Conservatives have been tossed out and more progressive ?gbig D?h Democrats are now in power in both Washington and Tokyo. Years of cozy relations between conservative Japanese leaders and conservative U.S. leaders made for well trod pathways in bilateral relations, and the change has taken some getting used to on both sides. Alliance managers are at sea, far from the coast and without familiar landmarks to guide them.
The question is how to navigate closer to shore. One obstacle has been the media-- especially in Japan. Having fussed repeatedly-- and without much evidence-- about how an Obama administration might shift its affections to China and ignore Japan, the Japanese media seems finally to have calmed down.
Meanwhile, the U.S. press was filled with indignation that the Hatoyama Democrats would reopen bilateral agreements that were supposed to have been signed and sealed in concrete. Both sides fretted excessively that this was not change anyone could believe in, and warned that rookies would bungle the carefully crafted alliance in the absence of adult supervision.
Meanwhile, senior leaders have been distracted by other important matters. Obama has been wrestling with health care reform and now owns an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan. Hatoyama has declared war on Japan?fs powerful bureaucracy and has made expensive promises to voters on taxes, pensions, and allowances for families despite inheriting a stalled economy. Relations with Keidanren and the business community are in need of repair. It would be wonderful for both if the alliance could be kept on the back burner until they can sort out these other priorities.
But that is not likely. Like all such arrangements, the bilateral relationship needs constant attention if it is to continue to be relevant.
This is especially pressing because the Japan-US Mutual Security Treaty will be fifty years old next summer. At their short summit in New York City-- a brief half hour encounter amidst the chaos of UN week-- the two leaders reaffirmed the alliance boilerplate. They agreed that the Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of the two countries' security policies and pledged to deepen it by cooperating on global financial issues, nonproliferation, and climate change. They also vowed to maintain solidarity at the six party talks with North Korea. They repeated these pledges during the President?fs brief visit to Japan in November.
Still, the Hatoyama government has raised important questions. As an opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) questioned the alignment of U.S. forces in Japan, opposed the deployment of the Japanese troops to Iraq and to the Indian Ocean in support of the US military, held up payments on host nation support, pressed for an investigation of a potentially embarrassing secret deal on nuclear weapons transport dating from the 1960s, and confounded efforts to relax restrictions on the Japanese use of force that Washington would welcome.
Key government advisors have pressed for a more balanced approach to Beijing, and for a bit more distance from Washington. These Asianists insist that strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance dissipates Japanese influence elsewhere, as in the Middle East. None argues for a full decoupling from the United States but many prefer a reduced U.S. military footprint and revision of the highly symbolic Status of Forces Agreement that governs the behaviour of US soldiers on the archipelago.
U.S. government officials have now grown used to hearing about all this, and have stated repeatedly they agree-- up to a point. Jeff Bader, the senior director for Asia at the National Security Council has made it very clear that the Obama administration is sensitive to public opinion in Japan and that it is committed to building a more equal partnerships with a lighter U.S. military footprint.
But the US government is not used to hearing these complaints from the Japanese government itself. Historically, LDP governments was rather compliant. By doing the minimum necessary to keep U.S. frustration under control, Japan played ?grope a dope?h with the US on alliance issues for most of the past half century. Washington would demand, and Tokyo would appear to comply.
Since Japanese and US fundamental interests were aligned, U.S. aggravation over Japanese recalcitrance never undid the relationship. Now the roles have been reversed. Now Tokyo is making make demands on Washington, and it is Washington?fs turn to absorb the blows.
After a brief, ill-advised eruption of old school paternalism from a Pentagon spokesman in September, the State Department has mapped a course of selective accommodation to Japanese demands. So, when the Hatoyama administration says it wants a more equal relationship, the US agrees this would be a good idea. When the DPJ calls for closer ties to the continent, Washington says that this is in our interest too. U.S. officials have welcomed the formation of an East Asian Community, readjustment of the Japanese contribution to the war on terror, and have not rejected out of hand discussions of the force realignment and base issues. With the DPJ likely to end Japanese support for Operation Enduring Freedom in the Indian Ocean, President Obama embraced Prime Minister Hatoyama?fs pledge of civilian aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Rather than echo the fractious talk of "abandonment," "erosion of the East Asian balance of power," and "failure of extended deterrence" that have bubbled up in recent discussions of the alliance, the United States had taken a different-- more poised-- tack. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, declared in Tokyo that "it?fs important for us at the outset to be prepared to listen and to talk with Japanese counterparts. We can?ft dictate. We have to listen, and clearly the new government has committed to some reviews in terms of certain aspect of our alliance. We want to work with Japan?c"
It looks like Team Obama may have learned a Japanese lesson about alliance management. If it demands less and accommodates where it can, the US side may actually get more of what it wants.
Richard J. Samuels is Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author most recently of Securing Japan: Tokyo?fs Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia.