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U.S. urged to prepare for new Japan challenges
September 1, 2009 / 11:25 PM / in 8 years

U.S. urged to prepare for new Japan challenges

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Japan’s new government could pose challenges for the Obama administration even if it moderates pre-election positions that would put some distance between major transpacific allies Tokyo and Washington.

Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama is expected to form a new Cabinet in mid-September after Sunday’s historic election win that ended five decades of nearly unbroken rule by the pro-U.S. Liberal Democratic Party.

The DPJ campaigned with a domestic focus, promising to direct spending toward consumers, cut wasteful budget outlays and reduce the power of bureaucrats. Foreign policy and relations with Japan’s formal security alliance partner, the United States, did not feature heavily in the race.

Before the policies and important personalities of the DPJ government have become clear, analysts scrutinizing the statements of DPJ leaders and the party’s voting record in opposition see both continuity and indicators of potential U.S.-Japan friction.

Pre-election positions included calls to shift Japan’s pro-West policy orientation closer to Asia, re-examine plans to beef up the U.S.-Japan security alliance and realign U.S. forces in Japan, and to question bilateral cooperation in Afghanistan and other areas.

FRICTION DESPITE MODERATED RHETORIC

Not many U.S. observers expect the DPJ to alter the U.S.-Japan alliance fundamentally, but many see a slowing of cooperation agreed to by the outgoing government.

“The DPJ has already toned down some of its campaign rhetoric,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a Harvard scholar who co-authored a National Bureau of Asian Research study of the foreign policy implications of an opposition victory.

“Given that it must now face the resource and logistical challenges of governing while representing Japan’s national interests, the DPJ will want to keep the solid alliance with the U.S.,” he said.

Asia expert Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation in Washington said Washington could not afford to be complacent toward the incoming Tokyo government.

“There will be tonal changes and policy changes that will cause strains,” he said. “The policy positions, even though moderated in tone, still are opposed to what U.S. positions are.”

Possible friction points include DPJ suggestions it will reject extending a law allowing the refueling of U.S. forces in Afghanistan by Japanese ships that expires in January, oppose the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps air base in Okinawa and dispute a cost-sharing plan for redeploying 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam, he said.

U.S. POLITE, EXPECTATIONS BIG

Japan experts say the Obama administration will need to listen carefully to Hatoyama’s fledgling government, many of whose foreign policy ideas were shaped as opposition to former President George W. Bush’s administration.

U.S. official reaction has been polite and focused on broad cooperation, with the State Department saying it welcomed “early and close consultations with the new government on a wide range of global challenges and opportunities.”

Washington hoped to work with Tokyo to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions, address climate change and stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, it said.

Easley said he expected slower movement on joint projects from Tokyo but urged indulgence for the DPJ’s domestic focus.

“The U.S. should be rooting for the DPJ to tackle Japan’s economic structural and demographic issues as this will make Japan a more capable partner over the long term,” he said.

Both countries will face delicate alliance management challenges, said Klingner, who predicted a significant challenge to the status quo and warned that a heavy-handed U.S. response could alienate the new Tokyo government.

Compared to its predecessor, Hatoyama’s Japan will display “a greater hesitancy to fulfill existing agreements and a greater reluctance to agree to future U.S. requests,” he said.

Klingner worried that U.S.-Japan strains would slowly pile up, “so that cumulatively, there’s not a divorce, but someone’s sleeping on the sofa.”

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

paul.eckert@reuters.com; +1 202 789-8578; Reuters Messaging: paul.eckert.reuters.com@reuters.net

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