The rising sun also sets

NEW YORK — As if Barack Obama doesn’t have enough foreign policy headaches, the United States now faces the prospect of trouble in Asia from a surprising quarter: Japan.

For decades, since the post-war U.S. occupation of Japan ended in 1955, successive governments in Tokyo have had three things in common: a willingness to host American troops on their soil, a dependable streak when it comes to supporting U.S. foreign policy positions on the international stage, and the fact that they were run by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Well, that party’s over, folks. The general election on Aug. 30 ousted the LDP and, in the month since, it’s clear that some of their more radical foreign policy platforms were more than just campaign bluster. For the first time since Douglas MacArthur returned sovereignty to Japan, the government in Tokyo thinks Japan’s tendency to say "Yes" to 99 percent of Washington’s requests should be revisited.

Foundations in Asia

The new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has insisted Japan will continue to rank America as its most important ally. But he wants to hedge Japan’s bets, proposing a regional security pact with China and other Asian powers.

"Current developments show clearly that China will become one of the world’s leading economic nations while also continuing to expand its military power," he wrote in the International Herald Tribune just before his victory. “How should Japan maintain its political and economic independence and protect its national interest when caught between the United States, which is fighting to retain its position as the world’s dominant power, and China, which is seeking ways to become dominant?” Some of the answers taking shape in his first month in office suggest a major readjustment of ties with Washington.

He has opened an inquiry into the status of American forces in Japan, on the alleged existence of secret military “pacts” with Washington regarding nuclear weapons, and has said the day may soon come when Japan — like China, the Gulf Arabs and other American creditors — may tire of writing blank checks to underwrite the U.S. national debt.

These reviews go far beyond questions that have surfaced in the past — for instance, whether a U.S. sailor who rapes a Japanese girl should be tried by our military or Japan’s courts. In U.S. military terms, these are existential questions about the future of bases on Okinawa and the Japanese main islands which form the basis of all American strategic thinking in Asia.

Unsinkable bases

The extent to which Japan serves as the cornerstone of American influence in Asia cannot be overstated, even if it has been taken completely for granted for decades. If Britain was America’s "unsinkable aircraft carrier" during World War II, Japan plays the role in Asia today.

More than 50,000 American Army and Marine Corps forces are based on Japanese territory, along with the U.S. Fifth Air Force in Fussa outside Tokyo, and the most powerful force in Asia, the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, based in Yokosuka.

The U.S.-Japan military alliance ensures materiel support for U.S. forces in any future Korean conflict and recent revisions all but commit Japan to similar help if China ever moved militarily against Taiwan.

In a larger sense, Japan is still the world’s second largest economy, and America’s second-largest creditor after China, holding its nose and continuing to buy American treasuries in spite of the diminishing signs that this is a wonderful way to invest their sovereign wealth.

Japan is not about to stop buying treasuries — like China and others holding major portions of the U.S. national debt, doing so abruptly would cause serious damage to their portfolio, bringing down the value of their investments along with the American economy. But both Japan and China may soon decide to take a more paternal and coordinated tone in chiding America for its spending and monetary policy decisions.

Much of this reflects a long-simmering discontent within Japan itself over the ossified state of domestic politics. Under the LDP, the political class, itself in league with big industrialists, very overtly co-opted the media and political opponents. (Indeed, the only previous stint of a non-LDP government since MacArthur left involved LDP dissidents who ultimately returned to the fold).

Truth to Power

But outside influences, including dire miscalculations by our own political and economic leaders, propelled events, too. As Hatoyama wrote, “I also feel that as a result of the failure of the Iraq war and the financial crisis, the era of U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end and that we are moving toward an era of multipolarity.” Americans have dismissed similar statements from the likes of Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin over the past year as so much sour grapes and propaganda. We poured scorn on the French and Germans when they said similar things in 2002, just before we blundered into Baghdad.

No doubt some here will write off Japan’s shift off as posturing by another foreigner keen to ride a wave of anti-American sentiment to power. But if the waves have reached so high that they can change the face of government even in Tokyo, who’s fooling who?