The first Japan-U.S. summit since the election of President George W. Bush has gone off without a hitch. Sad to say, but low expectations get a lot of the credit for the success of the meeting. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is a lame duck, both countries’ economies are slumping and the tragic accident involving the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fisheries training vessel, and the USS Greeneville, a U.S. nuclear submarine, meant that any real discussion of security issues would be subordinated to calls of support for the alliance. That is unfortunate. The two countries have much work to do.
Much of the boilerplate rhetoric produced by the summit concerned security matters. The two men agreed that “the Japan-U.S. alliance is the foundation of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” and they recognized the growing threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.
At this point, however, the two countries begin to diverge. Although both men acknowledged the importance of “close consultations” on missile defense, the two governments are not in agreement on just what to do. Mr. Bush is eager to pursue the program, but Japan, along with many other nations, is much less enthusiastic about missile defense. It fears that NMD could create instability rather than prevent it. Mr. Mori noted that he “understands” the U.S. desire to pursue the program.
Perceptions also differ when it comes to the U.S. troop presence in Okinawa. Okinawans continue to press for a reduction of U.S. forces on the island and a 15-year time limit on the use of the new airport to be built in Nago that will replace the Marine Air Station in Futenma. Mr. Mori asked Mr. Bush to consider the islanders’ views, but the president said any future action will depend on the strategic environment. In other words, time limits and troop withdrawals cannot be discussed in isolation. While that may not be politically popular here, it is only common sense.
Economic issues took up the rest of the discussion. According to U.S. officials, Mr. Mori offered an “unusually explicit” recognition that Japanese banks are burdened by too many bad loans, and promised steps to address the problem. Mr. Mori reiterated his government’s determination to promote structural and regulatory reforms that will revitalize the nation’s economy and financial system. He also called on the United States to strengthen its own economy and help provide a much needed boost for global demand.
At this point, the nice talk could make trouble for Mr. Mori’s successor. While Mr. Bush reportedly expressed some concern that there are people in Japan who believe the country should try to export its way out of its economic problems, there was no discussion of exchange rates. The impression is that the U.S. is willing to tolerate a weaker yen for the time being. With the U.S.’ current-account deficit reaching an all-time high of $369.69 billion last year — and that with Japan surging nearly 11 percent to a record $81.32 billion — the stage is set for a resurgence of trade frictions if the U.S. downturn is prolonged.
In a move designed to head off some of those pressures, the two men agreed to set up a consultative body with public- and private-sector members to strengthen dialogue between Japan and the U.S. That may serve as an early warning system, but it is no substitute for economic reform that will unleash domestic demand in Japan. Mr. Mori’s pledge to the U.S. president means that economic revitalization is no longer just a campaign promise. Mr. Mori has made an international commitment to which his successor will be held.
That promise takes on additional significance given the priority the U.S. is putting on relations with Japan. The Bush administration pointedly scheduled Mr. Mori’s visit before that of Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen to demonstrate that it, unlike its predecessor, would put Japan before China in its Asian policy. The new emphasis is much appreciated, but it requires a similar commitment on Japan’s part to reciprocate. That will be difficult in the political vacuum that now exists in Tokyo.
It is widely believed that Mr. Mori insisted on the summit to help burnish his image. Given the prime minister’s penchant for misstatements and his lame-duck status, it should be asked whether the summit was worth the risk — low expectations notwithstanding. To his credit, the prime minister performed well. Unfortunately, he will not be able to build on that to establish a working relationship with Mr. Bush. His successor, however, will need all the good will that can be mustered as the two countries deal with the challenges that lie ahead.
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