Has the Obama administration been too tough on Japan?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

JAPAN'S VENTURE into two-party democracy has not looked pretty so far -- especially for those watching from Washington. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has pursued an erratic course in both domestic and foreign policy since his Democratic Party took office in September. Most notably, he triggered a dispute with the Obama administration over U.S. military bases in Japan and then violated both public and private promises to resolve it by the end of 2009. Having campaigned against the corruption of 50 years of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party, Mr. Hatoyama also has been dogged by his own fundraising scandal. Polls show his approval rating has fallen from more than 70 percent to less than 50 percent in just three months.

Like the Japanese public, the Obama administration has not concealed its exasperation. The president and other senior officials visiting the country have repeatedly called for an "expedited" resolution to the base dispute. After the prime minister broke his own deadline just before Christmas and announced that he would postpone the matter for another few months, the Japanese ambassador to Washington was summoned for an unusual démarche by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The Pentagon says there is good reason for the impatience. Under a 2006 agreement, 8,000 U.S. Marines now based on the Japanese island of Okinawa are to be relocated to Guam, beginning this year. But that move depends on implementation of a bilateral deal to close a helicopter base that now lies in a heavily populated area, and to build new facilities in another area near the island's coast. If Japan does not move forward on the base agreement, U.S. officials have warned, the troop redeployment may be derailed.

Yet the administration must guard against allowing a diplomatic irritation to escalate into a major crisis with the most important U.S. ally in Asia. Though he has catered to Okinawans who oppose the U.S. military presence, and to nationalists calling for a more equal U.S.-Japanese security relationship, Mr. Hatoyama so far appears committed to the alliance. That's not the case with one of two small parties in his coalition -- which is pressing for the removal of all U.S. troops from Japan. Then there is the Democratic Party's founder and chief power broker, Ichiro Ozawa, who recently visited Beijing with an entourage of 500, and who favors a deepening of Japanese ties to China.

The chances are that if Mr. Hatoyama heads too far in that direction, he will face a rebellion from his own party, not to mention Japanese voters. So the Obama administration would be wise to avoid harsh rhetoric and give the prime minister some space. The reality is that the government cannot go forward with the new basing agreement before an upper-house election, expected late this summer, without endangering its own existence. Japan's nascent two-party system is a democratic achievement, not a diplomatic nuisance; give it a little time to find its course.

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