Japan-U.S. Relations Could Get Bumpy

For a brief moment, Naoto Kan looked like the anchor who could end Japan's drift. Where his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, was a patrician dogged by corruption scandals and perceived as incapable of leading his own government, Kan came into the premiership stressing his own middle-class background. He pledged to recommit the governing Democratic Party of Japan to its ambitious agenda: reversing the country's long decline by reforming its bureaucracy and social safety net while jump-starting the economy. Moreover, his commitment to replace an aging U.S. air base on Okinawa signaled a possible end to a dispute that had soured relations with Washington and led to Hatoyama's resignation.

A mere month later, Japan is once again mired in political confusion. In July the DPJ fell well short of a majority in the upper-house elections. It will now have to find either permanent coalition partners or, failing that, parties willing to cooperate on an issue-by-issue basis. Kan has survived his party's defeat but faces a party leadership election in September that looks certain to be contentious. The result is that the DPJ government will have little choice but to moderate its goals. Accordingly, for U.S. policymakers interested in strengthening the relationship often described as "the cornerstone of peace and security" in East Asia, Japan's domestic political environment will continue to serve as an obstacle. For the foreseeable future, no government will be in a position to advance major new initiatives, especially those pertaining to Japan's security policy. And the sad reality is that even if the DPJ had won a convincing victory, Washington's interest in a more active security partnership—in which Japan would spend more on its armed forces, participate more in overseas operations, and perhaps even revise or reinterpret its Constitution to permit self-defense within the alliance—would continue to face serious obstacles.

As the government's fiscal situation worsens, it becomes less and less likely that Tokyo will take up an ambitious security policy agenda. Fixing the government's finances is a key step to addressing the other pocketbook issues with which voters are concerned. It is unlikely that a government implementing controversial budget cuts and tax increases would also take up the contentious question of how it should contribute to the defense of Japan and security in East and Central Asia. Its fear would be that the public would punish leaders perceived as focused on problems far from Japanese shores as it implements policies that hurt Japanese households. Moreover, for a cash-strapped government, the status quo, in which Japan limits its defense spending while subsidizing U.S. bases in Japan, continues to suit Japan's interests. The logic of the Yoshida doctrine—which was formulated during the early postwar period, and which called for low defense spending combined with an alliance founded on U.S. bases in Japan—remains relevant today: Japanese leaders once saw the doctrine as the key to postwar economic development, and now the same policies provide resources for shoring up Japan's social safety net and halting economic decline.

The irony, then, is that despite the DPJ's desire for a more equal relationship with the United States, the political and economic logic of austerity suggests that Japan will likely grow even more dependent on the U.S. for its security, with the difference being that the relationship will be more fragile. For Japan, every U.S. initiative toward China will be scrutinized for signs that the U.S. is abandoning Japan in the region. Similarly, for Washington, every initiative to deepen cooperation within East Asia that excludes the U.S. will be questioned and may prompt grumbling about Japanese free-riding. In other words, these are the makings of a tumultuous decade for the alliance.

What can Washington do to minimize the friction? To a certain extent, the Obama administration has already taken several steps in the right direction. Unlike its predecessor, the current administration is less wedded to Japanese military contributions and gladly accepted a sizable Japanese financial contribution to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. When not feuding over Okinawa, the administration has made clear that it wants to work with Tokyo in areas like climate change. But the U.S. needs to be patient—especially on Okinawa. It needs to accept that in the months and years to come, anything beyond a limited military alliance focused on the defense of Japan is a nonstarter for Japan's beleaguered politicians.

Harris, a doctoral student in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes the blog Observing Japan.