Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reached for a basketball analogy to explain his vision for the U.S.-Japan alliance at a joint press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama on April 30.
If Obama was the power forward, Noda said, the Japanese leader’s role was that of point guard, a highly skilled player usually responsible for controlling the ball and setting up the offense.
It was an unusual flight of fancy from a leader who has admitted to a sometimes dowdy image, but it also fitted neatly with a new and less passive way of looking at the Japan-U.S. alliance.
That partnership at last appears to be freeing itself from the impasse over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture that has dogged it for years, but it also appears to be at a turning point that may fundamentally change its nature. An alliance that has previously been seen in Japan as focused on defending the Japanese archipelago, now appears to be seen by both Tokyo and Washington as an important force for maintaining wider stability in Asia.
It has been 16 years since the plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma began to disrupt the bilateral relationship. After meandering efforts to grapple with the issue under 10 Japanese prime ministers, the solution to the knotty problem appears to be to simply set it aside, separating the Futenma relocation issue from the overall realignment of the U.S. military in Japan.
One way of looking at the new approach is that the politicians have essentially written off the Futenma issue as an “uncollectible debt" and taken it off their main accounts. Basically, they have agreed to rebuild the Japan-U.S. alliance under a new corporate structure.
Noda's state visit to the United States was the first since the Democratic Party of Japan took over control of the government in 2009, and their joint declaration was the first in six years since one reached by Junichiro Koizumi and George W. Bush. The talks appear to have been productive. Obama said progress had been made in renewing the bonds between the United States and Japan, the two major liberal democracies on either side of the Pacific.
The governments focused their attention on defense issues, partly because little progress could be expected in trade issues because of domestic resistance in both countries, and they found significant common ground. A U.S. administration wanting Japan to shoulder a greater burden in its wider Asian strategy encountered a DPJ-led government eager to ensure that the relationship with the United States does not turn into a long-term liability.
However, the important changes being made by the Noda administration to the role of the Japan-U.S. relationship have not been preceded by sufficient public debate in Japan. It was the same situation with the relaxation of the three principles on the export of weapons last year.
Since the end of World War II, Japan’s settled defense policy has been to concentrate on defending its own shores. However, under the new approach, it will not only provide equipment that could be classified as weaponry to Asian nations, including patrol ships, but will also construct facilities in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands for joint training exercises between the U.S. military and the Self-Defense Forces.
The DPJ government, which took power saying it would seek an equal partnership with the United States, has now pushed toward working more closely with the U.S. military in a manner never seen under governments led by the Liberal Democratic Party.
If joint activities by the SDF with the U.S. military overseas are allowed to develop unchecked, it could eventually lead to an exercise of the right of collective self-defense, which past interpretations of the Constitution by the government have ruled out.
The prime minister has not sufficiently explained to the Japanese public why such a major change in policy has been undertaken.
There has also been no explanation of what can be learned from the handling of the sidelined Futenma issue. One possible lesson is that not paying attention to the feelings in local communities, even on issues of vital national security interest, can create major diplomatic entanglements that, in the end, hurt the nation.
If Japan is to provide patrol ships and expand SDF activities into Asia, it is also incumbent upon the Japanese government to explain its policy not only to the Japanese public but also to neighboring states. Japan has a major responsibility to carefully explain its vision for stability in Asia to China and Southeast Asian nations.
The United States and the rest of Asia will be carefully watching Noda’s diplomatic ball-handling in the coming months.
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