Japan hopes new U.S. leader can demonstrate alliance is still vital

by Eric Johnston

Sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama faces high expectations not only at home, but also from close ally Japan, as he grapples with an unprecedented array of domestic and foreign policy issues.

In the case of Japan-U.S. relations, many who have been formally or informally tapped for high-level Asia-related posts are Japan hands whose views differ little, if at all, from now former President George W. Bush’s advisers, at least on security issues.

Following are key issues the Obama administration faces in its relations with Japan.

Political ties:

Americans familiar with Japan warn that while bilateral bureaucratic relations remain strong, especially between U.S. Treasury and Finance Ministry officials and among U.S and Japanese defense officials, the political side of the relationship is weak.

With Japan due to hold a Lower House election by September and the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, predicted to score a huge win, DPJ officials have stepped up contacts with Democratic Party politicians in the U.S. over the past six months.

The global economy:

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner speaks Japanese and Chinese and is considered an expert on Japan’s bubble economy era.

As Obama grapples with the U.S. credit crunch and growing unemployment, Geithner will work closely with other central banks, especially the Bank of Japan, to coordinate international fiscal and monetary policies in ways that help Obama’s domestic policy agenda and avoid the stagnation and deflation that occurred in Japan after its bubble burst.

“With Japan’s and China’s exports tanking, finding solutions that will not only bail out U.S. financial institutions but make possible a new economic order in a postneoliberal economic world is a challenge for a cooperative U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Japan-China relationship,” said Mark Selden, an East Asia expert at Cornell University.

Relations with China:

There was much concern in conservative media and think tanks in Tokyo and Washington that Obama would embrace China at the expense of Japan. At the same time, those appointed to or likely to enter the Obama administration have expressed hope for a strong trilateral relationship involving Japan, the U.S. and China, including increased defense cooperation.

Paul Scott, a professor of modern Japanese and Chinese history at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, said: “China’s rise is both inevitable and normal as it regains its pole position in Asia. Obama must shape China’s rise in a way that benefits the region, a daunting task”

The North Korea issue:

During the campaign, Obama’s indication that he would be willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il alarmed Japan. But Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, is likely to oppose the idea, as U.S. and Japanese conservatives warn a meeting without progress on the issue of Japan’s abductees would have a negative impact on Japan-U.S. relations.

Kurt Campbell, who worked at the Defense Department under former President Bill Clinton, is the new assistant secretary of state for East Asia. He replaces Christopher Hill, the main U.S. negotiator at the six-party talks on denuclearizing North Korea.

“Campbell is well-known and respected in Japan, whereas Hill was not terribly popular. But it’s unclear how U.S. policy on North Korea will change,” said Richard Samuels, director of the Center for International Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Within the past six months it has already changed within the Bush administration in a direction you might expect the Obama administration to take. And there are new questions about Kim Jong Il’s succession and now renewed belligerence vis-a-vis nuclear weapons,” Samuels said.

The question of Afghanistan:

Virtually all those taking Asia-related positions at the State Department and the Pentagon have called on Japan to play a more active military role in Afghanistan and would welcome additional Japanese support if America steps up efforts to go after terrorist suspects in the country.

Harvard professor Joseph Nye, an advocate of “soft power” and the current favorite to become U.S. ambassador to Japan, has urged Tokyo to play a larger role in international security operations, although he has suggested such assistance in Afghanistan and elsewhere might take the form of nonmilitary aid.

He has also suggested more military assistance could occur without Japan having to revise the pacifist Constitution.

The security relationship:

“The biggest contribution the (Obama Asia) team will make is in restoring dialogue, developing partnerships, and helping to greater empower local communities that host U.S. bases in Japan. Several individuals, highly respected in Okinawa and Japan as a whole, are said to be joining the team and have long sought to work with local communities to make decisions that are win-win in nature, rather than the zero-sum approaches of the recent past,” said Robert Eldridge, an associate professor at Osaka University and an expert on the Okinawa base issue.

Energy and the environment:

Obama sees climate change as a major international security issue and says he’ll push for creation of green jobs and research and development of alternate energy technologies to help combat global warming. In the past, he has praised Japan’s green technologies and seems to welcome more research and development cooperation between the U.S. and Japan in this field.

“Stephen Chu, (a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Stanford University and the new secretary of energy) will be supportive of U.S.-Japan cooperation in alternative energy sources. He has personally cooperated with several programs in Japan, such as the Science and Technology in Society Forum, and has advised the board of governors at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology,” said Richard Dasher, director of the U.S.-Asia Technology Management Center at Stanford University.

Japan-U.S. diplomacy:

Ultimately and most importantly, the Obama administration must convince Japan that it is paying attention to its ally.

“Reassurance of Japan remains job No. 1 for U.S. diplomacy in the region,” MIT’s Samuels said.