The January meeting will be the first 2 + 2 meeting since the May meeting at which the two governments agreed to a plan to transform the US military presence in Japan (joint statement can be viewed here, the agreed framework here).
The meeting will be an important indicator whether the US will be able to focus on the alliance with Japan during the twilight years of the Bush administration. Recent signs have been mixed. There have been a number of recent reports on enhanced military cooperation between the US and Japan in the aftermath of the DPRK’s nuclear test, particularly concerning missile defense, but the greater political direction of the alliance remains unclear.
As during the final years of the Clinton administration, it seems that Washington is having a hard time focusing on the process to renovate the US-Japan alliance after exerting considerable effort to secure agreements on the direction of the alliance. As with 1997 revision of the alliance’s guidelines for security cooperation, there is a real concern that implementation will lag on the recent bilateral agreements, particularly with Iraq dominating the agenda for the foreseeable future.
As I’ve said before, as a result of Iraq and his ‘continentalist’ inclinations, I don’t expect Secretary Gates to be especially engaged in the US-Japan alliance, but the January 2 + 2 and its aftermath will be revealing.