“Man is a giddy thing,” William Shakespeare might say, looking at the fuss over the relocation project of Futenma Air Station. Nevertheless, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) would never ask, “Dost thou not suspect my years?” The DPJ’s 2010 election manifesto emphasized the need for a strong alliance between Japan and the United States, a significant change from the 2009 election platform which sought a more equal alliance and reduced U.S. military presence in Japan.

Okinawa has been a cornerstone of the Japan-U.S. security alliance during the last 50 years. The little island rose in importance during the DPJ’s first year in office as it appeared that it might make or break the bilateral relationship after Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama declared that his government would not abide by a previous agreement for the relocation of the Futenma Air Station. As a result, tensions rose amongst the U.S., Japan, and Okinawa over when and where to relocate the air station and how to reduce the military “burden” on Okinawa. Futenma is critical for the United States to support ground forces operations for a contingency on the Korean Peninsula.

Yet, the DPJ neither recognizes the significant role that the U.S. forces stationed in Japan play nor understands the implication that its failed diplomacy has for its future partnership with Washington. Richard B. Myers, former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, argues that excessive focus on the Futenma issue draws attention away from important alliance issues such as the Korean Peninsula. The American mass media has covered almost nothing but Futenma for the last 10 months except for Toyota.

The DPJ’s lack of a security strategy is impeding the Okinawa airbase project from progressing. Since the party was formed 14 years ago, it has never established a comprehensive strategic party platform except for general election manifestos. Although the DPJ’s “Manifesto 2009” declared its goal was to establish close and equal relations with the United States by sharing responsibilities, the party did not provide any details of how it would pursue this goal.

The DPJ lacks both the complete situational awareness and overarching principles that are essential to forming stratagem and avoiding another Futenma-type of deadlock. After straining relations with the United States, the DPJ belatedly realized that Japan is situated in a precarious region: Tensions are rising on the Korean Peninsula after the sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan and China’s growing military capabilities is also of increasing concern. Consequently, the Hatoyama cabinet had to shift its policy and decided to relocate the air station to Henoko on May 28.

The threats from North Korea and China also require the Japanese government to create a strategy not only for national defense but also for international security. If Japan really wishes to reduce footprint of the U.S. forces in Okinawa while maintaining deterrence, Tokyo has to deploy more Self Defense Forces to southern Islands including Okinawa as an advisory panel will recommend to Prime Minister Naoto Kan next month. The current administration, however, does not seem to be ready for taking more security responsibility.

The DPJ has fallen into a trap of its own making: relations with the U.S. are far from being “close and equal”; the outlook for dialogue between Tokyo and Okinawa is bleak; and the Futenma project remains stalemated over 13 years after the predecessor Liberal Democratic Party obtained agreements from the U.S. government and Okinawa. From a practical viewpoint, one based on the current balance of military power, Japan needs the alliance more than the United States.

In order to resolve the current situation, the Japanese government has to take two steps: clarify the timeline for its final political decision on Futenma; and devise a grand security strategy.

First, dialogue with Okinawa is important to highlight how the Futenma project reduces the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa and alleviate local concerns. Any further postponing of this political decision prevents resolution of the issue, invites unnecessary speculation and political costs, and harms Tokyo’s relations with Washington and Okinawa.

Second, the Japanese government has to develop and articulate a long-term security strategy. Due to terrorism and piracy threats, additional contributions to international security will be required in the future and Tokyo’s “free ride” cannot continue. It is critical for Tokyo to assign limited resources effectively both to national defense and international contribution.

The Futenma issue rang an alarming bell for Japan’s security strategy and relations with the United States. Now, it is time for Tokyo to devise long-term stratagem and resolve the Futenma issue.

Mihoko Matsubara is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm