US-Japan alliance now an open question

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am

A Japanese diplomat, asked what effect the election of the Democratic Party of Japan and a new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, would have on Japan's alliance with the US, was succinct: 'Nobody knows.' A US official, asked the same question, sighed: 'We don't know yet.'

The Japan-US alliance, considered until now to have been vital to the best interests of both nations, has entered a time of great uncertainty, for two reasons.

First, the election of the DPJ to the control of the national Diet and the choice of Hatoyama - due to take office tomorrow - has brought to power a band of inexperienced politicians led by a prime minister who has issued vague, meandering and apparently contradictory statements on foreign policy.

Second, is the absence of an articulated policy towards Japan by US President Barack Obama, other than platitudes, the dispatch of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to bring greetings but little of substance to Japan last winter, and the appointment of an ambassador, John Roos, whose only credentials are his political fund-raising.

Hatoyama wrote an opinion article in the Japanese monthly journal Voice that, when translated excerpts appeared in the US, startled some Americans with its perceived anti-US tone. Hatoyama, asserting that his statements had been taken out of context, had the entire essay translated. The anti-US tone remained, but was diluted.

Hatoyama, saying the influence of the US is declining, wondered: '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 to become one?' He suggested that an integrated East Asian community would be in Japan's interest.

Jitsuro Terashima, a Hatoyama adviser who heads a Tokyo think tank, has carried that further. Writing in the influential monthly magazine Bungei Shunju, he said: 'Since Japan is under the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, the Japanese government is not able to form its own foreign policy.' Terashima did not say whether he was advocating that Japan acquire its own nuclear weapons.

Terashima suggested that Japan should require the US to reduce or withdraw its military forces from Japan. 'It is unusual that Japan still allows the US to keep forces in Japan more than 60 years after the end of the war,' he wrote. 'Japan should go back to common sense and not let a foreign force stay in this sovereign nation.' He proposed that the US shift its forces to Guam and Hawaii.

Roos, who has had little experience in Japan, or diplomacy, took up his post last month. He has met Hatoyama and the prospective foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, another advocate of less reliance on the Japan-US alliance. Okada has been quoted as saying: 'It will be the age of Asia and in that context it is important for Japan to have its own stance, to play its role in the region.'

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington