Commentary / Japan

Spying allegations deal a blow to Japan-U.S. ties

by Shihoko Goto

The Globalist

If friendships are based on trust and respect, then relations between the United States and Japan are facing one of their rockiest moments at a time when solid ties are critical.

First, negotiators from the 12 member nations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact acknowledged they weren’t able to reach a conclusion at their Maui meeting after all.

Followed by that, the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks released information alleging the U.S. was tapping phone calls from senior Japanese government officials and corporate executives.

While successful conclusion to the TPP negotiations remains shaky, the WikiLeaks revelations may have a lasting impact on trade talks between the U.S. and its key Asian ally.

What’s more, allegations of the U.S. betraying the trust of Japan could have repercussions far beyond the domain of trade negotiations, highly sensitive though they are.

According to the WikiLeaks documents, the U.S. started spying on Japanese officials in 2006. It targeted Cabinet members as well as the governor of the Bank of Japan and senior Finance Ministry officials.

Executives from major companies (including Mitsubishi and Mitsui) — in a replay of similar transgressions by the U.S. government in Europe — were also targeted by the National Security Agency over the years.

Tapping into these various channels for information about Japan’s negotiation tactics to reach a consensus in the TPP is a touchy matter, to put it mildly. After all, these issues go to the very heart of sovereignty and democracy — and mutual trust (or the lack thereof).

If the WikiLeaks revelations are accurate, then they imply that the NSA’s interests in tapping into 35 targets was not just undertaken in the interest of U.S. security but was of broader economic interest. The anti-secrecy group specifically stated that the NSA gathered information on Japanese deliberation regarding agricultural imports, negotiating positions in the Doha round of the World Trade Organization, energy policy and technical development plans.

Moreover, WikiLeaks reported that one of the intercepted top-secret classified reports was formally authorized for release to its five intelligence partners, namely Australia, Canada, Britain and New Zealand.

Questioned about the leaks during a parliamentary debate, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “If true, it is deeply regrettable.” His tepid public response, however, could backfire against the prime minister down the line.

TPP negotiations are still ongoing. While there are high expectations of bringing together all member countries, the U.S. spying allegations certainly provides valuable ammunition for opponents of a deal, including farming groups. In a broader context, these revelations will also add to resentment about Japan’s readiness to make concessions to the U.S. on key issues, like the prospect of raising the ceiling for U.S. rice imports.

Japanese carmakers, too, have cause for bitterness. The TPP is expected to have a provision that would allow the U.S. to impose tariffs on Japanese cars if U.S. auto sales fall noticeably after tariffs are repealed.

The biggest fallout from WikiLeaks, though, may actually manifest itself in security relations between Tokyo and Washington. The Japanese media have called for the Abe administration to demand an explanation from the White House, as France and Germany did when it was discovered that they, too, were being spied upon. An op-ed in the leading Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun argued, “It is as if the United States is viewing Japan as an enemy.”

There have already been growing concerns about Japan being in lockstep with the U.S. on issues concerning national defense, regardless of the will of Japanese voters. Indeed, 60 percent of Japanese voters oppose the reinterpretation of the country’s pacifist constitution, according to a Kyodo News poll in July.

Only 32 percent support Abe’s push to allow Japan the right to collective self-defense in such a manner that it would expand the boundaries of Japan’s military engagements overseas.

The Wikileaks revelations therefore do not just hinder the conclusion of a possible trade deal but also — which is bad from both Abe’s and the U.S. government’s vantage point — endanger their joint pursuit of a more expansive Japanese military. No wonder that the debate over the Constitution has been cited as one of the biggest reasons for Abe’s public support level tumbling to 38 percent (and that was the data point before the news from Wikileaks).

While U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has called Abe to apologize for “causing trouble” as a result of the WikiLeaks allegations, that alone won’t do. Among democratic nations that are supposedly close allies, further clarification on the alleged spying activities will be critical to ensure the future stability of relations between the U.S. and Japan.

Shihoko Goto, a contributing editor at The Globalist, is the Northeast Asia program associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.