Editorial: Let the Japan-U.S. summit be the first step toward change in Japanese diplomacy

It can be said they were committed to safe driving at the start. Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama held his first face-to-face talk with U.S. President Barack Obama and agreed to deepen the Japan-U.S. alliance.

The meeting lasted 25 minutes and was conducted in a relaxed atmosphere. From the beginning, the aim was about building a relationship of trust between the leaders. Therefore, the true color of the Hatoyama administration, signified by the phrase “an equal partnership between Japan and the United States,” was toned down at the meeting.

The fact that a magazine article written by Prime Minister Hatoyama created ripples in the United States seemed to have some impact on the summit. The tenor of his article, which was critical of U.S.-led globalism, raised concerns that the Japan-U.S. alliance might weaken. Mr. Hatoyama needed to announce its intention to work with the United States and strengthen the alliance in order to allay these concerns.

Still, the driving force for the world has shifted from U.S.-led operations to multilateral consensus-building. President Obama himself declared this U.S. departure from unilateralism at the United Nations General Assembly. While Japan-U.S. relations will remain a central pillar of its policy, Japan should not be wholly dependent on the United States and instead put greater emphasis on its relations with Asian neighbors. We hope the meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Hatoyama will be the first step toward such a shift in Japanese diplomacy.

A number of pending issues were not addressed at the meeting and were deferred for future talks. The United States likely intends to observe the moves of the new administration in Japan, which has just assumed power. The Hatoyama government has until November 2009, when President Obama visits Japan, to determine its stance involving these issues.

First, with regard to assistance for Afghanistan, the new administration is considering contributions in civilian sectors rather than the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean. The current commitment to this mission is set to expire in January of next year. Military operations in Afghanistan, aimed at antiterrorism, have bogged down and it appears difficult to resolve the issue only by force of arms. As Japan’s assistance in agriculture and vocational training has earned praise, the Japanese government should swiftly formulate a framework for effective support that no nation but Japan could provide.

Another problem involves the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan. Prior to the summit meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested a willingness to discuss the issue with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada. Still, it is thought that the U.S. stance, based on previous Japan-U.S. agreements, so far remains unchanged.

Can the plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma to another site in Okinawa Prefecture be changed, as the three-party coalition government has agreed, in order to reduce the burden on local residents in Okinawa Prefecture? It will not be easy to sort out this entangled issue and find middle ground with the United States. For the present, at least, the Japanese government must determine its own direction on this matter.

A major theme for Japan is establishing a multi-track diplomacy, with an emphasis on relations with Asia, including China and South Korea, as well as the United States. Without U.S. understanding, it would be difficult to promote the idea of an East Asian Community, which Prime Minister Hatoyama has envisioned.

Mr. Hatoyama also held meetings with leaders from China, South Korea and Russia while in New York. These nations are all members of the six-party talks, in which the denuclearization of North Korea is being discussed. North Korea is now showing signs of shifting to a dialogue-oriented approach. Full-scale negotiations on the issue, as well as the abduction problem, are also challenges facing the new administration.

If Japan urges North Korea to abandon its nuclear development and rebuild its economy with the assistance of other nations, the vision for a nuclear-free zone in Northeast Asia will emerge into sight as an extension of this effort.

Imagine Japan, as the only nation to have suffered nuclear attack, actively developing multilateral diplomacy. Such a change in the nation would fit well with the long-term interests of the United States, which has sought the stability of East Asia and the prevention of nuclear proliferation.

(Originally published on September 25, 2009)