President Obama began a nine-day swing through Asia today in Tokyo, meeting with Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama. The early news out of the meeting was the apparent U.S. concession to agree to establish a working group to discuss the future of the U.S. marine base on Okinawa. During a visit to Tokyo in October, Secretary of Defense Gates called Japanese complaints about the base “counterproductive.”
Regardless of how the dispute about Okinawa is resolved, the U.S.-Japanese relationship is not in good shape. The fragile state of the alliance is in part due to the president’s penchant for coddling America’s foes while forsaking traditional U.S. allies. Yes, the new Japanese government is quirky and is unlikely to be as consistently in lockstep with the United States as its predecessors, but President Obama has done little to make Japan feel that it is a valued partner. Japan sees the Obama administration doing little to resolve the threat posed by North Korea, which has threatened Japan in the past by launching missiles over Japanese territory. Instead, the Obama administration, after several months of ignoring Kim Jong Il, announced earlier this week that Special Representative Stephen Bosworth will visit Pyongyang after President Obama’s trip is completed in an effort to convince the North Koreans to return to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, little progress has been made on an issue that was supposed to be addressed through the Six Party framework — the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has spoken of a policy of strategic reassurance toward China, the exact meaning of which is apparently disputed, even within the administration. Talk of new ways the U.S. can accommodate China’s rising military capabilities will not provide much reassurance to Japanese leaders nervous about U.S. staying power in the region.
President Obama, speaking to the Japanese television network NHK prior to his departure, said, “I don’t think anybody expects that the U.S.-Japan relationship would be the same now as it was 50 years ago or 30 years ago or 20 years ago.” This seems to capture the president’s view of alliances: archaic institutions that are to be discarded after they outlive their usefulness. This does not bode well for U.S. allies in Asia and elsewhere who continue to look to the United States for leadership and security.
— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.