Patching up our alliance with Japan

Monday, January 10, 2011

When the Obama administration first looked to Asia, China was the grand opportunity. Korea was a problem to be managed, and Japan, at best, a declining ally you could take for granted.

Two years in, South Korea is, improbably, President Obama's best friend in Asia. China is a disappointment. And Japan has cycled from afterthought to headache to, at least potentially, useful ally again.

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.

China is so powerful, and such an essential economic partner, that much of this is discussed only in code. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after meeting with Maehara last week, said they agreed that "our defense posture must continue to evolve in order to deal with the emerging strategic environment," without elaborating on what or who is emerging. Maehara last week warned of the "increase in military spending by some countries without transparency" and emphasized the importance of cooperation rather than "hegemony," again without specifying any particular hegemon.

In our interview, in fact, Maehara stressed that China is Japan's most important market and source of imports, while Japan is China's chief source of imports and (after the United States) its second-ranking export market. "There is absolutely no change in our policy to develop relations with China further," he said.

Yet the tonal change in U.S.-Japan relations is unmistakable. The clearest sign, ironically, is not that the Okinawa base issue has been settled but that it remains unresolved - and neither side is making a big deal about it. Obama is no longer delivering ultimatums or setting deadlines for its resolution. His counterpart, having replaced the hapless Hatoyama after he served less than a year in office, stresses that the alliance can't be held hostage to one disagreement.

None of this guarantees smooth sailing. The DPJ holds a majority in only one of two legislative chambers, and it's not clear whether Kan can break Japan's recent pattern of replacing prime ministers on an annual basis. Japan's long-term trajectory remains problematic.

But China's upward trajectory is no sure thing, and the Obama administration has seen over the past two years how autocracies such as China and Russia make for unpredictable partners. Now democratic ally Japan is offering an "unshakable Japan-U.S. alliance" as the "cornerstone of peace and stability" in Asia, as Maehara said last week. Sounds like a pretty good deal.

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