A top aide to US President Barack Obama predicted a smoother relationship with Japan after Naoto Kan takes over as prime minister Tuesday, admitting to concerns about his predecessor.
Jeffrey Bader, the National Security Council's director for Asian affairs, vigorously defended Obama's treatment of outgoing prime minister Yukio Hatoyama after worries about the health of the two countries' half-century alliance.
Hatoyama led the center-left Democratic Party of Japan as it ousted the long-ruling conservatives in August elections but tearfully quit last week after reneging on a promise to move an unpopular US base off Okinawa island.
"I have every reason to expect that Mr. Kan will pick up where the cabinet has left off in the last two months and that we won't find ourselves back in some of the difficult times we had last September and October," Bader said.
Bader, who was addressing the Stimson Center think tank, said Obama was encouraged by his phone conversation Saturday with Kan and the new prime minister's pledge at a news conference to honor the deal on the Futenma base.
Bader said that while it would be "rash" to declare an end to the long-festering Futenma dispute, "we do not see fundamentally new options coming into play at this point."
"The cabinet has endorsed it, Mr. Kan has endorsed it, so that is the direction in which we are proceeding," Bader said.
Bader said some members of Hatoyama's coalition had caused "considerable anxiety and, in some cases, alarm" among other Asian nations by questioning not just Futenma but the need for the 47,000 US troops stationed in Japan.
The ruling party's thinking on foreign policy was at times "very messy" and "painfully transparent," with the Obama administration unsure who was speaking for Japan, Bader said.
The United States and Japan agreed in 2006 to shift the Marine facilities at Futenma, which lies in a crowded urban center, to an isolated part of Okinawa.
But some local activists have pushed for the base to be moved completely off the island, which is home to more than half of the US troops in Japan.
In some of the administration's most expansive remarks on diplomacy with Japan, Bader hit back at critics who accused Obama of letting his frustration become too visible with Hatoyama.
Bader said that the Obama administration decided to take a middle road between advisers who urged to stand firm on Futenma and others who recommended flexibility in light of Japan's historic transition.
"We were very, very careful as a government to treat the Japanese government with full respect despite the complexities of trying to figure out who was actually speaking for the government," Bader said.
Obama had showed an early commitment to the alliance when taking office, inviting then prime minister Taro Aso as his first foreign guest at the White House.
But by the time Hatoyama visited Washington for a nuclear security summit two months ago, his only talks with Obama were over the first course of a group dinner.
Michael Green, who served in Bader's position under former president George W. Bush, said Japan's ruling party now broadly agreed that Hatoyama erred in reopening the Futenma issue, which encouraged and then devastated anti-base activists.
"If Kan had a magic wand to make one issue go away, he would probably choose Futenma," Green said.
Source: AFP American Edition