Does Japan still need the US?

TOKYO — If the polls are correct and Japanese voters put an opposition party in power on Aug. 30, the consequences will be felt well beyond the country’s political nerve center in Tokyo’s Nagatacho district.

The expected election of a new administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ] could herald a major reconfiguration of the Japan-U.S. alliance, described by the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, Mike Mansfield, as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world.”

The DPJ has promised a radical overhaul of Japan’s defense ties with Washington. The time has come, it says, to craft a more independent diplomatic identity — and that means no longer acquiescing to the wishes of its powerful ally.

The bilateral alliance — buttressed by the U.S. nuclear umbrella — has been the defining feature of Japan’s postwar foreign policy.

Now, though, a disgruntled electorate is on the verge of voting in a party that has vowed to end Japanese subservience to the U.S., even as the world warms to the new inclusiveness of the Obama White House.

“There are various issues of concern between Japan and the U.S.,” the DPJ’s second in command, Katsuya Okada, said recently. “If Japan just follows what the U.S. says, then I think as a sovereign nation that is pathetic.”

Japan’s role in Afghanistan and the U.S. troop presence on Okinawa are expected to act as litmus tests of the direction the alliance could take under a DPJ administration. While its leader, Yukio Hatoyama, has retreated from a promise to immediately end a Japanese refueling operation in the Indian Ocean, he is not expected to extend the mission after it expires in January.

Early indications are that Washington will offer little resistance to a Japanese withdrawal from the war effort in Afghanistan, provided it replaces logistical support with greater humanitarian and economic assistance.

Instead, the real potential for friction centers on the fate of thousands of U.S. Marines based on Okinawa.

Well over a decade of delicate negotiations to reduce the American military footprint on the island culminated in a compromise that will see 8,000 Marines transferred to Guam by 2014 and the Marines’ Futenma airbase, in the overcrowded city of Ginowan, relocated to Okinawa’s west coast.

Again, the luxury of opposition has allowed the DPJ to skirt questions about the strength of its commitment to the biggest realignment of U.S. troops in Japan for decades.

While it has fallen silent on a previous commitment to conduct a “sweeping review” of the realignment plan in response to growing opposition to the new base, a Hatoyama administration is expected at least to seek a reduction in Japan’s contribution to the $10 billion Guam relocation, of which it's paying just above 60 percent.

U.S. military officials bristle at the prospect of a new Japanese government wobbling over realignment.

“The roadmap is not a menu from which either side can pick and choose what it wants to implement,” said Lt. General Edward Rice, commander of the U.S. forces in Japan.

Rice added, however, that the U.S. did not expect a DPJ victory to prompt significant changes to the alliance. “There may be some changes around the edges, but the fundamentals of the relationship are so strong that they will survive,” he said.

Tobias Harris, a commentator on Japanese politics who runs the Observing Japan blog, believes that, once in power, the DPJ’s attention will quickly turn to domestic issues.

“Of course, the DPJ will try to do things differently,” he says. “It will want to stress that it's a bit more independent, a bit more different from the U.S. Given that fundamentally Japan will remain dependent on the U.S., Washington shouldn't be alarmed by the rhetoric. And, to its credit, I don't think the Obama administration is.”

The dynamics are changing in both countries, of course. While the Japanese prime minister, Taro Aso, was the first world leader to cross the Obama White House threshold, the U.S. president has appointed a low-profile ambassador to Tokyo in John Roos, and makes no secret of his intention to make China the focus of his diplomatic efforts in the Far East.

As the election draws nearer, signs are emerging that, while standing up to the U.S. resonates as a campaign soundbite, confronting the vagaries of realpolitik will be an entirely different matter. The DPJ is backtracking on past promises to make “drastic revisions” to the U.S. status of forces agreement, which governs the treatment of servicemen suspected of committing crimes, and on plans to monitor the cost of hosting around 50,000 U.S. troops.

Japan will continue to operate beneath the U.S. nuclear umbrella, maintain a tough line against North Korea and invest in joint missile defense. Regionally, they share the same concerns: North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s ballooning defense budget.

So while voters are pinning their hopes on the DPJ for a clean break with the murky domestic political arrangements of the past, as far as their security is concerned, it may end up being a case of plus ca change.