Commentary

To move without U.S. cues

by Marsans, Tamtooma74, DinWonderfulland, beo, Hector, Yuri Tijerino, Masao and Keizo Nabeshima

In their talks Feb. 21, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and visiting U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney reaffirmed the “unwavering” Japan-U.S. security alliance. This raises a question: Why did Abe have to reaffirm an alliance that is said to have already benefited from the long honeymoon between former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. President George W. Bush?

The United States, troubled by the Iraq quagmire and a new crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, needs to strengthen its alliance with Japan and Australia in the Asia-Pacific region.

For Japan, a strong U.S. commitment to the alliance is essential as the nation deals with a changing Asian landscape, especially North Korea’s nuclear-arms and missile development, China’s military and economic expansion, and uncertainties in Southeast Asia.

Abe told Cheney that Japan and the U.S. form an indispensable alliance for the benefit of Asia and the world. The alliance is now much more than a bilateral security treaty and has wider implications for Asia and the world.

Since taking office five months ago, Abe has not visited Washington, although he went to China and South Korea last October to mend relations strained over Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Those visits alleviated U.S. anxieties that those strains could destabilize the East Asia situation.

In November, Abe and Bush met in Hanoi during the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference, where they agreed to strengthen bilateral security and economic relations.

Bush vowed to maintain the deterrent of the Japan-U.S. security pact and endorsed a proposal to establish a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific. Abe indicated a readiness to consider the plan.

In January, Abe toured Western Europe and visited NATO headquarters in Brussels, the first Japanese prime minister to do so. In a speech to the North Atlantic Council, he promised to strengthen Japan’s ties with NATO and to promote aid for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Abe’s diplomacy with the Japan’s allies seemed to be going smoothly until inept remarks by Cabinet members threw cold water on his efforts.

Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma said Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was “a mistake” while Foreign Minister Taro Aso said U.S. policy in occupied Iraq was “naive.”

It would have been fine if Kyuma and Aso, the top Japanese defense and diplomatic officials, had directly expressed their honest opinions to Bush. But the way in which they made their casual remarks in Japan damaged U.S. trust in the Abe administration and exposed the ministers’ diplomatic naivete.

For Japan’s conservative administrations, relations with the U.S. have been the keystone of their diplomacy. The U.S. has played a primary role in Japan’s emergence as a major international player by supporting its membership in the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Japan has wholly depended on the U.S. for maintaining a deterrent against military attack in the postwar regime following the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, yet it has come to take U.S. support for granted.

As a result, Japan has failed to act on its own initiative not only in its relations with the U.S. but also in the international community. Its acquired habit of taking cues from the U.S. before making decisions is criticized by the opposition as diplomatic subservience.

More than 60 years after the end of the war, Japan must establish new alliance strategies to deal with a new security environment instead of settling for the status quo. Toward that end, Japan must establish national strategies based on self-interest.

Japan should now give serious consideration not only to security policies but also to initiatives on international economic relations, such as economic partnership agreements, diplomacy over energy and resources, and other strategic matters.

In the U.S., there has been talk of the Bush administration’s need to re-engage with Asia. The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in a report on the Japan-U.S. alliance published in February, focused on security and economic relations, assuming that the alliance will have important implications for Asia’s future. The report made three important points:

Securing long-term cooperation among the major powers should be the organizing principle of a sustainable and effective U.S. foreign policy.

America’s future requires a robust, dynamic relationship with the new Asia of 2020.

The Japan-U.S. alliance will remain the keystone of the U.S. position in Asia.

The report, compiled by a bipartisan group with strong influence on the administration, is likely to influence U.S. foreign policy in the coming years even after Bush steps down.

The report calls for comprehensive bilateral negotiations on a free-trade agreement. In the field of security issues, it urges Japan to strengthen government organizations to make effective decisions, promote debate on constitutional amendments and enact a permanent law allowing the deployment of Self-Defense Forces overseas.

The report reflects a perception that the strategic importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance is growing amid the changes in Asia. It is doubtful that Japanese politicians really understand this issue.

A critical question is what initiatives Japan should take toward establishing an international order in Asia and other regions while strengthening its alliance with the U.S. Abe’s “assertive diplomacy” will face a severe test on this question.

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