Turning Japanese: Obama's 'Asia Pivot' Centers on Japan

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How the island disputes are helping to warm the chilly U.S.-Japan relationship.

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President Barack Obama with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Oval Office at the White House, on February 22, 2013. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Foreign Minister, Fumio Kashida, spent the day in Washington meeting with President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry on February 22. The statements made by both sides as the talks came to end showed that the two nations were remarkably on the same page with regard to the issues of trade and security. Of the most significance was the apparent reaffirmation given by Secretary Kerry that the disputed Senkaku/Diayou Islands were covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. This means that, in the event of an attack on the islands, the U.S. would be treaty-bound to come to Japan's defense.

The success of the meeting surprised many people who follow U.S.-Japan affairs. Although the two nations are longtime allies, the relationship between the Obama administration and the revolving-door of Japanese prime ministers (Abe is the fifth Prime Minister elected by the Japanese legislature since Obama was first inaugurated in January 2009) has been anything but warm.

The symbolism of John Kerry's commitments on the Senkaku dispute is sure to raise temperatures among the Chinese leadership.

Disagreements between the Obama administration and the Japanese leadership first emerged back in August 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) wrestled power from the long ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The DPJ's incoming Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, announced that he wanted to "rebalance" the relationship between the U.S. and Japan. To be fair, the Prime Minister went out of his way to explain that this was not an attack on the alliance, which he continued to refer to as the cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy, but rather a long-overdue call for a more equal partnership between the two nations. In addition, Hatoyama felt that it was important for Japan to reach out to its neighbors and build an "East Asian Community," which would include closer ties between Japan and China.

On their own, Hatoyama's statements probably would not have raised many eyebrows in Washington -- they could be understood as a natural maturing of the relationship between the two longstanding allies. Nevertheless, a serious rift did occur when the new prime minister questioned an agreement brokered in 2006 involving the Marine Corps Futenma airbase on the island of Okinawa. The deal that had emerged after lengthy negotiations called for relocating the base to a less populated part of the island. Hatoyama wanted to reopen the agreement and pursue a solution that might move the base completely out of Okinawa. The U.S., however, had no interest in renegotiating the pact, and the prime minister's request was summarily dismissed by then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Because of commitments that he had made to the Okinawans as his party was seeking power, the prime minister continued to push the issue. The result was that the Futenma base remained a major point of contention between the U.S. and Japan. Although Hatoyama reversed his opposition in May 2010, his flip-flopping on the issue further weakened his status in Japan. The next month, after less than a year in office, Hatoyama resigned.

Although Hatoyama's successor, Naoto Kan, endorsed, at least formally, the 2006 agreement, relations remained strained. Many in Okinawa still passionately opposed the deal, and their concerns were taken seriously by other Japanese citizens who knew that the Okinawans bore the brunt of the U.S. military presence in Japan.

The tragic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident that hit Japan on March 11, 2011 pushed the Futenma issue to the sidelines. Operation Tomodachi ("friendship," in Japanese), launched by the U.S. within hours of the triple disasters eventually involved more than 180 U.S. aircraft and ships, and at least 20,000 U.S. personnel. In addition to providing much needed food, fresh water, search and rescue support, and heavy machinery to aid in reconstruction, Operation Tomodachi supplied technical experts and materials to help the Japanese in their efforts to contain the radiation leak from the Fukushima nuclear reactors. The U.S. operation engendered an incredible amount of goodwill, especially in the affected regions of Japan.

It was not only Operation Tomodachi, however, that helped to drive the U.S. and Japan back together. In September 2010, a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese patrol boat in the waters off of the Senkaku Islands that lie south of Okinawa in the East China Sea. This was the first incident in what would become an increasingly volatile dispute between the Japan and China over who owns the islands (known as the Diayou Islands in China). The saber rattling between Japan and China continues, and has escalated to the point where there are very real fears that a misstep by either side could lead to a war.

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Paul Sracic is a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Youngstown State University in Ohio. He was a 2009-2010 Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Tokyo and at Sophia University in Tokyo.

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