Feeling the chill

The chill to which I’m referring, of course, is the chill that has set in between Tokyo and Washington.

Without looking particularly hard, I found two very clear signs of a growing appreciation among Japanese opinion makers that the US-Japan alliance is experiencing a bit of turbulence.

On the front page of today’s Yomiuri, in an article published as part of an ongoing series of page one articles about the North Korean nuclear threat, Yomiuri reports on tensions just below the surface in bilateral negotiations surrounding the tentative agreement in the latest round of six-party talks. (This article does not seem to have been posted online yet.) The article reports, almost with surprise, at the swift turnaround in the US position, from clear unity with Japan following the missile and nuclear tests of 2006, to going so far as to indicate that the US might be willing to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which in 2004 George Bush insisted North Korea was, in part because of its kidnappings of Japanese citizens.

The article seems to be searching for an answer to the question, “what changed?” It’s not all too difficult to explain. With Congress in Democratic hands after November and with Iraq still in shambles, the range of ways Bush could ensure a legacy narrowed considerably. Domestic avenues are more or less blocked due to the Democratic victory. The Middle East is no path to a quick victory. Reaching an accord via the six-party talks was all that was left: it enabled President Bush to show himself as willing to use patient diplomacy with other great powers in pursuit of peace — a la Ronald Reagan’s missile diplomacy with Gorbachev. Surely MOFA’s American experts have some idea how presidential thinking changes as an administration winds down. It seems that the GOJ got caught up in the rhetoric that proclaimed US-Japan relations to be the best ever, and forgot that good relations can only be maintained with hard work from alliance managers in both governments — and, in Japan in particular, with hard work by the political leadership to ensure that Japan remains at the forefront of US considerations in Asia.

But, as this op-ed in the Japan Times by former Japanese Ambassador to the US Okawara Yoshio points out, Abe has been too lax in his handling of US-Japan relations, with the result being that as a six-party agreement became possible, the US government quickly pushed Japanese concerns to the side.

The Yomiuri article ends on a doubtful note regarding Cheney’s visit from the 20th to the 22nd (the following is my translation):

On the 20th, US Vice President Cheney comes to Japan. On this trip, Japan and Australia are the first priority, as he will not visit China and South Korea. This itinerary provides a “signal that Japan and Australia are America’s most important allies.”

To achieve a comprehensive solution to the nuclear, missile, and abduction problems, close US-Japan cooperation cannot be lacking. On Vice President Cheney’s trip to Japan, can both countries close the gap on North Korea policy? The fundamentals of the alliance relationship are being questioned.

Tokyo may well be in a position to benefit from fissures within the Bush administration, as I expect that Cheney’s position on the tentative agreement is not all that different from former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton’s. But I wonder if Cheney — without his longtime ally at the Pentagon, without Scooter Libby, his beleaguered erstwhile advisor (who apparently has quite the interest in Japan), and without John Bolton — would be able to undermine the six-party agreement fatally. Still, if he can successfully reassure Japan that the administration is not abandoning Japan while giving the Abe Cabinet a wake up call that it cannot ignore the US, his trip will have served its purpose.

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