Heritage Senior Research Fellow Bruce Klingner writes from Tokyo:

The US-Japan alliance is strong and both sides are diligently implementing a series of security steps agreed to during 2005 and 2006 senior leadership meetings. Ballistic missile defense integration is progressing and joint operations are becoming more integrated. Unfortunately, these important breakthroughs are less apparent than the current political stalemate.

A week of meetings in Tokyo showed little consensus on ’s foreign policies and views toward the US. Yasuo Fukuda supporters claim he shares the same strong support for the alliance as his predecessor Shinzo Abe. Fukuda, they explain, is simply constrained by domestic political factors from supporting Washington’s request for Japan to play a larger regional and global security role. Japan is suffering policy gridlock brought on by a “twisted parliament” — in which the ruling and opposition parties each control a legislative house – as well as the opposition’s obstructionist tactics.

Other analysts more accurately assess that Fukuda has a different foreign policy perspective from Abe. While Fukuda clearly wants to maintain the alliance with Washington as the bedrock of Japanese security, he will place less priority on security issues. He is less inclined to push for transforming the alliance Japan or acquiescing to all of Washington’s requests.

In any case, major new advancements in the bilateral security alliance — such as redefining roles, missions, or capabilities — are unlikely during the next year. Fukuda will focus instead on reversing his and the ruling party’s waning domestic public support prior to a lower house election. Security issues, especially advancing the security relationship with Washington, do not resonate with the electorate. As such, there is little expectation for him to carry through on Abe’s plans to adopt a more expansive interpretation of the collective self-defense theory to allow Japan to assume new security responsibilities.

US-Japan relations hold great promise. But the moving pieces, missile defense cooperation, joint military operations, and other cooperation will require energetic and sustained senior political involvement. If this is accomplished – even in the current political environment – it could provide the basis for defining a new strategic vision for the alliance down the road in 2010.