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Talking Strategy with Japan

by Sheila A. Smith
January 13, 2011

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates meets with Japan's Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa in Tokyo

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates meets with Japan's Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa in Tokyo. (POOL New/Courtesy Reuters)

What a difference a year makes. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates just completed his second visit to Tokyo since Japan’s government changed in 2009. The shift in tone and substance from his last visit to Tokyo is striking, and reflects the difficult learning process U.S. policymakers have gone through over the past year.

Secretary Gates pointed out the United States needs to follow the lead of the Japanese government as it works with residents of Okinawa on their concerns over the relocation of a key U.S. marine base. Japan is one of the United States’ closest allies, and thus following their lead on what is an extraordinarily difficult domestic decision seems the obvious course.

But opinions on how to best manage the relocation of Futenma Marine Air Station were deeply held in the U.S. government, and the decade and a half of trying to resolve the political stalemate between Tokyo and Okinawa has taken its toll on both Japanese and American alliance managers. So many individuals had worked on this issue—the best talents of U.S.-Japan alliance expertise have spent much of the last decade sifting through options, sorting through divergent priorities in Tokyo and Washington, cajoling and persuading those in and out of government to support various plans, and building a compromise “deal” that would gain approval locally and in national security planning circles, both uniformed and civilian.

When Futenma relocation consumed the alliance conversation last year, the impulse in both Washington and Tokyo was to bemoan the arrival of Japan’s new political party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

The DPJ learning curve was steep, to be sure. But the escalation of tensions over Futenma relocation ought not to be laid solely at the feet of the DPJ.

Much of previous realignment planning under various Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leaders did not include cross-party consensus building. In fact, at times, they did not even represent a consensus between the ministry of defense and the ministry of foreign affairs. Rather, the bulk of the effort over the past 13 years since the 1995 rape of a school girl that prompted a major rethinking of U.S. forces in Okinawa has been between Tokyo and Washington, first and foremost, and Tokyo and Okinawa only afterwards.

Japan’s opposition had been on the outside of that process for much of the last decade of alliance policymaking, siding with activists and local political leaders on the issue more than on the governing party, the Liberal Democrats. While the DPJ publicly advocated for greater voice for Okinawa’s residents in the decision-making process more often than not, party leaders had very little access to the internal government rationales and trade-offs that went into the decisions on the government policy they inherited.

Second, the DPJ ran headlong into a long drawn out, carefully choreographed process of decision making regarding the plan to move the U.S. Marine helicopters stationed at Futenma to Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa. There are too many details involved over time to recount here, but suffice it to say that feasibility studies by each government in Tokyo and Washington, environmental assessment regulations in both Tokyo and Okinawa, and of course, the myriad of political complexities in Okinawa and Tokyo—including towards the latter years a rapid succession of Japanese prime ministers—made this all a protracted enterprise. One month after the DPJ entered office as the first opposition party to gain power in a half century in Japan came the critical October decision of Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima to give his thumbs up on the final iteration of the runway construction plan for Camp Schwab. The DPJ were simply not ready to make a decision on what this meant for them.

Finally, and equally critical to understanding the last year of alliance difficulties, the DPJ had not had a chance to review and articulate its version of Japan’s security priorities. Absent this critical piece of thinking about how Japan ought to pursue its security, as well as its security cooperation agenda with Washington, the Futenma relocation issue assumed an inordinate position in the national debate over the alliance. Japan’s media were relentless in covering the Hatoyama cabinet’s efforts to reassess the relocation plan, and U.S. policymakers were bewildered as to the calculus behind some of the early statements on the alliance. The Kan cabinet has recently concluded Japan’s National Defense Program Outline after a year of review, and it looks remarkably similar to the draft prepared under the LDP leadership. Japan’s national interests, it seems, have created more ground for agreement than dissension on what many assumed would be a contentious and ideologically motivated area of national policy.

Secretary Gates’ statement yesterday is heartening for those who value and support the U.S.-Japan partnership, as it reflects the learning of the U.S. policy community as well the learning on the part of Japan’s new government. This past year suggests that past alliance management practices have blinded both governments to the shifting foundations of the U.S.-Japan security relationship. My own work on the base issue attempts to capture some of these dynamics—both within Japan and in other societies where the U.S. military operates in Asia—that suggest how domestic social and political changes afoot in the region will need to be better appreciated in U.S. policymaking.

Looking forward, the focal point for Tokyo and Washington will be a serious and sustained strategic dialogue, one that reflects the quickening pace of events that will require a closer understanding of mutual expectations of how to collaborate. As events in Northeast Asia of late suggest, this alliance needs to be more adept at coping with change, at sharing in a meaningful way respective assessments of emerging regional and global environments, and in developing both the policy goals and the attendant institutional capacities that will deliver on the rhetoric of Washington’s and Tokyo’s commitment to each other’s well-being and prosperity.

Learning and adjusting on both sides of the Pacific is underway, and that is a positive sign for the health of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

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