Japan watches and waits

As the Election Day dust settles in Washington, foreign governments are watching closely to see what will change.

Japan is no exception. Arguably, for Japan and Asia as a whole (with the potential exception of congressional retaliation aimed at China), the impact will mainly be felt in its impact on how the Bush administration conducts foreign policy rather than in any substantive policy change emanating from Congress.

Sean, over at White Peril, comments on the Nihon Keizai Shimbun‘s comments the changes in Washington. Sean suggests that the Japanese are worried about the impact of the election results on the US-Japan alliance, and he’s right to note that the Japanese trust the GOP more on the alliance, but I think “worry” might be too strong a word. The alliance remains the exclusive preserve of alliance managers at the Pentagon and, to a lesser extent, the National Security Council and State Department. Beyond that, there is a bipartisan consensus on the alliance, as indicated by this noted 2000 report on improving the alliance being the product of a bipartisan study group co-chaired by former Clinton administration Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye and soon-to-be (at that time) Bush administration Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, in fact, in its editorial (in Japanese) on the election suggests that it may be an exaggeration to call President Bush a lame duck; it points to major foreign policy initiatives launched by Presidents Reagan and Clinton in the final years of their terms to suggest that Bush is not doomed to irrelevance yet. It argues, furthermore, that the presidency still retains considerable foreign policy powers, regardless of who controls Congress. The Yomiuri does express concern that the ongoing failure in Iraq may distract the administration from North Korea, allowing Pyongyang to continue developing a nuclear arsenal unhindered, but that is a danger regardless of which party controls Congress. If anything, should Iraq continue to crumble, Bush may turn to Northeast Asia in the hope that he might restore some respectability to his legacy by helping to ease the Kim Family regime out of power and create a new regional order. That may depend in part, however, on how Bush gets along with Prime Minister Abe, about which we’ll learn more next week when they hold a bilateral summit on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Hanoi.

Given that Japan hosts thousands of US military personnel, the departure of Rumsfeld — a fanatical advocate of the global transformation of US forces overseas — may prove more important to Japan than the transfer of power on Capitol Hill. Indeed, the Asahi Shimbun ran a long article speculating on the consequences of Rumsfeld’s departure for the planned transformation of US deployments in Japan, agreed upon in May 2006. Asahi quotes Chief Cabinet Secretary Shiozaki as noting that the two governments have agreed on these matters together, so the policy remains unchanged, although Japan may have to continue to wait for progress in implementing the transformation plan. Shiozaki may be right, but given the wait that has followed the initial US-Japan agreement on Futenma in autumn 1995, a similar wait may be in the offing.

Given that Gates’s appointment comes as something of a surprise, it is hard to know what his priorities will be (outside of Iraq) upon coming to office. He began his career as a Sovietologist, and does not appear to have any particular expertise or interest in Japan; with the US foreign policy apparatus lacking Japan hands in senior positions (unlike in the early years of the administration), US-Japan defense relations may be pushed down the agenda for want of a policy entrepreneur to push the issue forward. Much will depend on the Bush-Abe relationship. I doubt that it will be as strong as the Bush-Koizumi relationship, which could mean that the process of reforming the alliance will stall, as it did in the final years of the Clinton administration.

One thought on “Japan watches and waits

  1. Thanks for the link, Tobias. Good post, and you\’re right that I wasn\’t clear. I don\’t think the JDA brain trust is tearing its hair out over whether the Japan-US alliance with continue; what\’s regarded as uncertain, I think, is what military aid Japan will be able to rely on in practice if American voters seem to be tacking dovish and politicians are trying to please them.


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