Benign neglect for the alliance?

Upon further reflection, I wonder if the Asia team that the Bush administration has assembled — which I previously discussed here — for its final years in office might be a good thing for the US-Japan alliance.

For too long, the alliance has been a cozy love fest. Even in rough patches, the alliance has been characterized by each ally stroking the other’s ego, providing constant reassurance that the alliance is secure.

When I was doing research on my master’s dissertation, I spoke with Carl Ford, who was at the State Department early in the current administration and was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia-Pacific affairs during the administration of George HW Bush. Speaking of the differences in alliance management during the Clinton administration and the twelve years of Republican administrations that preceded it, Ford said, “The Republican Asia team pampered Japan. They regularly told Japan how important it was – the US-Japan relationship is very high maintenance. When the Clinton administration came in, things changed – not dramatically so, but noticeably so. There was less pampering of Japan.”

So at what point does pampering Japan and providing it with constant reassurance stop being a good thing and become an obstacle to forming a genuine alliance, in which the allies are comfortable airing grievances or questioning the direction and extent of cooperation?

Maybe a couple years dealing with an Asia team whose attention is directed elsewhere will be good for Japan. Perhaps a couple years of not hearing how important and special Japan is for the US will help Japan get used to the idea of being a more independent, flexible actor in changing Asia. If the alliance is as healthy as both countries’ leaders insist, this should not be so hard to manage. (Although there will be more pressure on US officers and diplomats in Japan and James Shinn’s team at the Pentagon to push the 2006 realignment plan forward, which will perhaps be more difficult without an experienced Japan hand at the White House.)

Besides, with a new Korean administration in the offing, maybe it is best that the US give priority to patching up the bruised relationship with South Korea?

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