Correction to This Article
The article contained incorrect information about Ichiro Ozawa, a key figure in the Democratic Party of Japan. The article reported that Michael Green, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council during the Bush administration, said that Ozawa had yet to meet the U.S. ambassador to Japan, John Roos. Green actually said that he believed that the two had not met, but asked the reporter to confirm it, which was not done before publication. Ozawa had in fact received a courtesy call from Roos at party headquarters on Oct. 21.

U.S. concerned about new Japanese premier Hatoyama

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

While most of the federal government was shut down by a snowstorm last week, there was one person in particular whom Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called in through the cold: Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki.

Once he arrived, Clinton told him in blunt, if diplomatic, terms that the United States remains adamant about moving a Marine base from one part of Okinawa to another. That she felt compelled to call the unusual meeting highlights what some U.S. and Asian officials say is an alarming turn in relations with Japan since Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama led an opposition party to victory in August elections, ending an almost uninterrupted five decades of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party.

Since the election, a series of canceled dinners, diplomatic demarches, and publicly and privately broken promises from the new government has vexed senior White House officials, causing new concern about the U.S. friendship with its closest Asian ally. The worry extends beyond U.S. officials to other leaders in Southeast Asia, who are nervous about anything that lessens the U.S. security role in the region.

A pledge of assertiveness

At the center of concern are Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan. Hatoyama had campaigned on promises he would be more assertive than previous Japanese leaders in dealings with the United States. He and his coalition partners opposed parts of a $26 billion agreement between the two nations to move the Marine base to a less-populated part of Okinawa and to transfer 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

The United States has seen the moves as central to a new Asian security policy to assure Japan's defense and to counter the rise of China. But Hatoyama and his allies saw the agreement as the United States dictating terms, and wanted the base removed.

Increasingly, U.S. officials view Hatoyama as a mercurial leader. In interviews, the officials said he has twice urged President Obama to trust him on the base issue and promised to resolve it before year's end -- once during a meeting between the two in Tokyo last month and another in a letter he wrote Obama after the White House had privately expressed concerns about the Japanese leader's intentions.

On Dec. 17, Hatoyama officially informed the Obama administration that he would not make a decision about the air base by the end of the year. He told Clinton the news in conversation at a dinner in Copenhagen at the conclusion of the United Nations climate-change summit.

After the dinner, Hatoyama told Japanese reporters that he had obtained Clinton's "full understanding" about Tokyo's need to delay. But that apparently was not the case. To make sure Japan understood that the U.S. position has not changed, Clinton called in the Japanese ambassador during last week's storm, apparently having some impact.

"This is a thing that rarely occurs, and I think we should take this [Clinton's action] into account," the ambassador told reporters as he left the State Department.

Hatoyama's moves have befuddled analysts in Washington. So far, most still think he and his party remain committed to the security relationship with the United States.

They explain his behavior as that of a politician who is not accustomed to power, who needs to pay attention to his coalition partners -- one of which, the Social Democratic Party of Japan, is against any U.S. military presence in the country. They note that Hatoyama has put money aside for the base-relocation plan in Japan's budget and that other senior members of his party have told their U.S. counterparts they will honor the deal.

Shifting policy?

But some U.S. and Asian officials increasingly worry that Hatoyama and others in his party may be considering a significant policy shift -- away from the United States and toward a more independent foreign policy.

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