A fond farewell for Koizumi

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 July, 2006, 12:00am

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's last visit to the United States as prime minister set a new standard for intimacy on the diplomatic circuit. It was a fitting farewell to a remarkable five years in US-Japan relations and a well-earned reward for Mr Koizumi.

Yes, Mr Koizumi benefited from a decade of preparation. The evolution of Japanese security policy began in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war. But the friendship he built with George W. Bush was instrumental and helped elevate the bilateral relationship to new heights. The 'George-Jun relationship' will be the standard by which all others will be judged.

At their June 29 White House meeting, the two leaders 'together heralded a new US-Japan alliance of global co-operation for the 21st century', according to a US government communique. This document identifies shared values and interests, and reaffirms the two countries' intentions to work together to combat problems ranging from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to energy security and climate change.

Critics - and I confess to being one - have worried that there is a risk of a backlash. Thus far, the critics have been wrong.

It looks, then, as if the 'best relations ever' will survive the Koizumi era. The pieces are all there: the vision exists, the plan to strengthen the military dimension of the alliance is in place, nettlesome economic issues (such as a dispute over beef) have been dealt with, and both governments appear ready to explore new possibilities for economic relations.

Still, there are reasons to be concerned. The immediate worry is the agreement to realign US forces in Japan. Communities are upset about hosting military forces, and afflicted areas enjoy widespread sympathy. Japanese politicians will have to spend political capital to get the plan implemented, something they - including Mr Koizumi - have been extremely slow to do.

There is also a sense of imbalance: despite their support for the alliance, many Japanese still feel that the US benefits more from the relationship than their country does. And, despite all the accomplishments, there are still Japanese fears of abandonment. They aren't as pronounced as they were during the Clinton administration, but they must still be acknowledged and dealt with.

Over the long term, there are two structural concerns. The first is Japan's ageing population. Priorities will have to change, and it is unlikely that an ageing society will be prepared to spend the money needed to maintain a robust military alliance over other priorities.

The second concern is the development of Asian economies and Japan's deepening integration with the region. Today, the US is the final market for a large proportion of the products built in much of Asia. As regional economies mature, a middle class will emerge, decreasing Japan's reliance on the US market. This threatens to create a divergence in Japan's security and economic interests that could undermine its alliance with the US.

While there is no quick fix for any of these problems, they are not insurmountable. The single most important thing Japanese can do is to vigorously make the case for the alliance. The Japanese public must be convinced of the benefits. Second, the US should be very careful about making future demands on Japan. More energy should be devoted to locking in the gains of the past decade rather than continuing to expand Japanese responsibilities.

Finally, the two countries have to institutionalise an economic relationship that balances Asia's economic development and integration. The development of deeper economic relations envisioned in the alliance of global co-operation for the 21st century is thus a key task for both governments.

Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank