Now that U.S. President-elect George W. Bush has named his Cabinet and his inauguration is only days away, it might be useful to contemplate how Japan-U.S. relations may be affected and what might be done to strengthen this very important strategic alliance.

Some may believe that strategic alliance was thrown away forever during the Clinton administration as a result of the emphasis on the U.S.-China relationship. Now that China will be joining the World Trade Organization and debate on that is ended, however, attention will turn again to Japan, which still has, despite 10 years of difficulty, the second most important economy in the world.

The appointment of Norman Mineta as U.S. transportation secretary bodes well for this special relationship. Mineta served as commerce secretary for President Bill Clinton, following a distinguished 21-year career as a congressman representing a large part of California’s Silicon Valley. He has a great record in support of free and fair trade.

Former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Colin Powell, former adviser to the Bush administration Condoleezza Rice, and Alcoa Chief Executive Officer Paul O’Neill, the designees as secretary of state, national security adviser and Treasury secretary, respectively, all show ample evidence in their backgrounds to support stronger ties with Japan.

Defense Secretary designee Donald Rumsfeld, a major player in earlier Republican administrations, later headed a major multinational company, G. D. Searle. He clearly understands and appreciates the importance of a strong strategic relationship with Japan.

Ann Veneman, named agriculture secretary, considers herself a friend of Japan and a strong supporter of greater trade and a stronger alliance.

Similarly, Gale Norton, interior secretary designee, was formerly assistant to the deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so we would assume she is strongly in support free and open trade and strong relationships with our strategic allies.

Don Evans, designated secretary of commerce, was President-elect Bush’s key fundraiser during the campaign (raising an all-time record amount) but until fairly recently was best known as a Texas oil man. He is also a very close personal friend of Bush, the closest of any Cabinet member. Again, he is a person who can be counted on to strengthen the alliance.

The appointment of Robert Zoellick as U.S. trade representative should be considered great news from the standpoint of Japan-U.S. relations. He played a very important role in the earlier Bush administration in developing international policy, including policy toward Japan, and signifies that trade is going to be very important. As Bush said last week, “The USTR position is going to be a really important position in my administration . . . because ours will be an administration of free trade.”

While not officially a member of the Cabinet, Bush’s chief of staff, Andy Card, served as president and CEO of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, a group that has had trade issues with Japan. Most recently, he served as vice president for government relations for General Motors. He will be an extremely important player in the Bush administration.

Based on just these appointments, let alone some of the others, it can safely be said that Japan can count on a Bush administration committed to strengthening the relationship.

For that commitment to continue, however, Japan must act like a true world leader — the second largest economy in the world — and not act like a Third World emerging economy bent on protectionism.

The new administration presents a unique opportunity for Japan to demonstrate its commitment to its strategic alliance with America and its firm commitment to free and open trade.

Japan has had similar opportunities in the past, only to disappoint the United States, and the world on which it depends to sell its goods, by turning toward protectionism. It must not allow that to happen now if real trust is to be developed between our two great nations. If Japan turns to protecting its industries and agriculture, that trust will be lost, and America will seek strategic alliances elsewhere in Asia.

While the U.S. has grave political and defense concerns about mainland China, that country has strongly demonstrated its commitment to free trade.

When one compares what China has done in recent years to open markets to U.S. goods, to what Japan and South Korea have done, China comes off the big winner.

Japan should take the opportunity now before it and build a better relationship with the U.S. rather than force it into even stronger ties with China.

Ever since the WTO meeting in Seattle a little more than a year ago, trade liberalization has been in trouble, particularly with many of the leaders of the Third World. It is incumbent on Japan, a huge force in international trade — and dependent on it for a strong economy — to take a leading role in convincing the rest of the world on the importance of free trade.

Furthermore, it must lead by setting a good example as a true international trader, not simply an opportunistic exporter.

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