Prime Minister Kan Naoto had his debut on the world stage at the G20 meeting in Toronto this week. While in Toronto he had his first meeting with US President Barack Obama.
As Reuters notes, Kan met with Obama for a half-hour, considerably more time than Hatoyama got when he visited Washington in April (when Hatoyama was infamously described as "loopy"). The two leaders apparently discussed their shared love of matcha ice cream, and the Japanese media looked for signs that the two were becoming pals, looking for evidence that the relationship between the US and Japan was back on track after the Hatoyama government "strained" the bilateral relationship.
Meanwhile at gatherings in Washington to commemorate the "fiftieth anniversary" of the alliance (depending on when one chooses the date the birth of the alliance), the mood, according to Peter Ennis, was relatively upbeat following Hatoyama's decision to embrace a version of the status quo regarding Futenma and his subsequent resignation. Ennis says that the theme was "emphasize the positive."
All well and good, but as far as I can tell the alliance is right back to where it was 2007-2009, with the only difference being that the Japanese government is openly confronting the problems surrounding the implementation of the 2006 roadmap.
As I've argued before, the collapse of the Abe government in 2007 was more than just a spectacular reversal for the LDP — it marked the end of the bilateral "project" that grew out of the Nye Initiative in the mid-1990s to build a stronger, closer US-Japan alliance. After rewriting the guidelines on defense cooperation, securing (token) Japanese contributions to the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and develop a new "shared values" rationale for the alliance, the project ran squarely into the wall of political realities in Japan and in the region.
Regarding the former, when faced with a government that was dead set on constitution revision, it turned out that the Japanese public was not all that interested in it, no matter what years of Yomiuri Shimbun polls said (although revisionist politicians apparently missed the polls that showed that very few felt that constitution revision was an issue deserving of the attention of national leaders). More than that, there are few signs that the Japanese public is interested in anything but the status quo as far as security policy is concerned. In other words, the status quo in which Japan spends less and less each year on defense while playing host to forward-deployed US forces. While public opinion polls are at best ambiguous regarding Japan's former refueling mission in the Indian Ocean or its ongoing anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa, the public isn't exactly clamoring for a more expansive role abroad for the SDF. Nor does there seem to be much support for collective self-defense, another remaining piece of the project.
Now, of course, it's the job of the government to lead — indeed, dating back at least to the early 1990s the idea behind the administrative reforms at the heart of the DPJ's program was that it would produce more decisive leadership, especially in foreign and security affairs. But realistically speaking, it is unlikely that a government committed to a controversial fiscal retrenchment agenda will simultaneously pursue a foreign policy agenda that would if anything be more controversial, especially in light of the domestic agenda.
The result is an unusual parallel to the Yoshida Doctrine, which, incidentally, Ambassador Katō Ryozō, who before serving as ambassador to the US for the whole of the Bush administration was deeply involved in the project to strengthen the alliance, recently declared had "completed its mission." Today Japan finds itself in a position where it needs an alliance with the US based on the forward deployment of troops not to free up resources for re-industrialization but so that it can weather its demographic plight and economic decline. The resulting arrangement looks the same, but the underlying logic is strikingly different — and remarkably fragile, resting as it does on the strength of the US commitment to Asia, the willingness of the Japanese taxpayer to provide host-nation support (and Okinawan and other communities to host US forces), and the restraint of the People's Republic of China.
In fairness, policymakers in both countries seem to recognize that this arrangement is less than ideal. For example, two years before he became known within US-Japan circles for issuing a warning to the Hatoyama government not to challenge the 2006 agreement, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a speech in Tokyo calling for a review of the alliance that would seek to answer basic questions about its raison d'etre.
But no one has taken up Gates's call, perhaps in large part because there are no easy answers to the challenges that face the alliance. Japan's domestic political environment shows no signs of changing (at least as far as the alliance is concerned), and the political environment could even worsen if the ruling parties fall short of a majority in the upper house. While China occasionally acts in ways that could trigger a shift in Japanese public opinion, on the whole China has been restrained, meaning that Japan will continue to seek a constructive partnership with China. There are no signs that the US commitment to regional security is wavering, but given the state of the US economy it is impossible to rule out an isolationist turn (fears of which naturally lead Japan and other countries in the region to consider their options).
In other words, the new project for the alliance is learning to accept and make the best of these constraints. As leaders of both countries say, the alliance continues to play an important role in providing peace and security in the region, but the idea that the alliance could be something more than a "passive" or negative force for peace (what, after all, could be more passive than oxygen, Joseph Nye's commonly used metaphor for the US presence in Asia), that it could play a creative role in promoting US values or reshaping the regional security environment appears to be increasingly fanciful. The alliance may well survive for decades to come, but its survival — and the form it takes — may depend less on decisions made in Washington and Tokyo than on decisions made in Beijing.