GUAM – Central to the realignment of U.S. military forces in the Pacific and the buildup of base facilities in Guam is the decades-long bilateral relationship between United States and Japan. Last Tuesday’s “New Shimoda Conference” in Tokyo was a good start to reinvigorating that bilateral relationship, which because of increasing complexity and friction, has been relatively adrift since the 1990’s.

The New Shimoda Conference, a one-day event in Tokyo on February 22, brought together about 70 participants from the U.S. Congress and the Japan Diet, as well as intellectuals and business leaders from both countries to discuss how to revitalize the bilateral relationship. At a time when U.S.-Japan parliamentary dialogue has waned, the event included a six-member delegation of U.S. Congressional members—one of the largest Congressional delegations to visit Japan in recent years—as well as leading Japan Diet members from all of the major political parties. The event re-inaugurated an unofficial bilateral forum that met every 2 to 4 years from 1967 until 1994.

A main goal of this week’s conference was to steer the relationship anew towards a fresher, more holistic approach, instead of focusing exclusively on economic issues (as in the 1990’s) or security matters. It gave U.S. and Japan lawmakers a chance to recommit to the long-term health of the bilateral alliance and discuss how their countries might expand their regional and global impact on issues like global financial crises, climate change and pandemics.

This fresh start and expanded dialogue could not have come at a better time.

Strain in the U.S.-Japan alliance has been especially great in the last year-and-a-half under Japan’s new ruling power, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The DPJ’s rise was disorienting to the U.S. Government, which had become accustomed to the 50-year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party.

“There has been a general sense that policy dialogue between our two countries has declined in recent years, so I’m especially pleased to see the revival of the Shimoda Conference and I hope we will see more initiatives like this, said Former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Motohisa Furukawa, a Lower House member of the DPJ (as quoted in Kyodo News).

Frayed nerves have been evident lately over the Futenma Marine base relocation issue, a stubborn quandary which, despite firm resolve by Prime Minister Naoto Kan and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, could still delay the Guam buildup.

Japan’s inexperienced DPJ leadership and an impatient U.S. Department of Defense have left base-weary Okinawans frustrated over the Futenma issue while also inviting predatory politicking by parties opposed to the DPJ.

Against this backdrop, the New Shimoda Conference invited policy makers at the highest levels to remember that the U.S.-Japan alliance is deeper and more far reaching than the current security matters alone.

“We come here today with a fresh objective: revitalizing the U.S.-Japan relationship to build on the experiences of the past and secure a stronger future for both of our nations,” said U.S. Representative Diana DeGette.

As bilateral alignment deepens and diversifies, as it stretches beyond the executive branches of both governments to include lawmakers and policy leaders, solutions – even for Futenma and ultimately, Guam – should come easier.

 

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