Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. President George W. Bush met at a summit in the ancient capital of Kyoto last Wednesday, the first such meeting in almost a year. The two leaders shared their belief that close relations between their countries are important not only for this region but also for the entire international community. What drew special attention, however, was Mr. Koizumi’s simplistic view of close ties with the United States as something of a panacea that will solve all of the important diplomatic issues Japan now faces.
At a news conference after the summit, Mr. Koizumi said: “The United States remains the most indispensable ally to Japan. And the better our bilateral relations are, the easier it will be for us to establish better relations with China and neighboring countries, and with other countries in the world.”
He added: “There is no such a thing as a Japan-U.S. relationship that’s too close. Some people maintain that maybe we should pay more attention to other issues, that it would probably better serve Japan’s interests to strengthen relationships with other countries as well. But I do not side with such views. The closer, more intimate the Japan-U.S. relationship is, the easier it will be for us to behave and establish better relations with China, South Korea and other nations in Asia.”
Japan’s relations with neighboring countries, especially China and South Korea, have deteriorated due to Mr. Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial that served as a spiritual vehicle of mobilization for Japan’s war efforts in the 1930s and ’40s. It would not be surprising, therefore, if neighboring countries took his statement as one-sided or even confrontational. For what he said was tantamount to admitting his unwillingness to take the initiative in efforts to mend the soured relations between Japan and its neighbors.
Yet Mr. Koizumi fails to explain how and why strengthening relations between Japan and the U.S. will automatically lead to the resolution of issues between Japan and neighboring countries. Does Mr. Koizumi expect those nations to suddenly soften their attitude and make diplomatic concessions once they sense a strengthening relationship between the world’s only superpower and an economic power, which is Japan?
More likely, Japan’s neighbors will harden their attitude toward Japan. At the very least, they will coordinate their positions to counter Japan, as in Wednesday’s agreement between Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun on the fringe of last week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum leaders’ meeting in Pusan. The leaders shared the view that correct historical perceptions are essential for development and growth in Northeast Asia. This was an apparent reference to Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits and the revisionist views of modern history that are becoming popular in some quarters of Japan.
Clearly, one reason that Mr. Bush is placing so much importance on the strengthened U.S.-Japan relationship is to check China, which is rising economically and militarily, and to deal with possible contingencies involving the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula. In his speech in Kyoto before several hundred people, Mr. Bush said, “The alliance you have made with the United States is the pillar of stability and security of the region — and a source of confidence in Asia’s future.”
It is apparent that the U.S. regards turbulence caused by sour relations between Japan and its neighbors as a hindrance to attaining American strategic goals in the region. The statement Mr. Bush made during an interview with Japanese media on Nov. 8 should be viewed as an expression of his concern about the strains between Japan, on one hand, and China and South Korea, on the other. When asked about the deteriorating relationship between Japan and China, in particular, Mr. Bush said, “It seems like a proper role for me to remind our friends in the region that it takes work to overcome the past. But overcoming the past is necessary to have a bright future.”
As Mr. Koizumi’s statement might have even upset U.S. strategists, he should not wait for neighboring countries to make the first move to repair ties with Japan.
In Kyoto, Mr. Koizumi made clear that Japan will do its utmost to carry out the recently announced transformation of U.S. forces in Japan. Referring to opponents of the plan, including the local people and governments most affected by it, he said, “In order to be able to benefit from safety and peace, we must pay a certain cost. And that is what security is all about.”
Mr. Koizumi has put himself in a difficult spot. If he cannot gain understanding at the local level, the plan will stall, and Japan’s relations with the U.S. could thus weaken. If the Koizumi government imposes the plan, it may only deepen local-area resentment against his government and the U.S. administration.
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