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Hatoyama seeks international stature

Date Posted: 2009-09-02

Yukio Hatoyama strongly criticized the United States as he campaigned as Japan’s opposition leader, but now that he’s carried the Democratic Party of Japan to victory, he’s expected to tone down his rhetoric as he tries to develop international alliances.

As Japan’s new prime minister, Hatoyama is beginning to talk a somewhat different theme. He’s soundly accused his predecessors of “subserviently following the U.S. in the past,” and promised to get away from “dependency with the U.S. to a more equal alliance.” As he heads to the Group of 20 Summit in Pittsburgh, and then to the United Nations General Assembly in New York this month, all eyes are on Hatoyama to see how he’ll really act.

Hatoyama and his DPJ are hoping he’ll be able to establish a first-name relationship with U.S. president Barack Obama, but recognize it may have to temper its demands for changes in the Status of Forces Agreement on how to deal with the 50,000 American troops in Japan, as well as on environmental issues. There’s also the problem of the DPJ position opposing continuing Japan’s participation in the Indian Ocean refueling mission.

The critical issue will be how Hatoyama talks to the U.S. about the transfer of 8,000 American Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014, and Japan’s commitment to pay $10.8 billion toward the moves. During the election campaign, the DPJ was opposed to the move, and wanted to slash the Japanese funding for it. Analysts now say Hatoyama will have to back off some, or risk alienating a key ally at a time when he must concentrate on reviving Japan’s ailing economy.

The U.S. White House, for its part, has praised Japan for its role in the refueling mission, while State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said “it’s up to each country to determine how they can best contribute to stabilizing Afghanistan. Kelly, while talking to reporters about the Indian Ocean mission, also sent Hatoyama the message the United States “has no intention of renegotiating the Guam agreement.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs tried this week to play down the differences between Hatoyama, the DPJ and the U.S., brushing aside Hatoyama’s criticisms with assurances both countries “have always had a strong relationship” that will continue. Only a handful of the DPJ ‘s winning candidates have been supportive of Japan’s position on American troops on Okinawa, and on the Indian Ocean refueling mission, which is now set to expire in January.

Analysts predict Hatoyama will forego some relationships with the United States as he tries to forge a stronger relationship with China. Hatoyama says the U.S. relationship with Japan will “continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy,” but Asian watchers think he’ll opt for developing new, stronger relationships with Asian neighbors instead of sticking close to the U.S.

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