Saturday, January 12, 2013

On the Cloud (over the US-Japan Relationship) that Was Hatoyama and the Silver Lining (over the East China Sea)

It’s not surprising to hear liberal voices saying that the Obama administration could have, should have been more accommodating with the then-new Hatoyama administration over the relocation of the Futenma helicopters. But over the years, I have heard from some moderate Republican supporters voicing similar opinions, so maybe this matter is worth tossing my two bits at. Here’s my most recent rapid response, augmented to make it more coherent out of context.

I have sympathy for the Obama administration regarding its lack of forthrightness on Futenma. It inherited the issue from preceding administrations, who had been unable to settle the institutional rivalry between the US Air Force and Marines that precluded the inclusion of nearby Kadena, which would have been an integral part of the only plausible formula that did not require relocation to Henoko short of a massive reimagining of the entire US military presence in the Asia-Pacific, in what they tried to make the final solution. A new administration was not going to spend political capital on an issue that would pit it against the military brass, not when the Levin-McCain-Webb proposal failed to catch on. In any case, it turned out to be too much to ask it to attempt what its predecessors had failed to do for more than a dozen years, and for a prime minister who had done more than his share to destabilize Japan-US relations at that.

That’s that. And while we’re on the subject of Hatoyama, the accusation that damage to the Japan-US security relationship resulting from Yukio Hatoyama’s actions emboldened the Chinese authorities to act aggressively against Japan around the Senkaku Islands, mostly from LDP supporters and the conservative media, seem a little farfetched to me. First, it was not difficult to foresee that the Chinese action would push Japan closer to the United States. The analogy with the US-Philippines relationship in the 90s is a false one; the Philippine Senate pushed too hard on Subic Bay and the US military packed up and went away. Nothing like this was happening in Japan. Second, there appears to be a powerful line of thinking in Chinese national security circles that Japan is merely a stalking horse for US interests in Asia. That would argue for a softer line towards a Japan moving away from the United States. Third, there is no specific argument regarding how China might have behaved differently, given how its domestic politics had evolved, during the 2010 and 2012 tensions if the temporary Japan-US rupture caused by Hatoyama’s actions (already in the back mirror by the time of the 2010 collision) had not come to pass.

Hatoyama is also getting bad press these days because he has accepted an invitation to visit China from the authorities there at this juncture in the bilateral relationship, so early in the Abe administration. I think that his critics genuinely believe that; I think that they are wrong. Hatoyama’s trip does no harm and actually does some good. Hatoyama has been thoroughly discredited politically and was practically hounded out of the DPJ and into retirement. He has no political cachet left whatsoever, even as a former prime minister. The Chinese authorities surely understand this and will not take any pronouncements that he makes seriously, even if they fail to remember how erratic and insubstantial his assertions often turn out to be. On the other hand, he is a reminder to the Chinese public that there are many voices, many faces to Japan. That should be helpful if and when tensions flare up again the Chinese authorities want to keep the economic fallout to a minimum. The Chinese authorities must be mindful of the fact that Japan was one of the few countries to increase FDI year-on-year in China last year (2012) and by a wide margin at that. Taiwanese and South Korean businesses have many of the same technologies, but why keep out their competition?

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