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

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    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.
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    President Barack Obama walks to Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base. He departed Washington on Thursday to begin his first trip to Asia.
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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.

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.

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"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.

"Thus far, the 'equal alliance' concept has meant expressing grievances on the bilateral issues on the agenda," says Nicholas Szechenyi, deputy director of the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "What we haven't heard is much talk [from the Japanese] about how Japan could assume a larger role and take on greater responsibilities to create that 'more equal' relationship."

Mr. Hatoyama says he doesn't like aspects of the bases agreement reached by the two governments in 2006 and wants to renegotiate it. Washington reminds Tokyo that the deal – which would result in thousands of marines departing Okinawa for Guam – was 15 years in the making and could unravel if reopened.

On Afghanistan, Hatoyama has suggested that Japan will end a re-fueling mission in the Indian Ocean. But in late October, he said in a speech that Japan might consider a replacement refueling mission in the Gulf of Aden.

Despite pressure from Washington, the prime minister says Japan won't rush its decision on the bases realignment just to meet the artificial deadline of a presidential visit. But he has said he will have a plan for Japan's assistance in Afghanistan to lay out for Obama.

As a fellow new leader promising change and reevaluating inherited policies, Obama may have to accept Hatoyama's review of policies that are of key importance to the Japanese public, Mr. Szechenyi says. "If these bilateral security issues remain unresolved, it's going to create tensions across the relationship," he says. But "if Hatoyama can move forward on the Afghanistan question for the visit, that will be positive," he adds.

Yet even if the bilateral security issues of the moment are resolved, the questions about Japan's broader security and ­foreign-policy vision will continue to hang over the relationship, Mr. Klingner says. Standing at the heart of those uncertainties will be China. How does Japan, as well as the US, plan to deal with this rising economic and military power?

"The prevailing theme is that Japan's relations with China should become as strong as its relations with the US," says Klingner, who was recently in Japan. "What you hear in Tokyo is that the new leadership sees an evolving global power structure marked by a weakening US, and they feel Japan must accommodate itself to the new reality."

Japan may well be contemplating a new orientation as Asia's power equilibrium shifts, other analysts say. But some add that Obama has an opportunity to put a Japan clamoring for greater influence to good use as he pursues some of his own global priorities.

"Obama can use his visit to set the stage for a revitalized relationship by focusing on two issues that are priorities for him and for Japan's new leadership: global warming and getting rid of nuclear weapons," says David Arase, an expert in East Asian security relations at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Not only would that reduce the focus on bilateral military issues, he adds, but it would also make both sides feel that Japan is part of Obama's international agenda.

"The Japanese would love it," Mr. Arase says, "and Obama could leave Japan pretty happy."

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See also:

Obama's two-part message on his week-long trip to Asia.

Editorial: On his trip, will Obama reset the Asian order?

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