The relationship “became shaky for a moment,” Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, told me during an interview last week. But “we have been working hard to restore” an alliance which, he said, “is of extreme importance.”
Maehara, 48, is a telegenic and popular politician, a possible future prime minister, who has spoken with unusual candor since becoming foreign minister in September. Shortly after assuming office, he asked how a nation can defend its interests abroad when the home front is “marked by a shrinking population, a declining birthrate, an aging society and a massive fiscal deficit.” Last week he added another challenge: “young Japanese, who have become inward looking these days.”
Maehara and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) colleagues, who in 2009 ended a cool half-century of dominance by the nation’s previous ruling party, are looking for answers both at home and abroad. Prime Minister Naoto Kan wants to close the deficit by raising the consumption tax. A new program of child allowances, decried by the opposition as pure pandering, is designed to reverse the population decline, Maehara told me. Meanwhile, he said he is committed to easing immigration, for example of nurses from the Philippines and Vietnam — always a fraught issue in insular Japan — and increasing tourism and student exchanges.
But what American officials have noticed most is his emphasis on the alliance and on shared values of democracy and open trade. And probably nothing has done more to ease the relationship past its “shaky” patch than shared disillusionment with China.
The left-leaning DPJ’s first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, came into office with ideas of balancing Japan’s dependence on the United States with warmer ties with China. Not entirely coincidentally, a dispute with the United States over its military bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa came to define, in an unhappy way, the U.S.-Japan relationship.
For its part, the Obama administration hoped that by ramping up engagement with China, and offering it a full-size seat at the table of world governance, it could encourage responsible cooperation on global issues such as climate change and nuclear proliferation. As China surpassed Japan to become the world’s No. 2 economy last year, talk of a U.S.-China “G-2” seemed to eclipse the long-standing Washington-Tokyo friendship.
But the fruits of U.S. engagement with China have been meager, limited chiefly to grudging cooperation on Iran, while on other fronts U.S. officials have been let down: North Korea, currency and trade, military-to-military exchanges, human rights. China meanwhile has alarmed Japan (and other Asian neighbors) with swaggering behavior in the South China Sea, bullying mercantilism (cutting off exports of essential rare earth minerals) and officially encouraged outbursts of anti-Japanese nationalism at home.