Wed, Jan 27, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Japan looks west

The Chinese government is beginning to see profit in enhancing ties with Japan,as is a Japanese government tiring of old ways of thinking in Washington

By Martin fackler  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TOKYO

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

When US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Japan’s new leaders in October, not long after their historic election, he pressed so hard and so publicly for a military base agreement that the Japanese news media labeled him a bully.

The difference between that visit and the friendly welcome that a high-level Japanese delegation received just two months later in China, Japan’s historic rival, could not have been more stark.

A grinning President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) of China took individual photos with more than a hundred visiting Japanese lawmakers, patiently shaking hands with each of them in an impressive display of mass diplomacy.

The trip, organized by the powerful secretary-general of Japan’s governing Democratic Party, Ichiro Ozawa, was just one sign of a noticeable warming of Japan’s once icy ties with China. It was also an indication that the US, Japan’s closest ally, may be losing at least some ground in a diplomatic tug-of-war with Beijing.

Political experts say Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s greater willingness to engage Beijing and the rest of Asia reflects a broad rethinking of Japan’s role in the region at a time when the US is showing unmistakable signs of decline. It also reflects a growing awareness among Japanese that Japan’s economic future is increasingly tied to China, which has already surpassed the US as its largest trading partner.

“Hatoyama wants to use Asia to offset what he sees as the declining influence of the United States,” said Yoshihide Soeya, director of the Institute of East Asia Studies at Keio University in Tokyo. “He thinks he can play China off the United States.”

Soeya and other analysts say warmer ties with China are not necessarily a bad thing for Washington, which has long worried about Japan’s isolation in the region. But some are concerned that the new openness toward China may also be driven by a simmering resentment within Hatoyama’s left-leaning government of what some here call Washington’s “occupation mentality” — feelings that have been stoked by what many Japanese see as the US government’s high-handed treatment in the dispute over an air base in Okinawa.

The White House is pressing Japan to follow through on a controversial deal to keep a base on the island that was agreed to by the more conservative Liberal Democrats who lost control to Hatoyama’s party last summer after decades of almost uninterrupted power.

“If we’re worrying that the Japanese are substituting the Chinese for the Americans, then the worse thing you could do is to behave the way that we’re behaving,” said Daniel Sneider, a researcher on Asian security issues at Stanford University.

The new emphasis on China comes as Hatoyama’s government begins a sweeping housecleaning of Japan’s postwar order after his party’s election victory, including challenging the entrenched bureaucracy’s control of diplomatic and economic policy.

On security matters, the Liberal Democrats clearly tilted toward Washington. Past governments not only embraced Japan’s half-century military alliance with the US, but also warned of China’s burgeoning power and regularly angered Beijing by trying to whitewash the sordid episodes of Japan’s 1930s-1940s military expansion.

US experts say the administration of US President Barack Obama has been slow to realize the extent of the change in Japan’s thinking about its traditional protector and its traditional rival.

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