Thursday, December 24, 2009

FOCUS: Japan to see tough time with U.S. in 2010, close ties with Asia

FOCUS: Japan to see tough time with U.S. in 2010, close ties with Asia

Dec. 25, 2009

Japan's ties with the United States are expected to be put to the test in 2010 as the country struggles to settle a row over a U.S. military airfield in Okinawa possibly as a step toward reshaping the decades-old bilateral alliance following Tokyo's historic change of power.

In contrast, the new Japanese government's pro-Asia stance, as seen in its ''East Asian community'' concept, could bring the region closer together, but experts say that a quick breakthrough is unlikely in long-standing territorial and other disputes with China and South Korea.

To raise its presence in the international arena, Japan may also explore ways to further contribute to global security, such as through active participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

After taking office in September, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made a smooth diplomatic debut, winning international acclaim for his pledge to set an ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction target and sharing with Asian countries his long-term view of building an East Asian community, an idea inspired by the European Union.

But it did not take much time for the relationship between Japan and its closest security ally, the United States, to appear strained due to discord over where to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps' Futemma Air Station.

The relocation site was agreed on in 2006 as part of a broader accord on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, but the Democratic Party of Japan-led government has pledged to move toward reviewing the deal as part of its policy to seek what it calls more ''equal'' Japan-U.S. ties.

The United States has repeatedly pressed Japan to implement the bilateral agreement to move Futemma to a less densely populated area in Okinawa, but Hatoyama has delayed making a decision on the issue until 2010 and also said he will seek an alternative relocation site.

Indicating the deep concerns Japan has on the issue, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said in early December, ''My experience as a politician is telling me that, unless we steadily deal with this issue, we may see a situation in which both Japan and the United States seriously lose trust in each other.''

The row about the Futemma facility has also cast a shadow over planned consultations between the two countries to review the bilateral alliance, with the year 2010 marking the 50th anniversary of the revised Japan-U.S. security treaty.

Okada told a press conference in late December that he hopes to ''move on'' with the consultations while discussing the relocation issue at the same time, but admitted that it is not something he can realize ''right now.''

While Hatoyama's indecisiveness and the differences in opinion seen among Cabinet members on the Futemma issue have given the impression that the government is drifting without a clear direction, speculation is growing that Hatoyama's eyes are actually focused on the creation of new bilateral ties.

''I have had the idea of whether it is appropriate to maintain the presence of another country's military forces (in Japan),'' Hatoyama said in December in explaining a security concept calling for having U.S. forces deployed in Japan only in emergencies. But he noted that he ''must seal'' the idea now that he is prime minister.

Toshikazu Inoue, a Gakushuin University professor, said that Hatoyama's key diplomatic approaches in the last three months have a commonality in that they seek ''a departure'' from Japan's dependence on the United States seen under previous governments led by the Liberal Democratic Party.

While the Futemma issue may become a litmus test of Japan's future diplomatic course, experts and others are divided on whether Tokyo will be able to settle the issue in a way that would mark a historic step toward building a less subservient relationship with the United States.

Government officials are wary about being stuck in a dead-end situation -- either failing to find an alternative relocation site or facing the difficulty of returning to the option of implementing the existing agreement because of possible strong local opposition.

''(By dealing with Futemma and other issues,) I think the DPJ-led government will start to learn that it is impossible to fundamentally change basic national policies related to diplomacy or security,'' Inoue said.

But Yuji Suzuki, a Hosei University professor, speculates that Hatoyama will seek a conclusion to close the Futemma facility and not allow it to be relocated within Okinawa, which is already unhappy about hosting the bulk of U.S. forces in the country because of noise pollution and crimes involving U.S. military personnel.

Such an outcome would not lead to a ''break'' in bilateral ties because Japan and the United States are already ''strongly linked to each other'' in such terms as economic and people-to-people exchanges and because this is a time when the United States appears to be losing its dominant power, Suzuki added.

While ties between Japan and the United States are likely to draw attention in the first half of 2010, Suzuki said that relations with China may be highlighted later in the year such as through the November summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum which Japan will host.

''Japan and the United States may see their ties strain over security issues, but in the latter half they will have to make sure that they cooperate to bring in China to the regional economic framework,'' the professor specializing in Pacific politics said.

Japan is also likely to face the task of accelerating its moves toward the realization of an East Asian community by finding specific areas of cooperation such as anti-piracy and copyrights.

''If cooperation were to be thoroughly focused on single issues, it may be difficult for China to say 'No', because it may also serve its interests,'' Suzuki said.

While Japan's ties with China and South Korea are likely to be relatively stable, it is unlikely to create momentum strong enough to settle its dispute with Beijing over gas field development or its territorial dispute with Seoul over the Dokdo islets, known as Takeshima in Japan.

A source close to Japan-South Korea relations warned that there is a possibility that bilateral ties could quickly sour if tension rises over the Takeshima issue, given that 2010 is a rather sensitive year for the two countries -- the 100th anniversary of Japan's annexation of the Korean Peninsula.

As for the decades-old territorial row with Russia, Hatoyama, who is known for his close ties with the country, has been eager to resolve the row. But a senior Foreign Ministry official indicated that an immediate breakthrough is not expected.

While Japan is likely to face difficulty in resolving pending bilateral issues, the government may be able to produce results in areas that involve ''multilateral cooperation'' such as climate change, peacekeeping missions, and nuclear disarmament, Inoue said.

''I think Hatoyama's pledge to cut the nation's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent (from 1990 levels by 2020) succeeded in sending a strong message,'' he said.

''Because there is newness in Japan which has undergone a change of power, Japan could raise its presence by working on what may be called nonconventional diplomatic areas,'' he added.

The senior Foreign Ministry official indicated that more active participation by Japan in U.N. peacekeeping missions may be realized, given Okada's eagerness to do so.

But the official also indicated that the DPJ-led government has much work to do to assure people where Japan is heading, saying, ''It is a time of change. But we don't know yet where the change is heading.''

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