Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Ozawa

The US State Department is reportedly sounding out the DPJ on the possibility of a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro when Secretary Clinton visits Japan next week.

Sankei reports that it would be the first ever meeting between a US secretary of state and the leader of a Japanese opposition party. The DPJ and Mr. Ozawa, however, are treading carefully before committing to a meeting. Mr. Ozawa reportedly told the party leadership, “If the schedule works, we’ll meet, but election preparations are my top priority.”

On one level, meeting with Mrs. Clinton should be a no brainer for Mr. Ozawa. A meeting would show that the alliance is in the process of transitioning to a post-LDP alliance. The DPJ could signal that the alliance would be safe in its hands, that it is keen to forge a new relationship with the Obama administration that rectifies the mistakes the DPJ believes were made under the Bush administration in cooperation with the LDP.

But on the other hand, it is worth asking whether the DPJ would gain anything from a meeting. Washington will not pick the next government; the Japanese people will. And at the moment the Japanese people do not seem to be interested in business as usual in the alliance. Inevitably the public script for a Clinton-Ozawa meeting would involve some sort of reaffirmation of the importance of the alliance, a photo op to reassure the folks back in Washington, undercutting the DPJ’s message of calling for a revision of the realignment agreement that moves US forces from Okinawa entirely. Private discussions between the two would be little more useful, as Mr. Ozawa is not in power yet. Jun Okumura sees similar problems with this meeting.

But now that the story has been leaked that Mrs. Clinton wants a meeting, Mr. Ozawa will undoubtedly be pressured to accept, lest he be lambasted in the press — with the help of LDP politicians — for “unstatesmanlike” conduct. (Just as he was criticized after missing a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last year.) Ultimately the opportunity to forge some link with the Obama administration, plus the possible public relations blow to the DPJ’s reputation, will lead Mr. Ozawa to meet with Mrs. Clinton.

As for the wisdom of the meeting on the part of Mrs. Clinton, I appreciate that the Obama administration is reaching out to the largest opposition party instead of treating the DPJ (or Ozawa, anyway) like an enemy at the gates of the alliance, as, for example, this article more or less does. It is the US-Japan alliance, not the US-LDP alliance, although after more than fifty years of LDP rule it is understandable that it is hard to tell the difference sometimes.

At the same time, however, perhaps it would be better off if Mrs. Clinton stayed away from Japan altogether in the midst of the tumultuous political situation. Naturally the US government is officially blind to the domestic politics of its allies. But US interference in Japanese politics since the occupation, from comparatively benign gaiatsu to the CIA’s distribution of funds to Kishi Nobusuke and other conservative politicians (and activities to suppress left-wing activities) is a matter of the public record. More recently, the Bush administration played an undeniably important role in raising the profile of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, giving him access to senior administration officials while he was just an LDP functionary (as opposed to a government official), which raised his profile and helped him leapfrog more experienced politicians and succeed Koizumi Junichiro. The point is that given this history, the new administration should be extremely wary of doing anything to influence the outcome of the forthcoming general election.

It may be unlikely that Mrs. Clinton’s visit has any impact on the political situation, but it is not impossible, especially if she meets with Mr. Ozawa or the abductee families.

There are other reasons for Mrs. Clinton to stay away, of course, starting with the vacancies in the ambassadorships in Tokyo and Beijing. Joseph Nye still hasn’t been officially named the ambassador-designate, and the Senate has yet to confirm other Asia policy officials, including Kurt Campbell, Mrs. Clinton’s assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific.

Everything about this trip smacks of a hasty scheme to assuage Japanese fears with symbolic gestures. But symbols can have consequences, whether for the alliance or for Japanese politics.

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