Features | Security | East Asia

Politics Strains US-Japan Ties

Yukio Hatoyama is putting an election ahead of the US alliance, says former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joel Starr.

By Joel E. Starr for

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Security and Cooperation. Yet, rather than engaging in a celebration and reaffirmation of shared values and alliance missions, our leaders find themselves preoccupied with uncertainty—an uncertainty driven by shifting political calculations in Japan rather than changes to the global or regional security environment.

Supporters of the US-Japan alliance in the US Congress are surprised and more than a little disappointed to find such an important relationship seemingly being called into question. This concern has motivated recent visits to Japan by Members of Congress and their staff for consultations, including my own trip there.

But sadly, I came away from those meetings with an unsettling feeling that the administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is playing politics with the 2006 US-Japanese agreement that moves US Marines on Okinawa in an effort to ensure that his party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), will gain seats in the upcoming House of Councillors elections slated for mid-July. While this conclusion may not be surprising, what was surprising to me were the numerous unofficial pleas I received from Japanese officials and scholars to pressure the Hatoyama government to honour the 2006 agreement. In addition, our military leadership expressed clear concern about the Hatoyama administration’s ‘mixed signals.’

While we have great respect for the democratic process and the considered views of our ally, on the question of our agreement on the disposition of forces in Okinawa, the facts are not in dispute. After 13 years, through both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and multiple governments in Japan, negotiations were successfully concluded in 2006 to realign and expand our mutual security alliance with Japan beyond its existing framework. A key feature of this new arrangement includes relocating the US Marine’s Futenma Air Station from the crowded city of Ginowan to Camp Schwab, in the less populated part of northern Okinawa. This realignment of US forces in Japan also includes the redeployment of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, which includes 8,000 US personnel and their dependents (when at full capacity), to new facilities in Guam, and will lead to the return of thousands of acres of land to the Japanese. This move will reduce the number of US Marines on Okinawa by nearly half, and Japanese and US officials settled on Camp Schwab because of its far less populated and congested location.

However, it’s also a fact that in July 2010, half of Japan’s Upper House seats will be up for election. The DPJ controls that chamber of the Diet by virtue of its alliance with two smaller parties, the left-of-centre Social Democratic Party and the populist/conservative People’s New Party. And in the run-up to this election, I’m far from alone in believing that politics is intruding into the national security decision-making process of the current Japanese leadership.

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Granted, the historic August 2009 DPJ victory ended more than five decades of uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party in post-war Japan. And the new administration is inexperienced in governing and suspicious of close to two generations of career Civil and Foreign Service employees who served under the LDP for close to a half a century. These reasons alone, however, don’t explain why Japan would not want to honour the 2006 agreement in whole or part.

Hatoyama has in the past made statements suggesting that US troops in Japan either be significantly reduced or withdrawn altogether, though he backed away from these statements once he was elected and confirmed the centrality of the alliance to Japan’s security. The present government has also put forward a vision of a Japan that is more ‘normal,’ in that it is more assertive and independent on the international stage. Members of the Hatoyama government have been quoted as supporting increased contributions in personnel and materiel to international security operations, but to do so only in missions that are authorized by the UN Security Council.

But these are non sequitur responses for the real reason I believe Hatoyama is withholding a decision on Futenma:  to obtain the votes of those Okinawans and a vocal minority of other Japanese who are opposed to US troops on Japanese soil.

There are reports this week that Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada presented US Ambassador John V. Roos with a proposal to settle the dispute. However, the fact that the Hatoyama government has twice put off giving a definitive response, on whether it will honour Japan’s security commitments relating to Futenma, leaves no doubt in my mind that a final decision will be further delayed until after the July 2010 Upper House elections. But even if the election brings a greater majority to the DPJ, the present government will find itself bound up by implicit domestic and expedient political campaign promises that fundamentally alter our 50-year national security relationship.

Indeed, my suspicions were confirmed in a telling exchange with State Secretary Koichi Takemasa, one of the few political appointees at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Takemasa remarked that he had just met with the US Pacific Commander and his Pentagon colleagues in Guam a few days before, and ‘they told us of the importance of the deterrence power of US forces in the region.’

But Takemasa added no comment of agreement to reinforce the statement. After an awkward pause, I left him with a military truism about the ‘tyranny of time’ on the battlefield that Senator James Inhofe has also used in an East Asian security context. I said, ‘Mr. Secretary, it takes two hours to fly from Japan to North Korea; it takes six hours to fly from Guam to North Korea.’  Takemasa looked at me, said nothing, and entertained the next questioner.

Joel E. Starr serves as Counsel and Legislative Assistant to U.S. Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, and the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Mr. Starr was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State from 2007-09, and is a Major in the US Army Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps.