Tokyo relieved no drama in Obama’s Japan policy

by Eric Johnston

Prime Minister Taro Aso’s political situation may be tenuous when he meets Tuesday in Washington with President Barack Obama, but so far the new administration’s rhetoric and policies toward Japan appear mainly to be firmly rooted in that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

What this means for mid- to long-term bilateral relations is unclear and likely to remain so until after Japan holds a Lower House election that must take place by September, when lawmakers’ terms expire.

But so far the Obama administration’s words and actions have been a relief to Tokyo and have not signaled a message of change.

Prior to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to Tokyo last week, ex-Bush administration officials, led by Michael Green, former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, were critical of Clinton and Obama’s Asia policies. Their words often echoed Japan’s fears about North Korea and concerns that Washington may put less importance than hoped for on the abduction issue.

Green was, and remains, a respected fixture among those in Japan’s conservative media and policymaking circles who were disappointed that Obama won the election because they felt his presidency signaled a big change in Japan-U.S. relations. But Obama’s allies noted that many in Japan rely too much on Green and a few Republican Japan hands.

“I think Japan-U.S. relations have drifted since around 2005, when Japan lost their ‘go-to’ guys, (former Deputy Secretary of State) Richard Armitage and Green. During last year’s campaign, some in Japan were wondering where the Democratic Party’s Armitage or Green were,” Robert “Skip” Orr, a former president of Boeing Japan who advised the Obama campaign for nearly two years, said at a news conference in Tokyo last month.

Obama has a number of Japan advisers who, though not as quoted in the Japanese media as former Bush officials like Green were, are familiar with Japan. By and large, they have given much the same advice on dealing with Japan as Republican advisers gave Bush, especially regarding the abduction issue.

Clinton’s message of support last week for the abduction issue is expected to be seconded by Obama when he and Aso meet. Yet there is still concern in Japan that, like Bush’s delisting of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, such expressions of concern will not affect U.S. policy decisions toward North Korea, especially since Obama has already called for direct, high-level talks and Clinton has spoken about normalizing relations in return for denuclearization.

Like Bush, Obama and Clinton have indicated they expect Japan to play a larger role internationally. But the current administration has talked about areas of specific humanitarian assistance that go beyond the primarily security assistance sought by its predecessor.

“We anticipate an even stronger partnership with Japan that helps preserve the peace and stability of Asia and increasingly focuses on global challenges, from disaster relief to advancing education for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to alleviating poverty in Africa,” Clinton said during a speech to the Asia Society in New York on the eve of her trip, which also included Indonesia, South Korea and China.

As to the economy, there are short- and long-term problems the two nations must grapple with that the Bush administration, which prioritized security and military issues, did not.

Obama has publicly warned that the U.S. must take quick action to prevent the kind of “lost decade” Japan had in the 1990s after its bubble economy collapsed. And he will be looking toward Japan to cooperate on short-term bilateral economic issues as well as support for U.S. policies at a crucial Group of 20 meeting in London in April on the global financial crisis.

On more long-term, structural economic issues, there are worries in Japan that the president will cave in to calls for import restrictions on foreign goods as the U.S. economy worsens in the coming months. It may be better, analysts argue, for Japanese and American leaders to focus now on midterm meetings of multilateral institutions to address issues of trade protection.

“Singapore hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum this year, Japan hosts it in 2010 and the United States in 2011. That’s a medium-term time frame in which the U.S. and Japan can try to come up with some innovative ideas, especially to combat protectionist instincts in the wake of a global financial crisis,” Nicholas Szechenyi, a Japan policy expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said at a news conference prior to Clinton’s Japan visit.