Saturday, November 07, 2009

Is Japan no longer a constant in US relations in East Asia?

Ahead of Obama's visit to Japan next week, an ongoing dispute between the US and the new administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama regarding the relocation of a Marine base threatens to further strain the long-standing US-Japan alliance.

The impetus for moving U.S. Marines Corps Air Station Futenma grew out of the local population's opposition to the presence of US forces on Okinawa Island. Such opposition seemingly came to a head following the 1995 rape of an Okinawan Schoolgirl by three US servicemen from the base. In 2006, a long awaited deal was reached between the previous administrations of both states that scrapped US plans for constructing an off-shore facility vehemently opposed by environmental groups. The new agreement planned to make use of an existing site, Camp Schwab. Since taking office, the Hatoyama Administration has taken up the issue anew, ignoring Washington's claims that the agreement struck with the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party was final. More recently, Tokyo has rebuffed US efforts to pressure the reach a decision prior to Obama's arrival.

The deadlock regarding this issue is only the latest decision by Japan's new ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), in a string of maneuvers seemingly intent on asserting Japan's foreign policy independence from the United States. Last month, the new administration revealed that it will not renew Japan's Afghan support mission, an eight year agreement to refuel warships supporting US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the DPJ recently shrugged off Defense Secretary Gate's concerns about the Hatoyama Administration's probe into an allegedly secret US-Japan nuclear pact, which had allowed the US to transport nuclear weapons through Japan in violation of the 1960 bilateral security treaty. Additionally, the new administration in Tokyo has made noise about a new East Asian Community with China at its core and the US removed from its current balancing rule in the region.

For some, this apparent insubordination on the part of the DPJ has come as no surprise. The party's election platform foreshadowed such. Moreover, the Futenma issue is the Hatoyama Administration's first foreign affairs test, a chance to back campaign promise targeting a sizable portion of the population desiring a more confident, independent Japanese foreign policy. The question is this just politics? Maybe so. After all, a cornerstone of the DPJ's domestic agenda was to decrease the bureaucratization of government, by empowering elected politicians over the bureaucrats that had too often welded the power in Japanese politics. Will this domestic posturing ultimately lead to an actual crisis in US-Japanese relations? If so, will economic ties endure?

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