When the Democratic Party of Japan took power last month after decades on the sidelines, Japan watchers wondered what it meant for the United States: Would the DPJ grow too close to China? Did the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, hold anti-American views? Would Japan be less willing to help out on U.S. foreign-policy priorities, such as the war in Afghanistan?
In Japan today, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates offered some clues about the Obama administration's thinking when he rolled out his new approach to the new ruling party, showing a mixture of the traditional pressure America applies to its junior partner and a fresh willingness to let the new government change its national-security posture toward the United States. But a senior defense official said this week that there's only so far the administration is willing to go on this front.
The administration is taking a wait-and-see approach to the DPJ, which in September displaced the Liberal Democratic Party for only the second time since World War II. As the first cabinet-level official to visit Japan since the election took place, Gates's presence shows the centrality of the Defense Department in the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Gates gave support to the DPJ's announcement that it would end its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, which has supported coalition efforts in Afghanistan for years. It's Japan's decision, Gates said, showing a departure from the strong pressure U.S. officials applied on that issue when it came up in Japanese debate in 2007.
But on the issue over the plan to relocate Marine forces at the extremely unpopular Futenma airbase in Okinawa, Gates warned that a change to the plan (which was originally signed in 1996) could disrupt a larger effort to transfer 8,000 Marines to Guam, a major desire of most Okinawa residents.
A senior U.S. defense official said just before the trip that the Okinawa base issue would surely come up in Gates's meetings with Hatoyama, new Foreign Minister Katsuyo Okada, and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.
The official said that if Japan starts into minor adjustments to the agreement, it becomes a cascading series of other decisions that have to be made, complicating a host of issues. He also warned that the U.S. Congress might pull funding for the Guam project if there were added delays in the Futenma piece of the puzzle.
The official also said another delay in implementation of the Futenma plan would be a blow to confidence on both sides.
In contrast, on the refueling issue, Gates would come prepared to discuss other ways Japan can contribute to the mission in Afghanistan, the officials said, but won't press the new government to reverse its decision to end refueling.
Meanwhile, the new Japanese government is going through an internal struggle, with factions on the left and right of the DPJ fighting for control of the government's national- security policy. DPJ leaders have said for years that it wants Japan to have a foreign policy more independent of the United States, but skeptics have always believed that once in power, they would be compelled to continue most of the policies the old government had in place.
Hatoyama sent one of the DPJ's newer legislators, Upper House member Kuniko Tanioka, to Washington last week, where she took a survey of the foreign-policy environment and sought to gauge how viable changes in the alliance might be. Tanioka represents the more liberal wing of the DPJ, which also wants to do more to repair strains with Asia caused by controversy over Japanese hard-liners' view of World War II history.
Earlier this year she feuded with DPJ's former shadow defense minister Akihisa Nagashima over whether to deploy Japanese self defense forces to the Horn of Africa. Nagashima represents the conservative wing of the DPJ and has strong ties to Japan hands in Washington, who are largely hoping that U.S.-Japan military agreements can stay somewhere near the status quo.
Traveling with Gates is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Schiffer, formerly of the Stanley Foundation. Other key Obama Japan officials include Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the former CNAS CEO who traveled to Japan earlier this month, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Mitchell, who previously worked for Campbell at CSIS.
Cambell coauthored an op-ed in the Japanese Asashi Shimbun newspaper in 2007 strongly warning Japan not to end its Afghanistan-related refueling mission at that time.
President Obama will visit Japan in November on his way to the APEC regional conference in Singapore.
KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Image
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.