THE U.S. military's relationship with Japan, and that nation's general defense posture, are very sensitive issues for China, Russia, and the Koreas, as well as for the United States and Japan.
Japanese elections in August produced a stark change in government, from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which had been in power almost continuously since 1955, to the Democratic Party of Japan, led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who represented Japan at the G-20 summit. The new government has indicated a desire to modify the U.S.-Japanese defense relationship, more or less unchanged for decades, with an eye toward reducing the U.S role.
The United States has 47,000 troops based in Japan. U.S. bases, especially the one on Okinawa, are a sensitive point because of accidents, crime, pollution, and noise. Japan also refuels forces for the war in Afghanistan.
Given the political, regional nature of the issues, we wonder why Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as opposed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is doing the negotiating with the Japanese. He may be well placed to discuss U.S. military concerns, but not necessarily the overall regional political framework.
Another question is why the United States is not prepared to respond favorably to the wishes of the newly elected government, whose first choice is to move the U.S. base off Okinawa. There are other sites in the Pacific for U.S. troops and installations, including Guam and Hawaii. Why, then, is the administration not ready to accommodate Japan in a way that respects its sovereign right to determine the level of U.S. forces on its soil?
Mr. Gates has said he sees "no alternatives" to the arrangement negotiated with Japan's previous government. Whatever the answers to those questions, it would seem more appropriate in any case that they be provided by the secretary of state, or jointly by the secretary of state and secretary of defense, not by Mr. Gates alone.