Two learning curves intersected in Tokyo this week when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to town, part of a Northeast Asian swing that started in Beijing and will finish in Seoul.
One curve is under way in Japan, where the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is learning the difference between campaigning and governing. Ending a half-century of nearly uninterrupted conservative rule, the DPJ came to power in September 2009 vowing to forge a more "equal" relationship with its patron ally and put more emphasis on Japan's ties with Asian neighbors, particularly China and South Korea.
The DPJ also pledged to reduce the burden of hosting U.S. bases placed on the people of Okinawa, where the bases occupy nearly a fifth of the island. The new government hoped to revisit the unimplemented 1996 agreement to move the helicopters and planes stationed at Futenma Marine air base, dangerously crowded in among apartment buildings and schools on the southern part of the island, to a new base built in its less densely populated northern half.
Since taking power, the DPJ has struggled to reconcile its electoral pledges with the reality of a serially provocative North Korea and an increasingly aggressive China. Yukio Hatoyama's inability to manage the base issue with the United States became emblematic of his weak leadership, costing him the premiership after only nine months and contributing to the party's loss of the upper house of parliament last summer.
Americans somewhat smugly congratulate Tokyo for its belated realism. Less acknowledged is Washington's own learning curve about both the realities of politics in Japan and the enduring value of the alliance. The early days of the DPJ administration were marked by barely disguised U.S. disdain for its political ineptitude and domestic troubles, and even, among some U.S. officials, expectations that a strategic condominium with China could eventually supplant the Cold War alliance with Japan.
Gates's successful role as alliance manager this week stands in stark contrast to his visit more than a year ago, in October 2009. Back then, he came to bluntly tell the Japanese to drop any talk of reopening the Okinawa base issue. "This may not be the perfect alternative for anyone," Gates said, "but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on." He dismissed any other options as "politically untenable and operationally unworkable."
As for the alliance, Gates forcefully reminded his Japanese hosts that Americans were there to protect their country -- allowing the Japanese to spend very little on their own self-defense over the past half-century. At the same time, Obama administration officials talked openly about Japan's diminishing importance, hinting at China's potential as a new strategic partner. A senior State Department official told the Washington Post that the U.S. had "grown comfortable" with the idea of Japan as a constant in U.S. relations with the region. It no longer fills that role, he said, adding ominously that "the hardest thing right now is not China -- it's Japan."
The March 2010 sinking of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, shook that illusory view of the region. China's decision to back Pyongyang and its vocal opposition to U.S. naval deployments in the Yellow Sea surprised some in Washington. Meanwhile the DPJ government in Tokyo lined up strongly behind Seoul, as it did later after North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last November. The new administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Hatoyama's successor, got its own shock when Beijing purposely escalated tensions over the arrest of a Chinese fishing-boat captain following a collision near Japanese-controlled islands in the disputed oil and gas rich waters of the East China Sea.
By last fall, talk of a "strategic partnership" with China had been replaced by a new emphasis on bolstering traditional Cold War-era cooperation among Japan, South Korea, and the United States. In October, ahead of the president's visit to Japan, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell admitted that the "learning process is not confined just to Tokyo."
Campbell told reporters in Tokyo that the difficulties of the past year served as "a reminder to the United States [of] how badly we need a good relationship with Japan" to deal with the challenges in Asia. "It is critical for this generation of American policymakers to in no way take Japan for granted," he said, in an obvious swipe at more Sino-centric colleagues back in Washington.