While discussions between Bush and Abe over cheeseburgers and apple pie at Camp David on Friday will be unaffected by the bill, the attention Washington might have paid to questions about the future of the US-Japan alliance will most likely not be forthcoming.
In any event, prior to the low-key dinner at the White House on Thursday night, Abe met with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders, where, of course, the comfort women issue was raised — prompting Abe to express his apologies once again both as an individual and as prime minister. Interestingly, the Sankei Shimbun reports that Tom Lantos (D-CA-12), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said, “It is fitting that Japan should become a great power even in the area of security. To accomplish this, I strongly support Prime Minister Abe’s policy of constitution revision.” This is a good reminder that on the US-Japan alliance, there is a broad bipartisan consensus supporting bilateral security cooperation.
His schedule also included visits to Arlington National Cemetery and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he met with veterans wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Does any of this mean anything? Arguably no. Abe’s genuflections to congressional leaders might defuse some of the tension surrounding the comfort women issue — although this op-ed co-authored by former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Henry Hyde in the Washington Times (hat tip: Shisaku) suggests that the vein of opposition from the right, due to the influence of veterans of the Pacific theater, is deeper than Democratic initiation of the resolution would suggest.
Meanwhile, on North Korea, is Abe going to be able to reverse the “Bush shock”? Is another reminder of the plight of Japan’s abductees going to make any difference for the US position? And are the two governments really capable of following through on last year’s agreement on the realignment of the US military presence in Japan?
I do not anticipate these issues to be resolved at Friday’s summit at Camp David or at next week’s 2 + 2 meeting of foreign and defense ministers and secretaries. When looking at US-Japan relations over the past two decades, at least on the US side the principals at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom mattered relatively little, except as sponsors of their subordinates’ work on the alliance.
The sub-cabinet officials — the assistant and deputy assistant secretaries — holding Asia and Japan portfolios have been far more important. With Chris Hill the most prominent of the sub-ministerial Asia hands and Richard Lawless’s departure pending, alliance matters are of secondary importance within Asia policy (which is itself of secondary or tertiary importance in US foreign policy as a whole). Commitment from President Bush, together with Prime Minister Abe, might be able to create an environment within which sub-cabinet officials could discuss the alliance’s future in more concrete terms — but that commitment is unlikely to be forthcoming, and even if it was, the personnel lineup at State, Defense, and the NSC does not favor the alliance.
I will reserve final judgment until the joint statement is released Friday, but I have no expectations for dramatic change. The alliance is on cruise control, and cruise control means drift.
UPDATE: Speaking of personnel, the Yomiuri Shimbun reports that Victor Cha, director for East Asian affairs (including Japan, the Koreas, Australia, and New Zealand) at the National Security Council, will be leaving the administration and returning to Georgetown. The Yomiuri’s take is that this is yet another blow to the influence of North Korea hawks in the administration and a victory for the “dialogue faction.” Of course, the gap between the US and Japanese negotiating positions on North Korea has grown as the influence of the hawks in Washington has declined.
I wonder who the administration will find to serve in this post for the remainder of the term, not an insignificant span of time by any means. (Although it’s hard to believe that the Bush administration still has more than twenty months before it expires.) As with the departure of Richard Lawless, Japan and the Koreas will be watching closely as to who succeeds Cha.