Ren Yi Hooi, BASC Research Assistant
The US-Japan security treaty turned 50 years old last month, but the bilateral relationship between these two countries currently faces a critical point as a result of several spats between the US and the new Hatoyama administration in Japan.
Although US President Barack Obama and Japanese PM Yukio Hatoyama share common goals and policies, including development in the Third World, measures to curb global warming and the prevention of nuclear proliferation, Hatoyama’s call for a “close and equal” Japan-US relationship since taking office has precipitated a rise in tension between the two countries.
Under the current treaty, the US is obliged to defend Japan in the case of an armed attack, but Japan is not obliged to defend America should the attack happen the other way around. Instead, the US is given access to facilities and areas in Japan “for the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East.” While this agreement yields both nations considerable benefit, its asymmetrical relationship has long been a cause of friction, and Hatoyama’s hope to see a “more equal alliance” has placed it under further strain.
More specifically, what Hatoyama wishes to see is a reduction in the “omoiyari” budget, the costs born by Japan for supporting the US forces here, and a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement governing the operation of the US military in Japan–issues which are not negotiable from the point of view of the US. The issue of the relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in particular, has fueled dispute between the two countries over the last few months, and is currently still unsettled. Neither country wishes to give in to the other’s demands, and it is difficult for either to push forward without incurring strong repercussions.
In addition, the US-Japan relationship is also seeing points of contention over non-security issues. Japan’s new incentives for eco-friendly cars, for example, have raised the ire of US auto-makers who found their cars largely excluded from Japan’s subsidy program. Despite the small volume of American cars exported to Japan, the US has been putting pressure on Japan to include more American cars in its environmental incentives, leading to a new potential cause for trade disputes between the two countries.
As the two nations review the past 50 years of their security relationship, their evaluations of the past will play a crucial role in determining the future direction of their alliance. While the US and Japan both agree that their partnership is indispensible and share hopes for it to be further deepened, the question of whether there is a change in the balance of power, and how the two countries react to it, will be the key factor that determines whether their alliance will be further strengthened or invevitably destabilized.