Tue, Jun 10, 2008 - Page 9 News List

US, Japan must work together to strengthen relations

Ties have weakened as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have dominated US attention and Japan has dragged its feet on collective defense

By Richard Halloran

At a gathering of Americans steeped in US diplomatic and security relations with Japan, an analyst summed up the sentiments around the table in Honolulu and among many colleagues on both sides of the Pacific by saying: “We are entering a dark time in US-Japan relations.”

To encourage candor, the conference organizers asked that those attending not be named. No matter. Plenty of Japanese and American specialists have pointed, in each country, to an absence of leadership, an abundance of political turmoil, a lack of vision and a preoccupation with immediate issues. None has singled out an instance of long-range vision in Washington or Tokyo or anyplace else.

US President George W. Bush is a lame duck who becomes less relevant by the day as his approval rating slips below 30 percent. His administration is preoccupied, to the exclusion of almost all else, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s an occasional glance at policy toward China but relations with Japan have been reduced to tired slogans about “linchpins” and “cornerstones.”

There are exceptions — US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have just visited Asia seeking to reassure friends of US commitments to their region. But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been to Asia just once this year and once last year. And Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Christopher Hill has left to subordinates all but nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s approval rating hovers around 20 percent as he deals with a divided legislature in the Diet. Within his Liberal Democratic Party, little gets done as factions jockey for position as they seek to oust Fukuda. Within the opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan, which controls the upper house in the Diet, the turbulence is much the same.

Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, at the Shangri-la meeting of Asian defense ministers in Singapore last weekend, confirmed that “Japan plans neither to amend its Constitution nor change its interpretation,” meaning Tokyo would not engage in collective defense. The US for years has been urging Japan to remove the so-called “no war” constitutional clause to legitimize its armed forces.

The refusal to engage in collective defense means that the US is obliged by treaty to protect Japan, but Japan has no reciprocal obligation to help defend the US. In an otherwise bland address, Ishiba assured his audience that Japan “does not have any plan whatsoever to become a nuclear power.” That seemed to express confidence that the nuclear umbrella of the US would remain in place over Japan.

Differences over realigning US military forces in Asia and the Pacific are illuminating. US leaders see shifting Marines from Okinawa to Guam as strategically preparing, if necessary, to confront China’s emerging power or North Korean threats. Japanese are more interested in reducing inevitable frictions between Americans on bases in Japan and Japanese living outside the gates.

Richard Lawless, until recently a senior Pentagon official immersed in policy toward Japan, told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The alliance can’t move any faster than one of its partners. Right now, Japan clearly is not making adjustments and developing the alliance in its own best interest.”

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