The Cable

Are U.S.-Japan relations really in crisis?

The U.S.- Japan relationship is in crisis, or at least that's the impression you would get from the major media coverage of the current dispute over the relocation of a Marine Corps base in Okinawa.

But what's actually going on, Obama administration sources say, is a realignment of U.S.-Japan relations that has much more to do with how the U.S. government approaches its premier Pacific ally than whether or not a small airstrip moves to one place or another.

"People tend towards the hyperbolic because that makes for more interesting cocktail conversation and better stories. I wouldn't exaggerate things," one administration official close to the issue told The Cable. "We're not burning down the alliance."

U.S.-Japan relations have been sailing calm waters for years, with few public spats. Some Japan hands see the alliance as more adrift. And now that there is some new tension, many are examining the somewhat unequal dynamic that has characterized the relationship throughout the years.

The U.S.-Japan relationship has often been subject to the phenomenon of what the Japanese call gaiatsu, meaning "external pressure." In a mutually reinforcing and self fulfilling way, the United States would exert both private and public pressure on previous Japanese governments on any range of foreign policy issues, from participation in foreign wars to support for U.S. basing plans in hostile Japanese towns.

That seemed to the be the tone Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used with Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki in a meeting last week regarding the Futenma basing issue, at least according to this well-circulated article in the Washington Post.

Apparently, Clinton told Fujisaki "in blunt, if diplomatic, terms that the United States remains adamant about moving a Marine base from one part of Okinawa to another." Her comments refer to the agreed relation of the Futenma air strip to Camp Schwab, part of an agreement that was signed in 1996 but has yet to be implemented.

But the new Japanese government, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, campaigned in part on a pledge to alter the dynamic with the U.S., seeking a more "equal" relationship. The DPJ's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, is trying to stick to that promise, while sorting out an internal foreign policy battle within his own caucus and dealing with serious domestic political problems. This makes the application of pressure toward Japan right now particularly risky, some Asia experts contend.

"To force this down a young government's throat is going to put this relationship on the wrong trajectory," said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. "We need to be flexible right now because the new government simply hasn't stood up."

Lost in Translation

The most oft-talked about moment in the new U.S.-Japan dynamic, insiders say, is a now-infamous conversation between Obama and Hatoyama in Tokyo earlier this year, when the two spoke frankly about the Futenma basing issue.

Obama's team had decided to communicate privately to Hatoyama that the U.S. wanted to keep the current plan to relocate the airstrip to Camp Schwab as is, but wanted to avoid creating problems for Hatoyama in public by airing the differences in the press.

Hatoyama told Obama "Trust me," and Obama decided to do so, leaving the meeting confident that Hatoyama would deliver. The problem was that Obama's understanding of "trust me" might not have been exactly what Hatoymama intended.

"The ‘trust me' seemed to be that this was going to be resolved with the Futenma Replacement Facility at Camp Schwab, simple as that," the administration official explained, noting that the timing of Hatoyama's perceived promise remained ambiguous.

"That's not what he meant," said Cronin. "‘Trust me' did not mean he could fully implement to the letter the realignment agreement. He never meant that. It was a political ‘trust me,'... work with me and I can help you."

And so the relationship between the two leaders became somewhat soured.

Cronin said that aside from the misunderstanding, the current public position of the Obama administration is making the situation worse. In his meetings with both liberal and conservative members of the DPJ, Cronin reported that none of them thought they could move forward with the current plan for Futenma due to domestic politics.

"They can't implement the plan, period," he said. "If we force it, I don't think we will win, because they won't implement it."

Interestingly, the administration official said that the public position of adamantly insisting on the current Futenma plan was not without wiggle room.

"From the U.S. side there's been a recognition for quite a while that implementation adjustments were necessary," said the official, noting that the U.S. side has offered a package of adjustments on safety and environmental issues that could make the deal more palatable to the Japanese.

He rejected the contention that the Obama administration was putting pressure on Hatoyama. But he did say that the confusion within the DPJ and the lack of a clear position from Hatoyama was complicating the situation.

"If Hatoyama gave us any sort of clear idea of what he was looking for, it would be much easier to deal with."

Mindy Kotler, a Japan hand who directs the organization Asia Policy Point, said that public pressure on the DPJ actually serves to undermine Hatoyama, making smooth relations even more difficult.

The Futenma deal is symbolic of the American willingness to respond to the changes in Japanese society and the new government warrants a new approach, she said.

"Sure, the administration feels betrayed, but they made the original agreement with a [LDP] government that no longer represents the people of Japan," said Kotler. "Maybe they should take a new look at this thing."

The administration official said that the administration is sensitive to that and also understands that the DPJ needs more time to sort out its position.

"There's nothing magic about solving this by any date certain," the official said. "But the longer this takes, the harder it gets."

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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