There's less to U.S.-Japanese frictions than meets the eye

By Jun Okumura and Ross Schaap

The conventional wisdom in U.S.-Japanese relations is that things were largely fine until the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) upset the apple cart by winning control of Japan's government. Security policy observers appear to accept the idea that the DPJ has strained the close relationship that Japan's former ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had developed with the United States over the past several decades. A show of bilateral solidarity during President Obama's one-night stand in Tokyo last week has done little to change these opinions. The conventional wisdom has it wrong.

The source of this mistaken belief centers on the DPJ's electoral promise to review the 2006 U.S.-Japanese agreement that would move the bulk of a US Marine base out of the center of Ginowan, a city of nearly 100,000 in Okinawa, to Guam. The remainder -- a large contingency of helicopters-would relocate to a more remote location near Nago, also within Okinawa. The DPJ's indecision on whether to move ahead with construction of a new airfield above a coral reef near Nago seems to have thrown a wrench in the works, but the real difference between the DPJ and the LDP is simply in the visibility of its reluctance to give Washington what it wants.

The disconnect here is in overestimation of cooperation from the LDP. The long history of this redeployment headache gets left out of most accounts of the current controversy. The initial U.S. force redeployment deal was agreed in 1996, and the new airfield and redeployment were supposed to be completed by 2004. Instead, after seven years without progress, both sides went back to the bargaining table, a process that eventually yielded the 2006 agreement. Yet, more than three years of LDP rule later, authorization of construction at the airfield still falls to the new DPJ government. In other words, the LDP agreed to give the United States what it wanted ... and then did virtually nothing to make it happen.

So what has changed? The DPJ, not to mention its coalition partner the Social Democratic Party of Japan, is much more openly antagonistic to the 2006 agreement. The visibility of that reluctance has moved the US to respond publicly on an issue that slid by without action on a much lower profile during the Bush years. Unusually blunt public statements from US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, insisting on quick implementation of the 2006 agreement, generated headlines -- and much chatter on bilateral strains. Though the Obama administration appears to have taken a step back, agreeing to set up a joint working group on the Ginowan issue, it continues to reject the one alternative that the Japanese Foreign Minister has been pursuing on his own -- moving the Marine helicopters to Kadena Air Base, an idea which the locals also reject.

That the United States started from a position of intransigence on renegotiation isn't remarkable. But this doesn't mean that's where the issue will end. The U.S. side has waited 13 years; it has no practical reasons to reject a technically and politically viable alternative even if it means a few more years of delay. In fact, further delay is the next likely course of action/inaction. The two sides have been stuck on the status quo conundrum for 13 years for reasons we can only guess at, but likely include operational requirements that leave little or no room for a non-Okinawa solution, while no other viable Okinawa alternative is in sight.

That said, the DPJ's political links to the anti-U.S. military presence in Okinawa, the SDP presence in the coalition, and the unfortunate political calendar, including a mayoral election in January in Nago and an Upper House election in the summer of 2010, are making it exceedingly difficult for the DPJ leadership to make up its mind to accept the lesser evil and give the go-ahead to construction work at Nago.

All this dictates the continuation of the status quo. But then, such a turn of events -- or the lack of one -- should not come as a surprise. In reality, history shows that for U.S.-Japanese relations, there's much less difference between the DPJ and LDP than meets the eye -- in principle or in practice.

Jun Okumura is a senior adviser to Eurasia Group and Ross Schaap is Director of Comparative Analytics.