In his first summit with President George W. Bush held in Hanoi on Nov. 18, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to strengthen the “Japan-U.S. alliance for Asia and the world” in security and economic relations.

Abe faces the challenge of further improving Japan-U.S. ties following the close relationship that his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had enjoyed with Bush. Bush told reporters after the summit, “I’m very comfortable with his style. I’m very confident we’ll be able to work together for the common good.”

Abe made a good diplomatic start, since his top priority was to strengthen the Japan-U.S. security alliance, with the nation facing the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles. Topping his security agenda are the expansion and acceleration of the missile defense program and the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.

Both the Japanese and U.S. administrations face difficulties at home and abroad. Bush is on his way to becoming a “lame duck” after the Democrats grabbed control of Congress in midterm elections. His administration faces increasing trouble in implementing diplomatic, trade and economic policies. Congressional pressure is likely to mount on the administration to switch from sanctions to dialogue in its approach to North Korea.

Since its inauguration two months ago, the Abe administration has enjoyed popularity ratings of 50 to 60 percent, but it is facing trouble with the governing Liberal Democratic Party on the retention of Koizumi’s reform agenda.

In October, two major events jolted Northeast Asia: North Korea’s nuclear test and Abe’s visits to China and South Korea.

The nuclear test undermined the nuclear nonproliferation regime, affecting not only Northeast Asia but the entire world. The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for sanctions against the North. All U.N. member nations must implement the sanctions.

North Korea, which had already been slapped with a UNSC censuring resolution following its missile tests in July, is now internationally isolated. It apparently tried to evade international pressure by agreeing recently to rejoin the six-party talks on its nuclear ambitions. It is unclear, however, if the forum will immediately start substantive talks on Pyongyang’s terms for abandoning its nuclear arms and programs.

Abe’s visits to China and South Korea, made under his policy of “dynamic diplomacy,” deserve praise for paving the way for improvement of relations with the two countries. Koizumi’s repeated visits to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine led to a suspension of reciprocal visits between the Japanese leader, on one hand, and the Chinese and South Korean leaders, on the other.

China has emerged as an increasingly strong presence in the world. With U.S.-China relations flourishing, Washington now views Beijing as a “responsible stakeholder.”

Meanwhile, U.S.-South Korean relations remain strained as President Roh Moo Hyun’s administration still favors an engagement policy toward the North.

In Washington, a sense of frustration has been growing over Japan’s troubled relations with China and South Korea concerning historical perceptions, with the strains perceived as hurting U.S. interest by impeding the implementation of U.S. policy in Asia. It was in this context that Bush welcomed improvement in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea in his talks with Abe.

Abe and Bush also agreed never to tolerate North Korea’s possession of nuclear arms. Regarding North Korea’s nuclear arms, one passage in Bush’s speech delivered at the National University of Singapore on Nov. 16 stirred concern: “America’s position is clear: The transfer of nuclear weapons or materials by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States.”

It was as if Bush was more concerned about North Korea’s proliferating nuclear arms than possessing them. It would be dangerous if North Korea inferred from this that the U.S. will eventually tolerate the North’s nuclear weapons, as it has India’s and Pakistan’s. Two days later, Bush said in a radio address: “North Korea must abandon its nuclear weapons programs.”

At the Hanoi summit, Abe and Bush also agreed, as the first pillar of the expanded bilateral alliance, to strengthen and accelerate Japan-U.S. cooperation in missile defense. North Korea has already deployed 200 Rodong missiles capable of hitting Japan and is developing Taepodong missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Regarding missile defense, the Japanese government has maintained that the system will be used solely to defend Japan and no other country, and that it will not cause problems with the question of the right to collective self-defense.

In his first policy speech as prime minister to the Diet, Abe said: “We will conduct research using individual and specific examples to determine exactly which cases would constitute the exercise of the right to collective self-defense, so that the Japan-U.S. alliance will function more effectively.”

In an interview with a U.S. newspaper before the summit, Abe discussed possible research on whether Japan should shoot down missiles that might be flying toward the U.S.

In the U.S. Congress, bipartisan calls are growing that the Japanese government allow a more flexible constitutional interpretation of the right to collective self-defense. Whether the planned deployment of a missile-defense system in Japan is consistent with the interpretation has now become an issue.

The second pillar of the strengthened bilateral alliance is the steady realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, including the return of U.S. Futenma Marine Air Station to Japanese control and its relocation to a substitute site in Okinawa Prefecture. The relocation of Futenma has been pending for 10 years after it was agreed on by Japanese and the U.S. authorities.

If no progress is made in reorganizing forces in Japan as part of the U.S. global military transformation, the Japan-U.S. security alliance will be seriously affected. Abe’s leadership skills will be tested.

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