On the face of it, the omens look good for a revamping of the Pacific alliance. With a new U.S. ambassador in Tokyo and a new Japanese government predicted to take office, a substantial reevaluation of the U.S.-Japan relationship would appear to be on the cards.
Yet despite earlier talk by main opposition Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyma of a wish to change long-standing Pacific ties, there is now a sense in Tokyo that any future DPJ government would proceed with caution. Suggestions that the relationship would be immediately reassessed are being downplayed. His party managers may well feel that it would pay better political dividends to let sleeping dogs lie, since the Democrats need to win over a goodly portion of those voters who have yet to make up their minds on whether finally to trust the opposition this time.
Of course, people on the left won't like this stance but it makes sense to be cautious at this late stage in thegame. There are surely more advantages in saying that things can be better judged once the sound and fury of the election is behind the party. Besides, any commitment to pull out of a naval support role in the waters off Yemen or promising to rethink how infringements by U.S. forces stationed in Japan should be handled could well pose major diplomatic trials for Hatoyama's party in its dealings with Washington.
Yet the problems facing any Japanese government over future foreign and defense policies are far more deep-seated than either Prime Minister Taro Aso or Hatoyama would have us believe. The unpleasant truth is surely that Tokyo cannot or will not move more than incrementally to alter long-established policies. This may not have mattered too much in the era of the Cold War but it is an odds-on bet that, while the United States is expecting a far larger contribution from today's Japan, the reality is that it is going to be disappointed. This, in turn, is likely to produce radical shifts in the American government's behavior toward Japan.
Hatoyama's earlier wish to create a more equal partnership between Japan and the United States appears to have little substance in reality, much as Aso sounds pretty satisfied with the status quo, engineered at San Francisco by his grandfather way back in the early 1950s. Neither politician wishes to explain to an electorate reeling from economic pressures that the United States expects greater and more active assistance from its chief Asia-Pacific ally. Neither politician dares suggest that sooner or later Japan, despite its experiences in the Pacific War and current interpretations of its 1947 Constitution, will have to put its soldiers in harm's way, if it wants to maintain lasting security ties with Washington.
No one can deny that some highly tentative steps have been taken in this direction over the past decade. Yet the dispatch of Ground Self-Defense Forces to a safe zone in Iraq by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the more recent roles played by the Japanese navy - or, if you prefer, its Maritime Self-Defense Forces - to the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf are small beer. These recent Japanese roles in the Middle East are probably seen by their organizers as frankly the least the nation could do in the circumstances. Many outsiders also sense that they were designed largely in order to ensure that the United States would keep on supporting its ally over sensitive North Korean and Chinese issues and remind policymakers in Washington that Japan was in its corner in a crisis.
A new center-left cabinet in Japan is likely to plod along in the footsteps of earlier conservative governments. Hatoyama may talk more frequently about revamping U.S.-Japan ties and offer a greater willingness to work through the United Nations in directions that parallel American policies but little will change in reality. Some may wish to see Japan more involved in U.N. peace-keeping operations is probable but the Democrats would run a mile at the thought of its servicemen, policemen and medical agencies actually being stationed anywhere near any high-risk combat zone.
For now, Japan will be able to continue to rely on the United States' protection. How much longer it can carry on with its junior role of paying huge sums to offset American basing expenditures within Japan but staying very much in the shadows remains unclear. An alliance where all the risks are undertaken by one party is hardly guaranteed to survive from here to eternity.© Japan Today