If Democratic Sen. John Kerry is elected president of the United States in November, the first half of his administration will be extremely important for Japan-U.S. relations, a prominent U.S. scholar told a recent seminar in Tokyo.

Kent Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, said the first year or two of a Kerry administration would provide an excellent opportunity to further Tokyo-Washington ties because U.S.-China relations tend to be troubled in the initial phase of a new presidency.

All U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon on tended to have “delicate, suspicious and often hostile” relations with the Chinese government in the initial phase of their administrations, although most ended up with better ties with Beijing, Calder told the June 25 seminar at Keidanren Kaikan, which was organized by Keizai Koho Center.

Calder, who last year became head of the think tank under the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, noted the possibility of a Kerry presidency is “stronger than is generally thought in Japan.”

Citing low public support for incumbent President George W. Bush at this stage of the campaign, Calder forecast that Kerry has a 60 percent chance of winning, although he predicted the November election will be one of the closest races in a century.

The current positive atmosphere of Japan-U.S. relations, attributable to Tokyo’s quick response after 9/11 and active support for the war on terrorism, will not be jeopardized under a Democratic administration, Calder further forecast.

“I think (Japan’s quick response) is appreciated (by U.S. politicians in both parties),” he said.

Calder admitted that a Kerry administration could possibly take a tougher stance on trade issues with Japan, “since labor is important to the Democrats and some would like a hawkish trade policy.”

But bilateral economic relations have become more complementary following all the investments by Japanese manufacturers, for example, in the auto sector, and the revival of the trade friction seen in the 1980s and early 1990s is unlikely, he said.

“Democrats could go either way, but at least I think the overall chemistry is pretty good, and I should say it’s an opportunity, because U.S.-China relations could be a little troubled (under a Kerry administration),” he told the audience.

China was one of the main themes of Calder’s presentation at the seminar, where he discussed “Geopolitical risk in East Asia and its economic implications.”

China watchers in Washington believe the period roughly between 2005 and 2007 — the leadup to the Beijing Olympics of 2008 — will be extremely important for the future of China’s political system as it relates to the democracy movement in Hong Kong as well as the development of grassroots democracy in mainland China, according to Calder.

“The general feeling in Washington is that it will at least take another year for (Chinese President) Hu Jintao to extend his authority toward military affairs or toward certain controversial matters that are important to China’s future, such as Hong Kong,” he said.

Whether the democracy movement in Hong Kong will become stronger or stable is a “critical uncertainty” for the future of China, Calder said.

He also observed that grassroots democracy on the mainland, including village elections, is becoming more important and beginning to put pressure on local authorities and even the policies of the central government, which needs to somehow respond to public opinion.

Then there is the Olympics factor.

Prior to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the South Korean administration of then President Roh Tae Woo needed to promise a democratic presidential election to dampen domestic dissent and stabilize the country for the national event, Calder pointed out.

And there was the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which were boycotted by a number of key industrialized countries, including Japan and the United States, because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he said.

“So probably there’s some fear on China’s part that the Olympics might be canceled or altered in some way if political unrest or demonstrations become large . . . or if there is any kind of repeat of (the Tiananmen Incident of 1989),” Calder said.

He observed that the Hu administration may be looking at Japan as a potential model for its economic and political development.

“My impression is that Chinese are somewhat interested in the way in which Japan has managed to maintain both political and economic stability up until the early 1990s,” he said.

As China continues to have very rapid economic growth, it needs to stabilize the society, “but they don’t want to do it in a repressive way as they did earlier,” Calder noted.

There is another aspect of Japan’s experience that China is watching closely — the investment bubble that burst in the early 1990s, Calder said.

Noting how robust growth in capital investment in China has rapidly decelerated since the end of 2003, Calder pointed to the risk of turbulence in the Chinese real estate market and excess capacity in the next couple of years.

“Is China going to be able to move to a more stable growth track, or is this investment bubble going to lead to some serious instability?” he asked, adding this “will be a significant question.”

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