military base dispute has become a lightning rod for differences about how to respond to a changing geopolitical landscape. The strategic challenge shared by Washington and Tokyo is how to engage a rising China while balancing its regional ambitions. The difficult question is how.

The US-Japan relationship has thus far been defined by US occupation, the imperative of cold-war unity, and, until recently, by unchallenged US hegemony in Asia. But the world has moved on. China has entered the bedroom, turning a comfortable marriage into an awkward ménage à trois.

No one is talking about tearing up the 50-year-old security agreement between Washington and Tokyo. The US military presence and nuclear guarantee offer Japan security against the immediate threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea and reassurance against China's military modernisation. The alliance simultaneously provides reassurance to Beijing about Japanese intentions and the US with a big military "footprint" in East Asia.

The psychology of the bargain, though, belongs to the world before China's rise, a disjunction evident in the base dispute. Mr Hatoyama campaigned on a pledge to revisit an agreement to relocate the Futenma marine helicopter base. Much to Washington's dismay, he has so far kept his promise.

Many in Tokyo believe a compromise will be found. Japan's defence minister has broken ranks with his boss to calm US anxieties. One senior official in Tokyo told me that a deal may be struck when Mr Obama and Mr Hatoyama attend the Copenhagen climate change conference. Yet the US administration's maladroit diplomacy has exposed deeper discord. By demanding that the DPJ elevate the former government's promise to Washington above its own pledge to Japanese voters, the US has sounded an unabashed hegemon. The scolding tone of Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, has echoes of General Douglas MacArthur's postwar imperium.

Other US officials, including Kurt Campbell, the US state department official responsible for East Asia, have been more emollient. Mr Obama offered soothing language during his Tokyo visit. However, behind the scenes, the Americans have been playing hardball by suggesting the DPJ government is calling the alliance into question.

Mr Hatoyama has added to Washington's irritation by calling for a recalibration of the US-Japan relationship to give Tokyo a more "equal" say. For good measure, he has criticised US-style "market fundamentalism" as a trigger for the global crash and suggested that Europe offers better social and economic models. The controversy over Futenma meanwhile has stirred long-standing popular unease about the rights enjoyed by the US forces.

The DPJ government has also announced that it is ending its support for the Indian Ocean naval mission supplying US-led forces in Afghanistan - though it will offset this by expanding financial aid for Afghan reconstruction.

What really seems to have alarmed Washington, however, is Mr Hatoyama's intervention in a regional debate about the architecture of a new Asian multilateralism. The prime minister's proposal for a new East Asian Community centred on China and Japan seems to exclude the US. Washington has made it clear that it does not like being excluded.

The US-educated Mr Hatoyama is not anti-American. Nor is he a born radical - he hails from a wealthy establishment family. His great grandfather, grandfather and father all held high office. Japanese politics is still substantially hereditary.

Nor, as far as one can tell, is Mr Hatoyama proposing fundamentally to weaken Japan's alliance with Washington. Listening this week to an impressive line-up of experts, ministers and officials at a series of seminars organised by the Tokyo Foundation and the German Marshall Fund of the US, the impression I took away was of a politician voicing a set of impulses rather than offering detailed policies.

Mr Hatoyama has a reputation - even among some supporters - as a big-picture politician. He seems uninterested in detail and unperturbed by inconsistency. There are plenty of people in the Tokyo political establishment who predict that, while the DPJ is here to stay, Mr Hatoyama may prove a shooting star - his present brightness prefiguring a fleeting presence.

For all that, the prime minister has been articulating an inevitable strategic shift: China's rise is forcing Japan to become more of an Asian and less of a western nation. It fears China, but is also inclined to be less submissive towards Washington. Mr Hatoyama's vision of a re-engineered partnership with the US may be hazy, but hispremise is surely right.

As of now, the Americans and Japanese have a different view of their roles in the ménage. The US wants to combine its alliance with Tokyo with a strategic relationship with Beijing, acting as the region's balancing power. Japan favours a different model, acting as conciliator between America and China. Real life, of course, is unlikely to allow such simple constructs, not least because the Sino-Japanese relationship has yet to escape the dark shadows of history. But things cannot be as they were. Those brows will be furrowed for some time. (Reprinted by permission of the Financial Times )

The article originally appeared in the December 11 issue of the Financial Times .

    • Associate Editor, Financial Times
    • Philip Stephens
    • Philip Stephens

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