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Post-1996 Japan-US allliance

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In Brief

Prime Minister Aso Taro has arrived in Washington in advance of his meeting with President Barack Obama Tuesday.

Despite Obama's welcoming Aso as the first foreign leader to meet with him in Washington, and despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Tokyo last week, the Japanese establishment continues to fret about the new administration's approach to Japan. Sankei, for example, notes the "exceptionally warm welcome" being bestowed on Aso by Obama — especially considering that the president is due to give a State of the Union address Tuesday evening — but wonders whether the Obama administration is as committed to Japan as appearances would suggest.


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I have experienced some irritation with the lengths to which the Obama administration has gone to demonstrate its commitment to the alliance (I still think this visit to Washington by Aso is a mistake). But looking at the agenda for the meeting between Obama and Aso, it appears that the new administration is preparing to embark on a new course for the alliance even as it preserves the old forms of alliance reassurance.

Obama is preparing to make winning in Afghanistan a top priority for his administration, making the war in Afghanistan, in Stephen Walt’s words, “Obama’s war.”

The expectation is that Japan will be a part of that effort. But unlike the previous administration, the Obama administration looks unwilling to praise Japan for marginal, symbolic contributions to the effort. While respecting Japan’s constraints on the use of force abroad, the adminstration appears ready to take Japan at its word. Japanese leaders talk of the need to contribute abroad even as they are reluctant to commit the Self-Defense Forces? Fine, then make a meaningful civilian contribution, the new administration has signaled. As Walt wrote in regard to NATO in Afghanistan, “Is Obama able to persuade our NATO allies to increase their own efforts there, or will they mostly free-ride on Uncle Sam? (And watch out for token deployments intended to signal that the rest of NATO is with us on this one, but that have no real effect on the ground).” The same applies to Japan, with a substantial civilian reconstruction contribution in place of military efforts.

The new administration will surely be watching, and it will surely not accept political instability at home as an excuse.

But beyond the Afghanistan question, reports suggest that the Obama-Aso meeting will address more than the usual bundle of security questions: the security relationship will be on the agenda, but it will share pride of place with the global economic crisis and climate change (although Yomiuri reports that Aso plans to keep the abductees on the agenda and will give the president a blue ribbon, the symbol of the abductee rescue movement). The Japanese government will get a closer look at a president who wants to solve global problems, and will not be content with symbolic and rhetorical nods in the direction of these problems. As MTC suggests, Aso could be in for a rude surprise Tuesday. This administration will most likely not share the Bush administration’s seemingly endless patience with Japan, patience that faltered in the final years of the administration as it struggled to implement the 2006 realignment agreement and keep Japan committed to the six-party talks.

The Obama administration has work to do, and it will cooperate with any government in the region ready to come along. This is the message that came out of Clinton’s Asia trip, especially her final stop in China.

I hope that the DPJ is paying attention. In the Obama administration the DPJ has a potential partner in building a new, more equal partnership, if not the perfectly equal partnership desired by Ozawa Ichiro. (It is arguable whether it is possible for any US ally to enjoy a perfectly equal partnership with the US given the inevitable gap in capabilities.)

Some in the party clearly understand the possibilities should the DPJ form a government this year. Okada Katsuya, once and possibly future DPJ leader, spoke at a Mainichiforum on Monday at which he stated, “[The US-Japan alliance] should be a framework to deal with global warming and poverty; it is wholly unnecessary to limit it to military affairs.” That’s not to say that he fails to appreciate the military importance of the alliance — in the same speech he acknowledged the importance of US bases in Japan not just for the defense of Japan, but for activities in the broader Asia-Pacific region — but like the Obama administration, Okada seems prepared to take the alliance in a different direction, acknowledging that with Japan’s constraints unlikely to be lowered anytime soon, it is a waste of the alliance to continue to insist on more security cooperation.

The question is whether enough DPJ members, not least Ozawa, share Okada’s assessment.

Hatoyama Yukio, DPJ secretary-general, also delivered a speech Monday, in English, to a meeting of foreign businesspeople, in which he said that a DPJ government would shift from “foreign policy subservient to the United States to an emphasis on international cooperation.” Japan, he said, would speak frankly to the US in the event of foolhardy military activities if the DPJ gets the opportunity to form a government. This kind of comment may look anti-American — and is certainly red meat for a skeptical public — but it does not appear inconsistent with the Obama administration’s approach. It matters less under what auspices Japan’s global contributions occur than that they occur. Similarly, I do not think the Obama administration would find much to reject in Ozawa’sstatement Monday that foreign policy under his watch would stress the Sino-Japanese relationship, a development that would clearly help the US work more closely with China and serve to stabilize the region further.

I remain convinced that reports of the DPJ’s “anti-Americanism” are overblown, that the DPJ is anti-alliance only if one takes the alliance to have one ideal form, that articulated under the Bush administration in cooperation with Prime Ministers Koizumi and Abe.

Hence the title of this post. The Obama administration is clearly interested in making something of the alliance, but it appears disinclined to continue down the path of the security-above-all-else alliance that emerged out of the 1996 Clinton-Hashimoto joint security declaration and was pushed hard by the Bush administration. Why should it, when to do so means continuing to slam into the wall of Japan’s reluctance to untie its hands on security policy?

The DPJ, at least rhetorically, may be a more suitable partner for the Obama administration, but ultimately it will make little difference who is prime minister and what party is in power. Japan’s constraints are here to stay, at least for the time being, and the Obama administration is prepared to get more out of the alliance even while respecting Japan’s limitations. Japan has a US president willing to respect Japan’s limitations and perhaps even listen to the Japanese people; I hope Japan’s leaders recognize that and act accordingly.

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