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Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007

Little change expected in Japan-U.S. relationship

Staff writer

OSAKA — Those who keep close watch on Japan's political and defense ties with the U.S. expect no major changes in the fundamental security relationship under Yasuo Fukuda.

At the same time, doubts among experts are growing that Fukuda will be able to get an extension of Japan's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean and questions remain over how much headway he will make on the realignment of U.S. bases.

There had been concerns in the U.S. that Fukuda — considered more of a dove on foreign policy than his opponent in Sunday's contest for the prime ministership, Taro Aso, and closer to China and South Korea — would de-emphasize Tokyo's relationship with Washington in favor of East Asia. But most experts say there is no reason for such concerns.

"The U.S. can work with Fukuda," said Brad Glosserman, executive director of Hawaii-based think tank Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"He's made the right noises about Japan's military alliance with America," he said. "There's no sign that improving ties between Japan and its Asian neighbors will come at the expense of the alliance."

A top priority for Fukuda will be extending the special antiterrorism law, under which the Maritime Self-Defense Force is refueling coalition warships in the Indian Ocean providing support to counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. Fukuda supports extending the law, which is due to expire Nov. 1.

But with the Democratic Party of Japan, which controls the Upper House, remaining firmly opposed, some see Fukuda offering a compromise bill allowing other forms of counterterrorism assistance, possibly nonmilitary humanitarian assistance or a rear-guard presence in the Middle East by Japanese military forces.

"If the Fukuda Cabinet can't extend the antiterrorism bill, I think the government will provide another plan for assisting U.S. operations against terrorism," said Koji Murata, a professor of international security studies at Doshisha University and an expert on Japan-U.S. relations. "And Washington will understand Tokyo's political difficulties."

George Packard, president of the New York-based United States-Japan Foundation, warns that if the Bush administration pushes Fukuda too hard on the antiterrorism bill, there could be a public backlash that would create political problems for the alliance.

"I suspect the Bush administration will put heavy pressure on Japan to renew the antiterrorism bill," Packard said. "But the U.S. should take a longer view. Japanese voters spoke decisively against the Abe government in the Upper House election and a majority of Japanese in recent polls are opposed to extending the law."

Noted political commentator Minoru Morita, who has written several books critical of the way Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe dealt with America, said it is impossible for the antiterrorism law to be renewed in its current form.

"It's likely the LDP will draft a new bill," Morita said. "But Abe was less accommodating to demands from the Bush administration than Koizumi, and Fukuda is likely to be even less accommodating than Abe. Fukuda might choose to override the opposition by getting two-thirds of the Lower House to pass the bill. But that's a political risk many in the ruling coalition don't want to take.

"If Fukuda's support rate is less than 50 percent, it will be difficult for him to override the Upper House."

Fukuda may also come under pressure from the U.S. Defense Department, members of his own party and the Defense Ministry to make progress on U.S. base realignment, especially relocating Futenma Air Base farther north on Okinawa.

Under a bilateral agreement signed in May 2006, the offshore replacement facility is supposed to be built near Nago and go into operation by 2014. But strong local opposition has meant delays in starting construction.

Privately, a growing number of government and military officials in both Japan and the U.S. say they have given up on seeing the new facility in operation by 2014.

Fukuda's tenure could create new opportunities to overcome Okinawan opposition, said Robert Eldridge, director of the U.S.-Japan Alliance Affairs Division at Osaka University's School of International Public Policy and a leading U.S. expert on the Okinawa base issue.

"If the prime minister and the new defense minister conduct a review of the Futenma decision in favor of another option, one more acceptable to the Okinawa government, there could be some positive movement," he said. "But we don't yet know what Fukuda thinks about the current situation surrounding the Futenma replacement facility."

Glosserman of the Pacific Forum said Fukuda doesn't appear positioned to pursue the realignment issue aggressively.

"No politician has made much effort to spend political capital on the bases, and Fukuda doesn't have much capital," he said. "He's a reassuring figure who might cut some weight with local communities and feel their pain in ways Abe couldn't. Whether he makes the base realignment agreement a priority is another matter, and thus far the record isn't encouraging."

While nobody expects the fundamental Japan-U.S. relationship to change under Fukuda, both governments wonder what will happen if he and the LDP are forced to call an election.

"If Ichiro Ozawa and the DPJ capture a majority in the Lower House and Japan gets a DPJ prime minister, there will be changes that are likely to create consternation for the Bush administration. Ozawa will not simply follow America's lead," said Morita.

And while an LDP victory — especially if Fukuda were to continue as prime minister — might not lead to the degree of change that could be expected under a DPJ-led government, the current U.S. domestic political climate does not bode well for the bilateral relationship.

In the past year, Japanese officials have expressed concern that the U.S., distracted by the Iraq war and preparing for a possible attack on Iran, is paying less attention to Japan than during the Koizumi years.

With polls suggesting the presidential election in November 2008 will be won by a Democrat, and with many in Washington, at least, convinced Japan-U.S. relations are good, there is a growing sense on both sides of the Pacific that the Bush administration will leave most bilateral issues to the next occupant of the White House.

Many politicians and media in both countries warn relations will worsen if that person is a Democrat. But there is still optimism among most experts that both sides will adjust to any new political reality.

"A change in political leadership in either country that leads to a bilateral relationship where there's real dialogue on both sides will be good for the alliance as a whole," Eldridge said.

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