On a visit to Tokyo in February, Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, met with embattled DPJ secretary-general Ozawa Ichiro and extended an invitation to visit Washington. Ozawa said he would visit on the condition that he be able to meet with President Barack Obama. At the time I suggested that since Ozawa’s visit could undermine the Hatoyama government’s tortuous process of reviewing the 2006 agreement on the realignment of US Forces in Japan, he should keep his Washington meetings as perfunctory as possible — and also wrote that “perhaps it would be better off if an Ozawa visit to Washington fell through.”
The visit has in fact fallen through: on Wednesday it became clear that Ozawa would not be going to Washington during the Golden Week holidays and will instead be going sometime after this summer’s Upper House election. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, a number of DPJ officials suggested that by going to Washington Ozawa would raise the specter of “dual diplomacy.” Asahi similarly suggested that the trip has been postponed so as to not cast a shadow over the Hatoyama government’s ongoing effort to find a solution to the Futenma problem.
While some will fret that Ozawa’s not going to Washington after having taken such a high-visibility trip to Beijing last year sends a signal that the DPJ is more interested in good relations with China than with the US, it would be a mistake to interpret the decision to postpone in this light. If anything, it should suggest that perhaps too much value was attributed to Ozawa’s trip to China in the first place.
I remain convinced that it is an unqualified good that Ozawa will not be in a position to intervene in diplomacy over Futenma at a critical moment for the Hatoyama government. Any expectation in Washington that Ozawa holds the key to solving the impasse over Futenma rests on a distorted impression of Ozawa’s power within the DPJ-led government, an especially distorted impression now that the one thing the public is largely in agreement on is the desirability of Ozawa’s being removed as secretary-general and that Ozawa has been forced to tolerate criticism from DPJ members. Indeed, reminiscent of the idea in American politics that power in a presidential administration depends on physical proximity to the Oval Office, Asahi suggests that a “new troika” may be forming, composed of Hatoyama, Finance Minister Kan Naoto, and reform czar Sengoku Yoshito, as the latter two now have offices in the Prime Minister’s residence.
The solution to the Futenma dispute will ultimately depend on the prime minister and his cabinet, which is why Watanabe Kozo, a senior DPJ legislator, suggested that Hatoyama would have to step down in the event that he fails to resolve the dispute by the end of May. The real risks of Ozawa’s further complicating the process is not worth the trivial symbolic benefits that would come from Ozawa’s trip.