The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

A Chilly Washington Reception for Hatoyama Diplomacy

March 18, 2010

The historic change of government that took place last September, after the Democratic Party of Japan defeated the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Japan’s general election, attracted considerable attention in the United States.

*     *     *

The reaction ranged from trepidation to optimism, with conservatives raising the alarm and liberals expressing hope for a new era of Japanese regional leadership. Unfortunately, the mood has veered increasingly toward alarm as Washington policymakers air their doubts about the DPJ’s commitment to the alliance and Hatoyama’s still-hazy vision for an East Asian Community.

The initial mixture of optimism and trepidation was epitomized by the New York Times editorial that appeared on September 1, immediately following the election. The piece expressed concern over the possible termination of the Self-Defense Forces’ refueling mission in the Indian Ocean—undertaken in support of US military operations in Afghanistan—just as US President Barack Obama was embarking on a new Afghanistan strategy. At the same time, the editors welcomed Hatoyama’s pledge not to visit Yasukuni Shrine as a step toward better relations with Beijing and Seoul.

Even before the election, the DPJ’s public commitment to build an “equal relationship” with the United States, one of the key principles in its election manifesto, had generated an undercurrent of apprehension, particularly among American conservatives. When the op-ed piece, “A New Path for Japan,” by DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama appeared in the August 27 New York Times , its content only served to confirm those fears and exacerbate concerns about the future of the bilateral alliance.

In justice to Hatoyama, the New York Times op-ed piece was actually translated from a much longer essay carried in the September issue of the Japanese monthly magazine Voice, and the Times abridged the piece in a manner that highlighted the most sensational and potentially disturbing passages while missing the piece’s overall thrust. In the original essay, Hatoyama put his dream of an East Asian Community in a broader historical context by referring to the ideas of Count Richard Nikolaus Eijiro von Coudenhove-Kalergi, whose pan-Europeanism helped pave the way for today’s European Union. But the Times version skipped over that section, as well as important passages critiquing the LDP’s economic policies, leaving only the points most likely to raise American hackles—namely, Hatoyama’s criticism of American-style, American-led global capitalism and his plans for a stronger Asian emphasis in Japanese foreign policy.

The immediate US reaction to Hatoyama’s piece was summed up in an Associated Press article dated August 31 and distributed under the headline “Japan’s new leader a question mark over US ties.” After quoting some of Hatoyama’s more controversial assertions, such as his statement that Japan had been “continually buffeted by the winds of market fundamentalism in a U.S.-led movement that is more usually called globalization” and his argument that the global economic crisis was traceable to “American-style free market economics,” the AP article posed the big question on Americans’ minds—that is, whether such views augured a new, less pro-American foreign policy. The same question echoed throughout the US media. In fact, in an August 31 White House press briefing, a reporter directly addressed the issue, saying, “Japan wants closer relations with China and Russia. Is the US-Japan alliance going to change as a result?”

Three Perspectives

Of course, not everyone in Washington was swayed by the somewhat alarmist tone of the media. In fact, the view in Washington policy circles can be roughly divided into three camps. The first, consisting primarily of conservative Republicans, has continued to sound the alarm over what it sees as a weaker commitment to the Japan-US alliance on the part of the Hatoyama administration. The second camp, consisting of moderate-to-conservative realists, regards such worries as excessive and warns against heightening political tensions needlessly, citing predictions that the Hatoyama cabinet will take a pragmatic approach to foreign policy—a view with which the Obama administration fundamentally agrees. The third camp, dominated by liberals, takes the disinterested view that it is natural and right for Japan to seek independence from the constraints long imposed by Washington now that the DPJ government has finally broken the LDP’s monopoly on power, and that it is Japan’s right to set its own policy.

One prominent spokesperson for the first group is Bruce Klingner of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who has stressed that the DPJ’s security policies are incompatible with US interests and has warned of “greater crises in Asia and around the world” if Japan refuses to pull its weight. In fact, the realists of the second group have already begun to share this apprehension to some degree, and their concerns could become much greater depending on the result of government talks on such DPJ agenda items as revision of the bilateral agreement on the realignment of US military forces in Japan, termination of the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, civilian aid for Afghanistan, and possible revision of the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement.

Representing the realists of the second group is Kurt Campbell, the Obama administration’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Campbell, who has visited Japan and conferred with Minister for Foreign Affairs Katsuya Okada and other DPJ leaders, has emphasized the need for “trust building” between the countries’ leaders and advised a wait-and-see attitude regarding the Hatoyama administration’s foreign policy. Another spokesperson for the realist camp is Michael Auslin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. From the beginning Auslin played down the likelihood of a major shift in Tokyo’s foreign policy, explaining that Hatoyama’s election-campaign rhetoric on the subject was shaped in large part by the necessity of drawing a sharp distinction between the DPJ and the LDP.

