Friday, June 11, 2010

Japan-US relations poised to strengthen

Published in The Daily Star, June 12th , 2010

THERE was another twist in the tail related to the sinking of Cheonan. Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned, primarily over his failure to keep his election promise to the people of Okinawa to shift the US base out of the island. The sinking of Cheonan allegedly by North Korean torpedo created heightened security concerns among the majority of the people of Japan. They have seen the indispensability of strengthening the security links with USA instead of weakening it, as Hatoyama was perceived to be doing.

The sinking of Cheonan came at a wrong time for Hatoyama. Only eight months ago, he had led the Democratic Parry of Japan (DJP) to a resounding victory ending the LDP's nearly 6-decade long stranglehold on power. One important factor that influenced the public to vote for the DJP was its promise to stand up firmly in dealing with the United States, particularly on the sensitive issue of the stationing of over 40,000 US troops on Japanese soil, with the air force base in Futenma in Okinawa that has the majority of US troops stationed in Japan at the centre of the controversy. Hatoyama also promised to make Japan's foreign policy more Asia centric looking more favourably towards China, which was not the case under the LDP.

Hatoyama's personal popularity started to nosedive with early allegations of corruption in the DJP traced to him and more importantly, in dealing with the United States on Futenma. The Obama administration made it very clear that it had no intention of reopening the agreement the two countries had reached in 2006 when the LDP was in power. The agreement was to move the Futenma base to a new but less crowded facility on Okinawa's northeast shore. US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, on a visit to Japan in October last year, said that the 2006 agreement was a “done deal” opposing Hatoyama's efforts to move it out of Okinawa altogether that strained Japan-US relations from the beginning of DJP rule. Okinawa is strategically located on the Straits of Taiwan that makes US troop location there of the essence to the United States.

The US stand on keeping the air force base in Okinawa against his election pledge to move it out put Hatoyama in a difficult situation. He could not deal with the issue with Washington in a decisive manner that affected adversely his standing with his people. His popularity rating was on a serious decline from an impregnably high of 70% when he assumed office to below 20% in recent weeks because of financial scandals and his indecisiveness in dealing with Washington. Cheonan was the straw that broke the camel's back.

There are a few ironies in Hatoyama's departure. The US has always wanted a change of power in Japan, wary of the LDP's stranglehold on power; that should have worked in favour of Hatoyama. Yet it ended by pushing Hatoyama to a corner over the Futenma base, making him indecisive that created the ground for his departure. The public that supported him strongly and voted the DJP to power because of the stand to be treated as an equal by Washington eventually went against him. They felt that as Prime Minister he was trying to make Japan independent of the United States and was putting Japan's security at stake, a view that was reinforced by Cheonan.

The DJP quickly elected Naoto Kan, who was the Finance Minister in Hatoyama's cabinet, as the new Prime Minister; the sixth Prime Minister in the last four years. This incident is raising fear of a return to past political instability when Japan, apart from Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982-1987) and Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006), had a new Prime Minister each year. Naoto Kan is in many ways a sharp contrast from Hatoyama. In background, he is also a sharp contrast from Japanese traditions of electing those with politics running in the family to head the Government. Kan is a first generation politician, coming from middle class background. As Health Minister in 1990s, he had earned a tough and clean image for dealing with Japan's powerful bureaucracy by ordering an inquiry into his own Ministry for promoting HIV tainted blood transfusions. In the last eight months of the DJP Government, he kept that clean image while Hatoyama was immersed with serious allegations of corruption. His background and image will no doubt bear him in good stead in leading Japan from the mess into which eight months of inept governance of Hatoyama had taken Japan.

The new Prime Minister's major task will be in dealing with Washington that could also determine how long he will remain in power. He would need to keep in mind that getting respect from USA would be crucial while not forgetting that there is still no scope for Japan to carve a foreign policy independent of the USA; not as long as a nuclear North Korea under an unpredictable regime is in power. The reaction from China, which did not show much enthusiasm to deal with North Korea for sinking Cheonan despite strong urging from the US, has convinced Japan about the indispensability of strengthening the Japan-US defence pact. The US that was to a great extent responsible for pushing Hatoyama to his doom, must offer to the new prime minister the opportunity to keep his standing with his people because Japan is US' most important ally in Asia with a long track record. The US now must show flexibility on Futenma and at least allow the new Prime Minister the chance to negotiate on the issue keeping in mind that in politics perception is sometimes more important than reality. After becoming Prime Minister, Naoto Kan told his party members that he would emphasize a “Japan-US relationship at its core while contributing for forward development in Asia.” He also assured Okinawans that he would lessen their burden of retaining the US airbase. The US would need to allow Naoto Kan space on the issue of the base if it does not want him to meet the same fate as his predecessor. The US should also keep in mind that he did not support Hatoyama when as Prime Minister the latter had chosen to free the 2006 agreement arguing that the agreement reached by the LDP should be respected.

Naoto Kan will also have serious domestic issues to deal with such as the nagging debt, history of fiscal scandals and an economy not in good health as well as regain people's trust in DJP. The litmus test for success for him will however be foreign affairs, particularly in dealing with USA. He would be wise not to move closer to China under the pretext of an Asia-centric foreign policy and playing the USA and China against each other that Hatoyama tried and failed. In this context, the sinking of Cheonan has helped reassert the strategic relationships in the Korean Peninsula where the value of the US-Japan defence pact has reasserted itself and now seems poised to grow stronger in the time ahead. All these seem to be at the expense of China. Naoto Kan's background, image and lessons from his predecessor's downfall could set Japan on course to political stability under a two party system that the US should also be interested to sustain for its own sake.

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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