Obama Cozies Up to Japan

The first -- and most important -- stopover on President Obama’s long-awaited trip to Asia has been cut in half as he delayed his departure by a day. In Tokyo, he will have just enough time to meet Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, drop in on the emperor and empress, and give a speech on America’s role in Asia.

In Asia, Japan is America’s “cornerstone” relationship. From Japanese ports and airfields, we base the forces that defend the South Koreans, guard the Taiwanese, and patrol contested sea lanes. Without Americans in Japan, Chinese warships and planes would soon vie for control of East Asia, from the North Pacific to the Malacca Strait.

So will we find ourselves without our crucial Japanese facilities? Today, that seems inconceivable. Americans have been basing troops there to defend Japan’s islands since the end of the Second World War. Yet the historic election of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in September -- a landslide ending more than a half century of almost uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party -- has unsettled the relationship between Washington and Tokyo, and the new Japanese leader could change the alliance in ways that weaken the bond that was once thought unshakable.

Hatoyama, in short, leads a loose coalition that generally wants to look east toward China and the rest of Asia, not west toward America. On the eve of the September contest, a poll revealed that only a minority of DPJ candidates supported U.S. security objectives. Hatoyama, when he is questioning the alliance, is merely reflecting the views in his party and a Japanese electorate increasingly skeptical of their country’s ties to the United States. Although 76 percent of the public is still in favor of the military pact with Washington, support throughout society is slipping.

Support is slipping at this moment partly because the Obama administration started out by taking an uncharacteristically hardheaded approach to Japan. Hatoyama had signaled that he wanted to renegotiate a 2006 deal to realign American forces in the country. The flashpoint controversy involved the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, which would have been closed and moved to a remote location on the island according to the pact.

Hatoyama, however, demanded that the facility be moved off Okinawa. His party won seats there in the September election on the platform of moving American forces away from the island, and so he has sided with the Okinawans, who feel they bear a disproportionate share of the burdens of the alliance. In fact, they are right: they host more than half the American troops, sailors, and airmen based in Japan because they are strategically placed at one of the crossroads of East Asia. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stunned the Japanese last month by snubbing their leaders and telling them he would not consider redoing the 2006 deal, which lacked support in Japan even before the Liberal Democratic Party lost power.