Daniel Sneider of Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center speaks for the third, liberal camp. After the DPJ’s election victory, Sneider suggested that Americans should expect Japan to adopt a more independent foreign policy, commenting, “This is what happens when you have a government in Japan that must be responsive to public opinion,” and predicting that the change in government would “end the habits from decades of a relationship in which Japan didn’t challenge the United States.” This group also welcomes the Hatoyama administration’s foreign policy orientation as a positive thing for Japan’s ties with its East Asian neighbors. Writing shortly after the election, Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC, suggested that the US-Japan security relationship, like the LDP itself, had become “overly rigid and anachronistic” over the years and argued that a restructuring of the alliance was “vital to keep Japan engaged in global affairs and to keep it on a track that does not raise the fears of its Asian neighbors in ways that the governments of Koizumi, Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso have recently done” ( Daily Yomiuri , September 12, 2009). Overall this group constitutes a minority voice in Washington policy circles, but its optimism concerning relations between Japan and its neighbors under the new government is shared by the realist camp.

An Eye on Obama’s Numbers

As of mid-October, President Obama’s approval ratings were averaging about 52% in the mainstream media polls and under 50% in polling by Ramussen Reports and Fox News. If the trend continues, Obama could end up vying with Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton for the fastest drop in presidential popularity in recent memory. At the heart of this decline is widespread public dissatisfaction with the president’s embattled healthcare reform plan, the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, and his military strategy for Afghanistan. In fact, by October 2009 Obama’s position had become so shaky that pundits were suggesting his Nobel Peace Prize could backfire, becoming just another magnet for conservative criticism.

In the midst of all this, the Obama administration is considering expanding the Afghan effort by an additional 40,000 troops, on top of the 68,000 scheduled to be deployed by the end of 2009. To add to the administration’s woes, Australia and some NATO countries—including Canada and several European states—which have been contributing troops to the war in Afghanistan, are facing mounting pressure to pull out as voters protest rising casualties and the lack of a clear roadmap. Washington’s concern is that a decision by Japan to terminate its contribution to the war effort, the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, could set off a chain reaction of pull-outs by NATO countries. For this reason it is important to Washington that Japan either continue the refueling operation or, in lieu of that, replace it with some highly visible form of support for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

Washington also seeks the Hatoyama cabinet’s cooperation on implementing the agreement that Japan and the United States reached earlier for the realignment of US forces in Japan. The Hatoyama administration has indicated that it wants to scrap the portion of the agreement calling for replacement of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma with a new facility in the vicinity of Camp Schwab, another US base in Okinawa Prefecture and instead move the base outside the prefecture. But the Americans have clearly signaled that they are not open to such a revision. US officials negotiated long and hard with the Japanese government to reach the existing agreement. Juggling a host of conflicting interests and operational issues, they examined every available option and ultimately agreed to the transfer of 8,000 Marines to Guam despite strong opposition from the Marine Corps and Congress. Given the political and economic situation in the United States now, renegotiating the agreement is the last thing Washington needs. As Obama’s domestic and foreign initiatives face an increasingly hostile political environment, the administration has less and less room to maneuver. The Hatoyama cabinet’s continued insistence on relocating the base outside of Okinawa Prefecture is merely delaying implementation of the realignment plan, leaving the urban area around Futenma exposed to danger from the airbase, jeopardizing the transfer of the 8,000 Marines, and increasing the likelihood of a chill in Japan-US relations.

The Hatoyama administration must also be sensitive to Washington’s concerns that an East Asian Community could end up excluding the United States. Thus far the cabinet has failed to offer a plan specific enough to clarify this key point. Would the membership correspond to that of ASEAN+3, that is, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China, and South Korea? Or to ASEAN+6, which also includes India, Australia, and New Zealand? Or to APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum), a tent that extends all the way to Latin America? Remarks by Hatoyama and Foreign Minister Okada on the subject have been all over the map. Nor can one divine even a general time table for the creation of this community. The administration should provide answers to these questions or, if vagueness is a deliberate strategy, at the very least clarify its intention to leave those questions unanswered. ( Translated from a report published in Japanese on October 20, 2009 )

    • Senior Fellow, Tokyo Foundation Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation
    • Tsuneo Watanabe
    • Tsuneo Watanabe

Featured Content




Click on the link below to contact an expert or submit a question.