Yukio Hatoyama’s agenda is sparking a previously-unthinkable idea that the U.S. may have to exit from the centre-stage of the next big theatre in global affairs.
Will Yukio Hatoyama’s assumption of office as Japan’s Prime Minister on Wednesday mark the beginning of the end of the American era in East Asia? Or, will Japan and the United States, now under a younger and an equally avid advocate of change, seek to reinvigorate the American role on new terms?
Political leaders and pundits are in no position to predict with absolute certainty, because of the current rise of China and a host of other dynamic factors at work.
Post-imperial Japan, run under its U.S.-imposed pacifist Constitution since the end of the Second World War, is sometimes called a “civilian superpower.” It is still the world’s second largest economy, although it faces the possibility of losing this privilege to China soon. So, Mr. Hatoyama’s main priority at home will be the need to pull a recession-ravaged Japan out of an economic rut. But his promised agenda of change has a huge foreign policy dimension as well.
Mr. Hatoyama’s agenda is sparking a previously-unthinkable idea that the U.S. may have to exit from the centre-stage of the next big theatre in global affairs. At the same time, political and opinion leaders in East Asia do not expect U.S. President Barack Obama to simply settle for a marginalisation of his country.
Surely, the triumph of Mr. Hatoyama’s centre-left politics in Japan’s August 30 general election has evoked new thoughts. His victory promises to reshape the economic and political landscape of Japan, which has remained a steadfast ally of the U.S. for nearly six decades. And, if he does adhere to his electoral pledge on foreign policy issues, the present U.S. profile in Japan may well be affected. The U.S. has not only forward-deployed troops and operated state-of-the-art military bases in Japan but also flaunted the nuclear umbrella behind the scenes. Japan, America’s principal Asian ally in the neighbourhood of China and Russia, is not the only one to have a U.S. nuclear umbrella. South Korea, another neighbour of China, and Australia, a member of the relatively new geopolitical grouping of East Asia Summit, are also beneficiaries.
Grand sweep of history
In the grand sweep of history, the often-updated U.S.-Japan military alliance is a quirk of circumstances and also of political imagination on both sides. However, several key countries in the region, especially those in Southeast Asia, have so far seen the U.S. as a guarantor of peace and stability across East Asia. Three aspects of Mr. Hatoyama’s U.S.-oriented agenda raise the possibility of a delicate dialogue with Mr. Obama.
Of the three issues, the one requiring quick attention is whether Japan should renew or revoke its “refuelling mission” in the Indian Ocean region. The ongoing non-lethal mission of military logistics involves Japanese naval help: refuelling of the U.S. ships for the “anti-terror war” in Afghanistan. The White House says that Mr. Obama has “stated his strong wish to work with Mr. Hatoyama to ... defeat Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies in Afghanistan.” So, the new Japanese leader’s response will be an early signal. His Democratic Party of Japan, while in opposition until Wednesday, wanted the parliament to have the last word on such issues. Now, his party and its coalition partners, both minor parties whose support he needs only in the less powerful upper house, want to discontinue the refuelling. Of interest, therefore, is whether Mr. Obama will really want to force Mr. Hatoyama to change course on this relatively less substantive issue.
By contrast, Mr. Obama has not so far invoked the mantra of change to discount the importance of U.S. military bases in Japan. Nor has he so far sought to make the Status of [U.S.] Forces Agreement (SOFA) any the less intrusive for Japan’s comfort. However, Mr. Hatoyama’s campaign themes on the SOFA and the U.S. military bases in Japan were no music to the ears of the American protagonist of change. And, for the new Japanese Government, the SOFA “revision” was an explicit campaign theme. The need to “move in the direction of re-examining ... the role of U.S. military bases in Japan” was another campaign priority. Falling in the same category was the imperative of “re-examining the realignment of the U.S. military forces in Japan.”
Against this apparent U.S.-Japan dissonance, both leaders, who spoke to each other on September 2, have sought to cruise along the same wavelength. According to the White House, they “stressed the importance of a strong U.S.-Japan alliance and their desire to build an even more effective partnership.” Mr. Hatoyama himself said he told Mr. Obama that “the U.S.-Japan alliance is also a lynchpin for us [the Japanese].”
An assessment behind the scenes is that Mr. Hatoyama and his party have so far signalled that they might not wish to rock the Japan-U.S. boat in a hurry. Such a stance is seen to be largely true of the bilateral ties between the two countries. However, Japan’s new leader has dropped hints about taking an “autonomous” stand on any “unilateral” moves by the U.S. on “global issues.”
The new Japanese leader’s neighbourhood policy is also likely to be a key factor in Tokyo-Washington ties. Of considerable importance is Mr. Hatoyama’s pledge to “make the greatest possible effort to develop relations of mutual trust with China.” South Korea and other Asian countries are also cited by his party in that order and for this purpose. India falls in the category of “other Asian countries.” More importantly, his China policy will be assessed in the light of “a central goal of the Obama Administration.” This “goal” is also U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “personal priority.” At stake is Washington’s policy of “building a strong relationship with China.” And, Ms. Clinton recently explained the logic of such a China policy: the need to take Beijing’s help to “forge a new global architecture of cooperation.”
The idea of a Group of Two, just the U.S. and China for global economic management, has been variously proposed by C. Fred Bergsten and others. While some experts have opposed the idea, a debate continues on whether the G2 should be just a caucus or a global governing council. In contrast, no proposal of a G2 of just the U.S. and Japan was made even at the height of their alliance during Junichiro Koizumi’s rule in Tokyo. However, Tokyo subsequently took the initiative for a trilateral partnership involving China, Japan itself, and South Korea. The result was the Fukuoka consensus, after the name of the Japanese city where the first summit of the three countries took place. That consensus was seen as a political hedging against the U.S. Mr. Hatoyama is now expected to explore furthering the China-Japan-South Korea entente. This should reinforce his preference for a U.S.-autonomous foreign policy.