Japan-U.S. Alliance Is Stronger Than It Looks

In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the security alliance between Tokyo and Washington last week, the conventional wisdom was that the U.S.-Japan relationship was in a downward spiral. Since taking power in September, Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has insisted on revising a 2006 military realignment agreement that would relocate a controversial Marine air base on Okinawa known as Futenma from a densely populated residential area to an offshore site of another base on the island. That prompted fear in Washington that the entire deal would unravel and undermine its military realignment plans. Pundits speculated the alliance was adrift, particularly as U.S. officials seemed miffed about their new partners in Tokyo.

Yet the relationship between the U.S. and Japan is not nearly as bad as it seems. Yes, there is disagreement on one issue. But the fate of a small air base on Okinawa is not the only thing that matters. On North Korea, cooperation between Japan and the U.S. is better than ever. A key part of the Obama administration's North Korea policy is to restrengthen its cooperation with Tokyo, after the Bush administration hastily pursued a nuclear deal with Pyongyang in 2008 at the expense of Japan's dearest issue: the North's 1970s abductions of Japanese citizens, who have yet to be accounted for. Despite Pyongyang's attempts to lure the U.S. into talks, Washington is treading cautiously so that the North will be unable to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies, as it has done before. Moreover, there is little, if any, difference between Tokyo and Washington on global issues like nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, and terrorism. In November, Hatoyama and Obama agreed to cooperate closely on nonproliferation efforts and clean-energy development. Despite Japan's decision to withdraw its refueling ships from the Indian Ocean, it has pledged $5 billion in aid to Afghanistan, a commitment Washington welcomed.

Both sides also agree on the fundamentals of the security alliance. Despite the squabbling over the Futenma base, Tokyo and Washington agree on the importance of having American troops in Japan. They also agree that the burden on Okinawa—which hosts 75 percent of U.S. military bases in the nation—must be mitigated. For all the ranting by the Hatoyama administration's coalition partners—namely the Social Democrats—key cabinet members have no intentions of weakening the alliance. As Katsuya Okada said in one of his first news conferences as foreign minister, he wants to address the Okinawa problem to make the bilateral relationship sustainable "for the next 30, 50 years."

So why the gloom and doom? Obviously it's tempting to make headlines out of a rare spat between steadfast allies. In particular, the Japanese media establishment perpetuated the angst, as it is accustomed to viewing the relationship as a cozy friendship between pro-American conservatives in Tokyo and so-called Japan hands in the U.S. Truth be told, the commotion was more about inexperienced governments than fundamental differences. Having won a historic election in August, an elated Hatoyama government got carried away by its promise to carve out a "more equal" partnership with the U.S. and insisted on the Futenma issue in a way that made it look like it was taking the relationship for granted. Washington overreacted by allowing the frustrations of the Pentagon to dominate its posture. "Both capitals have lost sight of the fact that the bilateral relationship is not about housekeeping issues like the length and shape of a runway in Okinawa," says Evans Revere, an Asia expert formerly at the State Department.

Now officials on both sides of the Pacific are refocusing their attention on the big issue: how the countries can meet the challenges in a changing regional-security environment. At their meeting in Honolulu earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington is "respectful" of Tokyo's decision-making process, and Okada made it clear that Tokyo is not ruling out the current agreement—which Washington wants implemented—he just wants to explore the options. Hatoyama later said Japan should be "thankful" for the security alliance with the U.S. Next month both capitals will start talks to "deepen" that alliance. As for Futenma, expect more headlines from the Japanese press, as Hatoyama tries to craft a palatable compromise plan by May. But don't believe any hype about a crisis.