The alliance seemed like it was bounding from strength to strength. Military cooperation, including and especially missile defense, was reaching unprecedented levels. Alliance managers reached a deal on realigning the US military presence in Okinawa and mainland Japan after years of frustration. Above all, the solid rapport between President Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi ensured that the bureaucrats working on strengthening alliance cooperation had the blessings of the heads of both governments (and disputes, such as that over the Japanese ban of US beef imports, were papered over thanks in part to the crooning of Koizumi).
Those days seem long gone.
The problem is not at the military-military level, where enhanced cooperation continues unabated, but rather at the political level, where Abe has been surprisingly lackadaisical about putting in the work necessary to ensure a political foundation for deepening functional cooperation. The biggest piece of evidence often used to illustrate Abe’s lack of attentiveness is, of course, his putting trips to Beijing, Seoul, and Europe before visiting Washington to meet with President Bush. But the lack of response from Abe to comments by his foreign and defense ministers about the wisdom of certain US foreign policy decisions — regardless of the rightness of their comments — suggests that his apparent indifference to the alliance is a principled position and not the result of his poor administrative skills. In other words, as this piece spells out (although mislabeling Abe’s foreign policy stance as “neoconservatism”), Abe is something of a Gaullist nationalist actively seeking to carve out a more independent foreign policy.
It seems, however, that Abe may be getting his wish of a more independent Japan sooner than he expected, as the six-party talks have yielded a tentative agreement that is clearly not in Japan’s interest. That was always the risk with the six-party talks. As long as the US and Japan were closely linked politically, the six-party talks were an excellent vehicle for ensuring that Japan’s interests were respected and that Japan wasn’t completely friendless in the region. But the other possibility — arguably the outcome that has been achieved in Beijing — is that the US would be fed up with the situation and would reach a modus vivendi with China over Japan’s head. This has been a longtime fear of Japanese governments, but together with a US administration desperate for a victory, Abe, with his inattentiveness to the political management of the alliance, seems to have achieved that feat.
This judgement may be premature — and it’s certainly reversible (the alliance has weathered worse before). But Abe dispatching his public relations man to the US will not be enough to sort out the mess. Suddenly Cheney’s impending visit to Japan takes on considerably more significance then when it was originally scheduled; a disastrous meeting could deepen the freeze and convince Tokyo to start looking for friends elsewhere, while a productive, frank discussion could signal the beginning of a new era for the alliance marked by more prominent and independent Japanese role.
And then there’s the second Armitage Report, due to be published sometime today…