Washington will miss Maehara: analysts

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) The United States is disheartened by Sunday’s abrupt resignation of Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara for accepting illegal donations, as he was seen as the front-runner to succeed embattled Prime Minister Naoto Kan amid many challenges, including the stalled U.S. base relocation in Okinawa.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters, “We obviously have an alliance, and we’ll work with the government of Japan.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had several meetings with Maehara and the U.S. government appreciates his contribution to the bilateral relationship, Crowley said.

Despite the business-as-usual official position of stressing the continuity of diplomacy between the two countries, some experts say the departure of Maehara is discouraging news for Washington.

“Foreign Minister Maehara created a strong sense of common purpose and elevated the U.S.-Japan relationship in our government’s Asia policy calculus,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Noting that Maehara worked well with U.S. policymakers, particularly with Clinton, Smith said, “I think there is disappointment, frankly, in the loss of someone who was a positive force at a critical time for the bilateral relationship.”

Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, said the resignation could negatively affect both the plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa and bilateral security cooperation.

“Washington will be concerned not only of the potential impact on the implementing of the U.S. force realignment on Okinawa, but the future course of the DPJ security policies,” he said.

While conservative pundits including Klingner have criticized Japanese diplomacy under the Democratic Party of Japan as “amateurish,” Maehara was seen as an exception and a pragmatic politician.

Maehara certainly enjoyed close relations with Clinton, the pair having held face-to-face talks four times during his six-month stint since mid-September.

He was also highly feted in his last visit to Washington in January, meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, on the back of high expectations for Maehara by the administration of President Barack Obama.

“Japan has lost its most pragmatic thinking on foreign policy,” Klingner said, adding Maehara’s resignation is likely to further weaken Kan’s political strength, as the Liberal Democratic Party is now expected to resist calls for bipartisan cooperation.

“This will ensure that Japan’s characteristic political stalemate and inability to address its problems continues,” he said.

Michael Green, senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on his blog that Maehara’s departure would have come as “a shock and disappointment to senior officials in the Obama administration who had come to know and respect Maehara for his strategic perspective on trade and foreign policy matters.”

Discouraging or not, however, the frequent changes of Japanese leaders appear to be of little surprise to U.S. policymakers.