Presidential summits are carefully orchestrated events. Every word, every gesture is choreographed to convey certain messages. Negatives are downplayed, positives are accentuated, and at worst big differences are papered over as "agreements to disagree." U.S. President Barack Obama's recent visit to Tokyo confirms that the U.S.-Japan alliance is clearly entering a new and perhaps troubling era.
The problem is not Obama. He said the appropriate things and made the appropriate gestures showing respect and appreciation for Tokyo. But dealing with the new Yukio Hatoyama government, which has broken the half-century lock on political power by the conservatives in Japan, will be far from easy.
It is common summit practice to keep private what is said between the two leaders -- however good or bad -- and to craft a coordinated and positive public message. Yet there were many disquieting tidbits that came out of the summit which confirm suspicions of the new Japanese leader’s ambitions to change the relationship's traditional and time-honored discourse. Less than two minutes into his press conference, Hatoyama proclaimed "starting from today, a new process of deliberation" for the alliance.
On Afghanistan, Hatoyama announced that he was no longer continuing the refueling mission of coalition vessels in the Indian Ocean which Japan had faithfully carried out since November 2001 with U.S. appreciation and support. This itself was not news (Tokyo had telegraphed this for some time), but summit protocol usually calls for downplaying differences rather than underscoring them. The prime minister, moreover, felt the need to highlight the break and that Obama consented to this decision. Ironically, Hatoyama will replace Japan's refueling contributions with new financial contributions to Afghanistan that look more like the old Japanese "checkbook diplomacy."
Hatoyama's statements on Iran were extraordinary, with the prime minister emphasizing Japan's "historic relationship" with Tehran. In the structured language that has framed past alliance statements, this was clearly a break from precedent. Japan has substantial economic and energy investments in Iran but has always made these conditional on U.S. and UN P-3 demands for Iran to denuclearize. Hatoyama's brashness may signal a new game for Japan in Iran.
Finally, the summit did not paper over but raised the disagreement over Okinawa to the presidential level. Upon taking office, Hatoyama initially mused about seeking a review of the 2006 base realignment agreement which created the first ripples in the normally still-water smooth alliance. Defense Secretary Robert Gates bluntly responded that the agreement, which would move a majority of U.S Marines to Guam and relocate some key facilities like Futenma to less densely populated areas in Okinawa, was non-negotiable. Washington tried to use Obama's trip as the action-forcing event that would elicit Hatoyama's consent to the agreement. No such luck. Not only did Hatoyama refuse to agree, he also called for the removal of all U.S. facilities from Okinawa. This is cowboy diplomacy. It is not the stuff of the otherwise gentlemanly U.S.-Japan alliance.
The two leaders agreed to a "high-level" working group, which is the typical summit measure for punting the problem down the road. But even here, the tensions were palpable. Hatoyama stated that the group's purpose would be to "review" the base agreements. Obama stated (twice) that the group's purpose would be to "implement" the base agreements. Sure, the Hatoyama government is trying to define itself in opposition to LDP rule. But when presidents and prime ministers disagree in public over issues that constitute the core of the defense alliance, people should start worrying.
Former senator and sage Mike Mansfield used to describe the U.S.-Japan alliance as the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none. Indeed there has been no other ally in the postwar era that has been more significant to the U.S. in terms of advancing a global agenda based on free market democracy, nuclear nonproliferation, and climate change. But we may be at a watershed moment where one of America's most valued allies may no longer be dependable.
Victor Cha was director of Asian affairs at the White House from 2004 to 2007. He is a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.