Strains in Japan-US security alliance


The Japan-US security alliance that has remained the lynchpin of the East Asian security architecture since the World War II, is likely to undergo some changes under the DPJ-led government of Yukio Hatoyama. Even before Hatoyama won the elections held on Aug 30, he had spoken of building ‘an alliance on an equal footing’ with the US, which had attracted considerable scrutiny, given the rare instance of a cross-party transfer of power in Tokyo – only the fourth since the Meiji era.  

With this kind policy pronouncement, comparison with DPJ’s brief honeymoon with power with Hosokawa at the helm in the early 1990s is inevitable. Yet, in fact a stronger parallel exists with an earlier change of government. In a landmark election to the Imperial Diet in 1924, three opposition parties got together under the banner of anti-bureaucratism and proclaimed to protect the Constitution and effected Japan’s transfer of power by winning under two-third of the seats.

In pursuance of his pronounced foreign policy somewhat independent of the US, Hatoyama wants to chart his own ‘autonomous diplomatic strategy.’ Far from resolving the contentious issues that continue to remain irritants in the bilateral ties, such a policy stance is bound to cause more concern in Washington. Issues such as the ‘Status of Forces Agreement,’ the planned Futenma relocation, the ‘sympathy budget’, the non-nuclear principles, the Indian Ocean refuelling mission and the anti-piracy maritime dispatch that beg solution may continue to remain irritants for a longer period of time.

The inclusion of the Social and Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) within the governing coalition might further complicate the matter. It might be remembered that the SDPJ reversed its prior recognition of the ‘Japan Self Defense Forces’ constitutionality in February 2006, which it had agreed to during its unwieldy cohabitation in power with the LDP during the mid-1990s.

What is likely to emerge in the coming months is that even while Hatoyama and Obama will rethink the relationships between Japan and the US, they will expand their ties from the narrow alliance to a partnership that can deal with a broad range of global challenges. Analysts might interpret this approach as undermining the bilateral relationship but on the contrary, the relationship will show greater maturity with vision of share responsibility beyond bilateral to global sphere.

Obama’s forthcoming visit to Japan on Nov 12-13 will provide a good opportunity for the Hatoyama government to set a new direction in Tokyo-Washington ties. In other words, he needs to clarify what he means when he advocates an ‘equal’ relationship with the US.  

For a start, the National defence Programme Guidelines (NDPG) is likely to be delayed and Hatoyama is in no great hurry to rush through it. The NDPG has been issued previously in 1976, 1995 and 2004. It serves as a framework document outlining defence principles and proposed capabilities that subsequently inform medium-term procurement priorities.

The NDPG is due to be revised later this year but with a new government in office, Hatoyama will study the recommendations on national security and defence policy presented by the outgoing LDP government-appointed advisory panel. Under the circumstance, the guidelines are expected to be delayed into the next year.

Hatoyama needs to make his assessment of Japan’s  defence needs and security priorities and he ought to make it clear when the US president visits Japan. Tensions have risen between Tokyo and Washington over the planned reorganisation of US forces, especially Hatoyama government’s efforts to review the 2006 bilateral agreement on the relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

US security analysts are of the view that though the alliance is necessary to continue, it is no longer sufficient as the nature and scope of challenges that confront the two countries have widened.  

According to Washington-based think-tank, Council on Foreign Relation President Richard Haass, most of the global challenges today ranging from the financial crisis to climate change and fighting international terrorism go beyond the scope of traditional alliances that ‘tend to be formal relationships in which countries agree on what they are against and what they are going to do in certain situations.’.

As such, it is argued that consultations in the most creative sense of the word are necessary as ‘effective partners’ to deal with the global challenges. It is unclear at the moment how the Japan-US security alliance relationship will be redefined under Hatoyama administration. The Asian security order is likely to be reshaped as a result.   

(The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi)

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