The beginning of benign neglect?

Aso Taro has returned from his meeting with Barack Obama, the first such meeting between Obama and a foreign leader at the White House, as the Japanese media has repeatedly emphasized. The LDP website invokes this phrase like a mantra in its summary of the prime minister’s visit, as if citing the name of the US president could save the party from ruin: “Prime Minister Aso Taro — the first among the world’s leaders to meet with President Obama at the White House.” (I feel like the phrase needs an exclamation point.)

Others have been less effusive.

The Sankei Shimbun, a leading cheerleader for a more active security alliance, is perhaps foremost among media outlets in voicing its doubts about the visit. Far from celebrating the visit, Sankei notes that Aso’s visit was overshadowed by media coverage of Obama’s Tuesday evening address to Congress, an address that shortened Aso’s visit. The paper also notes that unlike Murayama Tomiichi’s 1995 visit to Washington, another short, informal visit by a Japanese prime minister, Aso stayed at a hotel away from downtown Washington instead of at Blair House.

But behind these questions lurks a greater concern: that far from being indicative of the new administration’s interest in a stronger alliance, Hillary Clinton’s making her first stop in Tokyo and Aso’s being Obama’s first foreign guest are signs that the new administration will be devoting little attention to Japan from now. Uesugi Takashi calls this Japan’s “unrequited love” foreign policy and questions the notion that the US will be devoting all that much attention to Japan. (At the same time, Uesugi provides a useful corrective to the “sky-is-falling” school of conservatism that says that the US is itching to abandon Japan for China. “The US,” he says, “will not simply discard Japan for China.”) Uesugi instead takes a similar position to that in an article I wrote with Douglas Turner last year: “In short, in the US-Japan alliance both excessive hopes and affinities, and excessive disappointments are useless.” It pays, in other words, to correct unreasonable expectations in the relationship, especially on the Japanese side.

Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times captures Japan’s “unrequited love” well in this post. As he suggests, almost by process of elimination Japan was the perfect country for Obama and Clinton to deal with first: “Where better to start than Japan, where there are no serious bilateral problems, no danger of demonstrations, and where the press never asks aggressive or embarrassing questions?” Japan, in other words, is diplomatic low-handing fruit. For all the fretting during the late Bush administration about the alliance drift, the headaches are comparatively small compared to other items on the foreign policy agenda — and most of Japan’s leaders are unable to consider an alternative to the present relationship with the US, Ozawa Ichiro, of course, being an exception. The Obama administration, in other words, may have just checked the “Japan” box on the agenda and can now turn to more serious matters. Considering that nominees for a number of working-level positions and the ambassadors to Tokyo and Beijing remain unconfirmed, it may be months before the Obama administration even looks in Japan’s direction.

All of which goes to suggest that the administration may be prepared to follow through on an unstated policy of benign neglect: having given Japan its assignments (civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan, progress on realignment, etc.), the administration will now turn its attention elsewhere.

Little wonder that Ozawa and the DPJ want a bit more distance from the US. An alliance based on unrequited love is an unhealthy alliance. As such, Aso’s twenty-four-hour visit, as wasteful as it was (anyone find it a bit hypocritical for the prime minister to fly halfway across the world for a day to discuss, among other things, climate change?), was still useful. A new relationship is being born, even as US officials remain sensitive to the symbolic politics of the US-Japan alliance.

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