From the 1960s through the first half of the 1990s, Americans who specialized on the U.S.-Japan security relationship frequently criticized those of us working on bilateral economic issues. Economic and trade issues often involved American pressure on the Japanese government, which sometimes led to tension and negative exposure in the Japanese press. That pressure and tension, the security specialists argued, would spill over into the security relationship, which was the key aspect of bilateral relations. Given that long history, I find it truly ironic that now it is the people working on security relations who are applying the pressure and causing tension that could spill over into other important aspects of the bilateral relationship.
Ironic or not, the recent tensions between the Department of Defense and the Hatoyama government illustrate the important role of summit meetings. The most important accomplishment of President Obama’s trip is to reassure Prime Minister Hatoyama that the tensions on Futenma will not interfere with the overall bilateral relationship. The broader agenda involves a number of important pending issues, including how to manage global economic recovery, climate change policy, North Korea, and how to deal with China. While the two governments may have differing views on these topics, cooperation is important. Having that cooperation jeopardized by a general deterioration of attitudes due to disputes over the details of the security relationship would be unfortunate.
It is also ironic that the bilateral relationship has come to this point. In a very crude sense, both countries now have slightly left-of-center governments. Just as a rather conservative Koizumi government got along well with the conservative Bush administration, it would be natural for the Obama and Hatoyama governments to find much in common.