By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009; A08
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.
They point to recent events as a possible warnings: Hatoyama's call for an East Asian Community with China and South Korea, excluding the United States; the unusually warm welcome given to Xi Junping, China's vice president, on his trip to Japan this month, which included an audience with the emperor; and the friendly reception given to Saeed Jalili, the Iranian national security council secretary, during his visit to Japan last week.
Michael Green, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council during the Bush administration, said the concern is that senior officials in Hatoyama's party with great influence, such as Ichiro Ozawa, want to push Japan toward closer ties with China and less reliance on the United States. That would complicate the U.S. position not just in Japan but in South Korea and elsewhere.
"I think there are questions about what kind of role Ozawa is playing," Green said, adding that Ozawa has not been to the United States in a decade, has yet to meet the U.S. ambassador to Japan, John Roos, and only grudgingly met Clinton during an earlier trip to Japan.
"The prevailing view is that this is basically a populist, inexperienced government sorting out its foreign policy," he said, "but now there is a 10 to 20 percent chance that this is something more problematic."
U.S. allies in Singapore, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines -- and Vietnamese officials as well -- have all viewed the tussle between Washington and Tokyo with alarm, according to several senior Asian diplomats.
The reason, one diplomat said, is that the U.S.-Japan relationship is not simply an alliance that obligates the United States to defend Japan, but the foundation of a broader U.S. security commitment to all of Asia. As China rises, none of the countries in Asia wants the U.S. position weakened by problems with Japan.
Another senior Asian diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid, noted that recent public opinion polls show Hatoyama's approval rating slipping below 50 percent, while Obama remains popular.
"Let's hope Hatoyama gets the message that this is not the way to handle the United States," he said.