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Newly assertive Japan to test Obama

As China rises and the dollar falls, the US ally seeks more independence, but not less security, from America. Tokyo is the first stop on the president's Asia tour.

By Staff writer / November 13, 2009

Alliance? China’s Premier Wen Jiabao (r.) met with Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in Beijing last month. Japan has pursued its own relationship with a rising China, a move with implications for the US.

Liu Jin/Reuters

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When President Obama touches down in Tokyo Nov. 13, the father of two might think of his host country as the usually trouble-free but maturing child who suddenly demands more freedoms – while not knowing exactly how to handle them.

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For decades, the United States has counted on Japan not to stray far from its place as a dependable and acquiescent ally, most recently as the US has faced the regional security challenges of a nuclear North Korea and a rising China. That made Tokyo an important and usually serene stop for any president swinging through Northeast Asia.

But the atmospherics will be different as Mr. Obama visits Japan for two days at the outset of an seven-day Asia trip. Behind the change: a new Japanese government that wants a "more equal" relationship with the US.

"Japan today is exhibiting a lot of the characteristics of 'failure to launch' – the college kid who's still living at home under his parents' wing but complains about being treated as an underling and not as an equal," says Bruce Klingner, an expert in Northeast Asian affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "He wants all the freedoms but is not taking on the responsibilities that being an equal entails."

The government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama came into office in September on a campaign promise to adjust the relationship with Washington and create a foreign policy less reliant on the US. The new leadership – a left-leaning coalition led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which broke the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party's 50-year lock on power – has yet to elaborate just what that new policy will be.

But in the meantime, the DPJ government is making noises on both the bilateral and broader strategic-policy levels that are jarring Washington – and prompting some stern-parent reactions. (Look no further than the uncompromising comments made by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during an October stop in Japan.)

The Hatoyama government is balking at a carefully negotiated agreement on a realignment of US military bases in Japan, which is aimed at reducing the US footprint in Okinawa. It is also suggesting that it plans to discontinue a refueling mission for the Afghanistan war. And it is pressing Washington to adopt a no-first-use nuclear policy.

More broadly, Japan's new leadership talks of building an independent relationship with China, as well as forging a foreign policy based more on ties to the international community and international institutions than to Washington. All this would be fine, some regional analysts say, if it weren't that Tokyo still seems to want to depend on the US for its security – and isn't talking about an increase in military spending to pay for more of its own defense.