The Hatoyama government tackles the alliance early

With US President Barack Obama scheduled to visit Japan at the start of an East Asian swing in November — he will stop in Tokyo before going to Singapore for APEC and then concluding his trip with meetings in China and South Korea — the Hatoyama government is working hard to hammer out positions on the two major sticking points between the DPJ and the US government, the future of the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean and the Futenma question.

Regarding the former, Nagashima Akihisa, parliamentary secretary for defense, made waves this week when, in a speech in his Tokyo constituency Monday, he argued that the refueling mission ought to continue with a new mandate from the Diet. [Full disclosure: I have met with Nagashima on a number of occasions.]

In response, Nagashima was warned by his superior, Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi, by Consumer Affairs Minister and Social Democratic Party head Fukushima Mizuho, and most significantly, by Hirano Hirofumi, the chief cabinet secretary, who stressed that it is for the government to decide policy in this area. In a meeting Wednesday morning Hirano advised caution from Nagashima.

Perhaps Nagashima should not have used a speech in his constituency to advance an argument for a position that appeared to be at odds with the government’s. (I say appeared because officially the government’s position on Afghanistan remains to be decided — all we know is that the refueling mission will not be “simply” extended.) But just as was the case with Kamei Shizuka’s comments about the debt repayment moratorium for small- and medium-sized enterprises, every note of discord within the Hatoyama government should not be a cause for alarm and an occasion for critics to declare that the government is out of control. As I’ve argued before, no government is free of disagreement: the important thing is how dissent is handled.

As the Hatoyama government decides what to do about Afghanistan — it will need to be in a position to offer something to Obama when he visits Japan — Nagashima should be included in the discussion on the basis of his distinct position on the issue, and the fact that he is well-connected in Washington (not to mention that his substantial security policy expertise). And I suspect he will contribute to the debate within the government, although perhaps in a less visible manner henceforth. Simply silencing dissenters (if that’s even the right word) will not be to the government’s benefit.

The problem for the government on Futenma is different, being less a matter of dealing with internal disagreements than with the uncomfortable reality that the Hatoyama government is trapped between a US government uninterested in renegotiating and an Okinawan public that wants the matter resolved. Accordingly, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio hinted that the DPJ would be willing to reconsider its position and accept the bilateral agreement on realignment. Bloomberg reports that US Ambassador to Japan John Roos said that the Obama administration will not renegotiate the agreement on relocating Futenma, although from the article it is unclear whether the administration is opposed to renegotiating entirely or whether it is simply opposed to the idea of relocating the air base to somewhere outside of Okinawa entirely; Roos apparently said that the administration will listen to the Hatoyama government’s position.

For its part, the Hatoyama government, while still interested in finding a solution other than building an offshore replacement facility in Okinawa, may be softening its position. Not only did Hatoyama allude to the possibility of abandoning a manifesto position, but after an inspection visit to Okinawa Kitazawa said that the idea of relocating the Marine air station outside of Okinawa, the position espoused in the DPJ’s Okinawa vision paper, is extremely difficult. The government is still considering whether to propose an alternative site within Okinawa, but it seems that the DPJ-led government will not push quite as hard for its optimal plan.

Dealing with these issues now is good politics. Not only will it give some meaning to Obama’s visit next month — Okada stressed in an appearance on NHK last month that the government wants to assemble its policies on Okinawa, refueling, and Afghanistan by Obama’s visit — but it will also push foreign policy out of the headlines after Obama leaves and the DPJ devotes its attention entirely to drafting next year’s budget and finding ways to pay for its new spending programs. Its coalition partners will undoubtedly complain about the inevitable compromises the DPJ will make in relations with the US, but dealing with these matters now will make it that much harder for the LDP to gain traction against the DPJ by attacking the government on its handling of foreign policy in advance of next year’s upper house election. By dealing with these tricky issues now the Hatoyama government can ensure that nothing will detract from encomiums to the alliance during next year’s sixtieth anniversary celebrations.

It is unlikely that the DPJ will do anything to spoil next year’s celebrations in the meantime. Far from the oft-heard criticism that the DPJ is reflexively anti-American, the Hatoyama government is showing that the flexibility it showed during the campaign was not a pose. The DPJ is willing to compromise with the US. It recognizes that there are limits to the political usefulness of criticizing Washington. The government’s compromise position has yet to take shape, but there seems little question now that it will be a compromise position.

5 thoughts on “The Hatoyama government tackles the alliance early

  1. Anonymous

    \”it will need to be in a position to offer something to Obama when he visits Japan\”Why? In your opinion, does Obama need to be in a position to offer anything to Hatoyama on base relocation when he arrives? The notion that the cessation of refueling activities must be met with some sort of quid pro quo only holds if the new government of Japan thought those activities were justified.Or is the \”hub-and-spokes\” model like an old-fashioned Chinese tributary system? There are many reasons why Japan should contribute in some way to efforts in Afghanistan. One of those reasons, however, should not be to offer tribute to an American leader because he graces Tokyo with his presence.


  2. Anonymous,It has nothing to do with offering \”tribute\” and everything to do with diplomacy in an alliance. The DPJ claims that it wants to help Afghanistan. The prime minister said as much at the UN. The visit of the US president is the perfect opportunity to offer some policy measures that follow through on the prime minister's rhetoric. Last time I checked the US and Japan were still allies, after all. The Obama administration has been remarkably hands off when it comes to Japanese support in Afghanistan (with a small handful of exceptions). It has treated Japan like an ally, not a vassal. Now it is up to the Hatoyama government to act like an ally, not a rebellious satrap.


  3. Anonymous

    \”The visit of the US president is the perfect opportunity to offer some policy measures\”I agree, but that wasn't quite how you worded it before. >\”Now it is up to the Hatoyama government to act like an ally, not a rebellious satrap.\”Well, nobody is suggesting that. However, you imply that if Hatoyama does not offer up the goods on Afghanistan to Mr. Obama on the latter's arrival, then \”Japan\”, or the \”Japanese government\” is being \”rebellious.\” Rushing into what may be an unsustainable position to suit an important foreign actor's timetable may be good short-term diplomacy, but it is not a particularly good way to make policy. It may not even be good diplomacy in the long-term, as a few Japanese prime ministers have discovered.>\”It has treated Japan like an ally, not a vassal.\”For the most part, yes. However, I'm not of the school that believes Hillary's trip to Tokyo was simply a PR stunt. There was certainly a message that needed to be delivered:\”And the agreement that I signed today with Foreign Minister Nakasone is one between our two nations, regardless of who’s in power.\”I would argue that signing an important treaty with a crumbling government is not typical behavior for a trusted ally, especially if the political party likely to form the next government opposes the treaty. It's REALLY not good diplomacy to then rub the opposition's nose in it before it comes to power. And yes, I know there are rumors that the base realignment plan may even have been a deal offered up by the LDP too sweet for Washington to refuse. All the more reason for the prospective government to resent this action.Please note that I am not opposing some sort of policy on Afghanistan, per se. Who knows? Maybe Hatoyama has made a decision on Afghanistan already and is just waiting for Obama to arrive in order to announce it. Doing so when Obama is in town would be nice, but not necessary. And failure to do so would certainly not signal \”rebellion\” by a \”satrap.\” If the DPJ wants Japan to be a real ally, it should act according to its own perception of Japan's interests.


  4. PaxAmericana

    Tobias,If the DPJ was against the treaty, then the US shouldn't have pushed for it, and can't really make a big fuss about changing it now. Treaties are supposed to be about relations between nations, not political parties, such as the LDP.More broadly, though, the question is, how should Japan act like an ally when their partner has gone quite wrong over the last decade or two?


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