This has not been a good week for U.S.-Japanese relations.
Today, Japan ended its eight-year refueling mission that once supported the American war in Afghanistan. And on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton met with the Japanese foreign minister in Hawaii. The official remarks were awkward as both diplomats timidly addressed how to relocate the U.S. Futenma military base. The U.S. wants to move the controversial base to a different place within Japan, but the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, campaigned partially on reducing U.S. presence and has considered removing the base from the country altogether. So evident were the differences of opinion between Tokyo and Washington that a Japanese reporter questioned whether “you really can have substantive talks [on any topic at all] while the Futenma issue remains unresolved.”
There are many similarities between Obama and Hatoyama. Both came to power on promises of change, overturning an established political party. And change they have delivered. But change is tricky in the foreign-policy arena.
The refueling mission was an eight-year show of Japanese symbolic support for the U.S. efforts in the Middle East — a precedent not to be reversed lightly. And the United States thought it had resolved the Futenma issue back in 2005 — but now Hatoyama wants until May to reconsider that decision. “We now have a change in government in Japan and there are different views within the coalition government,” Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said Tuesday in defense of the hesitancy and delays.
In a way, Tokyo has given the Obama administration a dose of its own medicine. But Japan’s reconsideration has resulted in a decrease in American trust. If agreements can end or reverse from one executive to another, policy will be limited by terms in office — and, thus, it will inherently be shortsighted. That’s the danger of pressing the restart button too often.
Washington and Tokyo have cooperated closely for 50 years. But if the two nations want to see another 50 years of friendship, as Clinton suggested this week, short-sighted policy just won’t cut it. On the other hand, continuity in policy supports alliances and international confidence.
Obama may find his Asian reflection less than flattering.