Reshaping an Asian partnership

By Sheila A. Smith
Thursday, November 12, 2009

T he historic political transition underway in Tokyo is rattling Washington and has produced a puzzling rigidity in an administration known for its capacity for reaching out to the world. President Obama's visit to Asia offers a much-needed opportunity to calm and energize the U.S.-Japan relationship.

In Tokyo, the president should aim at restoring faith in Washington's ability to adjust to Japan's new politics. Old habits of lecturing Tokyo on its responsibilities must end.

For his part, the new Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, needs to find policy solutions that address today's problems rather than yesterday's politics and make clear who is calling the shots. Speculation abounds on who is making decisions on alliance policy, as recent statements from such key figures as the defense minister, the foreign affairs minister and the prime minister shift and even occasionally conflict.

Much like the Obama administration, Japan's new policy group is learning to act as a team. But this is not a typical transition. The August electoral rout by the Democratic Party of Japan, ending almost a half-century of nearly uninterrupted single-party rule, represents the first real effort to implement a two-party alternating system of government. The scale of the DPJ's win (308 of 480 seats in the Diet) suggests a real desire for change, and public dissatisfaction with the government remains intense. Japan's economy and social welfare infrastructure badly need attention. The conservative Liberal Democratic Party lost because it was unable to meet demands for good governance, and the DPJ will be voted out in four years if its members do not produce visible results.

In the short term, there is a real danger that the U.S.-Japan alliance will become a pawn in Japanese political rivalries. The diplomatic partnership cannot be seen as controlled by one political party and should not reflect only one party's agenda. U.S. policymakers should be mindful of those in Japan who seek to use the alliance for their own political ends.

Nor should Washington underestimate the tremendous expectations among Japanese voters. For years U.S. policymakers have bemoaned Japan's lack of ability to act and change. Now, as Tokyo announces new initiatives, the perception is growing in Japan that Washington fears the potential adjustments that real change might suggest for alliance management.

The Hatoyama government started off badly with the Obama administration by announcing its interest in amending the policies associated with the U.S. military presence in Japan. The prime minister's suggestion to move a Marine airfield off Okinawa sparked deep misgivings in Washington. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates's blunt tone in a Tokyo news conference last month, when he called moving the air station off the island "politically untenable and operationally unworkable," shocked many Japanese.

The president has an opportunity to change how Tokyo and Washington work together. First, while both Obama and Hatoyama have noted the value of the diplomatic partnership, they must acknowledge that the U.S.-Japan relationship is no longer based on Cold War understandings but, rather, on its ability to deliver solutions to contemporary problems. The relationship cannot remain static or isolated from the tremendous global and regional changes afoot. They should not attempt to build the alliance's agenda in one visit but over the coming year. Obama will return to Japan in November 2010, when Japan hosts the next Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. Allowing for real discourse on how to transform our alliance would relieve the pressure on this visit to mark the resolution to all bilateral problems and relieve pressure on a fledgling government trying to accomplish too much. The two leaders should raise their sights considerably; this is simply not the time for messy politics or policy tantrums.

The president and the prime minister must demonstrate the power of the partnership between the world's two largest national economies and most technologically advanced societies. Their talks should focus on generating economic growth and stabilizing global financial markets; invigorating the global climate-change effort and capitalizing on new technologies to reduce carbon levels; and discussing how their nations can motivate the global nonproliferation and disarmament effort while providing for Japan's strategic needs in a nuclear world.

Transition jitters and the legacies of predecessors must be set aside. This visit is the moment for two heads of state to make good on their claims that this relationship is a priority. They should get to work designing an effective and forward-looking partnership.

The writer is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her e-mail address is

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