He came, they talked…what next?

Prime Minister Fukuda, cold bug and all, arrived in Washington as scheduled on Thursday evening and spent Friday meeting with President Bush and then dining with the president and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

The Swamp, the Chicago Tribune‘s politics blog, has a summary here, and takes care to note that Mr. Bush served US beef to Mr. Fukuda, just as he did for Mr. Abe at Camp David in April.

There appear to have been few surprises in the summit. Mr. Bush made a point of mentioning, yet again, his meeting with Yokota Megumi’s parents and the US commitment to the resolution of the abductions issue, despite proliferating signs that the US is ready to move forward in removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The agenda ran the gamut, from Iran to Burma to Afghanistan to the beef trade (of course) to climate change. Mr. Fukuda promised to exert full efforts to pass a new law that authorizes Japanese participation in operations in and around Afghanistan. Whatever differences exist in their respective positions, they were papered over in the joint press conference.

There was some talk, mostly by Mr. Fukuda, on the question of what the alliance is to become in the future. Following on his pre-summit interview in the Washington Post, in which he emphasized the alliance’s Asian “vocation,” Mr. Fukuda spoke at length about the role the alliance should play in Asia. “A firm US-Japan alliance,” he said, “is the foundation for peace and prosperity in Asia.”

Mr. Fukuda made very clear in his remarks that his vision of the alliance is of a contributor to peace and stability in the region, which means cordial and open relations with all nations in the region. This is a very far cry from Mr. Aso’s amorphous arc of freedom and prosperity and Mr. Abe’s address in New Delhi about an alliance of democracies (promptly ignored) — for the better. The alliance’s success in the future ought to be measured by how it bridges gaps in the region, not how it exacerbates gaps in the region, as would undoubtedly result from the schemes of some American and Japanese conservatives. Mr. Fukuda unequivocally recognizes this. Does the American foreign policy establishment?

The tension over the refueling mission and the differing positions in the six-party talks remains, of course, but the crisis atmosphere will likely subside as a result of this summit. Neither government is truly prepared to begin addressing the structural problems that underlie the most recent bilateral disputes — and they have no choice but to live with one another under the current arrangement, warts and all.

But, as Jun Okumura notes in his response to the summit, the problem of North Korea remains a sword of Damocles hanging over the alliance, a problem that has been papered over for far too long in alliance discussions. I have a hunch that with Mr. Fukuda in charge in Tokyo, the allies will find a way to work through it. There are enough hints that Mr. Fukuda wants to change Japan’s bargaining position in the talks, if not to improve relations with the US then to reengage Japan in addressing a challenge that is a major test of Japan’s ability to be a political power in the region. It may depend on the US somehow giving Japan enough concessions as to provide political cover for Mr. Fukuda in battles with the conservatives in his own party who are both outraged over the US shift and adamantly opposed to any changes in Japan’s positions on North Korea.

Whatever the policy implications of the summit, I suspect that the Washington trip will prove to be a boon for Mr. Fukuda’s public support. He persevered in coming despite his illness, he stood alongside Mr. Bush without being overly sycophantic, and he avoided embarrassing gaffes that might have exacerbated tensions with the US.

He may have also boosted his popularity among that other important constituency to which Japanese prime ministers must be attentive — the community of American Japan hands. Mr. Fukuda specifically requested a meeting with Japan hands from universities and think tanks to discuss the problem of Japan’s dearth of international intellectual and academic exchanges, especially with the US. Given that some of the experts invited to the session were among those who questioned the durability of his government when he took office, Mr. Fukuda may have earned some points in giving this select group the opportunity to question him in an intimate setting.

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