Japan aims to be seated when Obama resets diplomatic table

by Jun Hongo

Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th U.S. president may have gotten a new era for Tokyo and Washington under way, but the Japanese government is unlikely to be given the luxury of taking the relationship slow and easy.

“President Obama will be tasked with making tangible achievements within at least the first year of his term” to ensure that his high approval rating is maintained, Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School, said earlier this month at a forum in Tokyo. The expert on U.S. politics said that the key for Japan to maintain a healthy bilateral relationship depends on how Tokyo can dedicate itself and support the U.S. globally, including antiterrorism efforts in the Afghan region.

Although some experts have said that the worldwide economic meltdown is a sign that America’s status as the only global superpower is waning, Japan’s interest in the U.S. and its politics has remained strong because Washington remains a key player that affects Japan’s diplomatic agenda, such as the negotiations to bring abducted Japanese nationals back from North Korea.

According to a report released in June by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, positive opinions of the U.S. in Japan fell by 11 points to 50 percent in 2008. But the report also said that 83 percent of the 708 Japanese surveyed answered that they were following the U.S. elections very or somewhat closely, putting them on top of the 24 countries where the research was conducted. Even U.S. residents were not as interested, with only 80 percent of them saying they had followed the elections at least somewhat closely.

Following Obama’s victory, the switch from a Republican government to a Democratic one initially set off alarm bells in Japan over the possible re-emergence of diplomatic friction similar to that of the 1990s, when Bill Clinton’s administration and the Democratic Party’s tradition of protecting domestic industry caused trade disputes between the two nations. The return of a Democrat to the White House also comes after eight years of a Republican presidency, during which the U.S. and Japan enjoyed an amicable relationship often described as a “honeymoon” period.

Kubo, however, said that the difference between the two parties should not be a concern for the Japanese government, and that it should look past political parties and map out how it can promote its worth to the U.S. as an ally.

One such indication came directly from U.S. President George W. Bush on Jan. 7 in a personal letter to Prime Minister Taro Aso. In one of his final messages as president, Bush congratulated Japan for its historical dispatch of the Air and Ground Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, and the contributions it made in stabilizing the region. The essence of the friendship in the past decade was not only due to the Republican Party’s favorable policies toward Japan but had more to do with the fact that Tokyo aggressively supported U.S. efforts in Iraq and the Indian Ocean, Kubo said.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry is confident that bilateral ties will remain strong, regardless of who leads the U.S., but is prepping to court Washington by publicizing its further involvement in Afghanistan. The ministry earlier this month passed out an 18-page summary of Japan’s contribution to Afghanistan during the past seven years, highlighting that it spent ¥160 billion between February 2001 and September 2008 on reconstruction projects, humanitarian aid and strengthening local security.

“Japan has contributed to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. We must publicize such acts,” a top official at the ministry told reporters. Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone also made a well-timed appeal that must have interested the U.S. on Jan. 9, saying that Japan will send a couple of ministry officials to support the Lithuanian Provincial Reconstruction Team in Chaghcharan in central Afghanistan. Although Japan has made financial contributions to such multinational efforts, this is its first dispatch of personnel.

“We will continue our discussions and see that Japan contributes (to Afghanistan) in a suitable way,” Nakasone told reporters.

The University of Tokyo’s Kubo stressed that while China has emerged as a substantial power in the global economy, ties between the U.S. and Japan, which are symbolized by the security treaty, have a distinct character and are beyond compare. “It’s unlikely that the U.S. can form a similar treaty with China,” Kubo said. But if Washington hands hard-hitting tasks to Tokyo — including the dispatch of the GSDF to Afghanistan — Japan will have to make tough choices to impress its ally.

Asked if the government is ready to reinterpret its war-renouncing Constitution and send troops to the war-torn state, a senior Foreign Ministry official said he could not speculate on what will happen. “We still don’t know how Mr. Obama will manage the situation in Afghanistan,” the official said. “But there are things that are feasible for us and there are things that just aren’t.”