Little light in 'dark' US-Japan relations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 June, 2008, 12:00am

At a gathering of Americans steeped in US diplomatic and security relations with Japan, an analyst summed up the sentiments around the table in Honolulu and among many colleagues on both sides of the Pacific: 'We are entering a dark time in US-Japan relations.'

Plenty of Japanese and American specialists have pointed, in each country, to an absence of leadership, an abundance of political turmoil, a lack of vision and a preoccupation with immediate issues. None has singled out long-range vision in Washington or Tokyo.

In Washington, President George W. Bush is a lame duck. His administration is preoccupied, to the exclusion of almost all else, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's an occasional glance at policy towards China, but relations with Japan have been reduced to tired slogans about 'lynchpins' and 'cornerstones'.

The exceptions are defence chief Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have just visited Asia seeking to reassure friends of US commitments to their region. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been to Asia just once this year and once last year. And Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Christopher Hill has left to subordinates all but nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's approval rating hovers around 20 per cent as he deals with a divided legislature. Within his Liberal Democratic Party, little gets done as factions jockey for position as they seek to oust Mr Fukuda.

Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba, at a recent meeting of Asian defence ministers in Singapore, confirmed that 'Japan plans neither to amend its constitution nor change its interpretation', meaning that Tokyo would not engage in collective defence. The US, for years, has been urging Japan to remove the so-called 'no war' constitutional clause to legitimise its armed forces.

The refusal to engage in collective defence means that the US is obliged by treaty to protect Japan but Japan has no reciprocal obligation to help defend the US.

The US election campaign has seen little debate over foreign policy outside Iraq. In a rare exception, John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate, and Joseph Lieberman, an independent who votes with the Democrats, wrote jointly in the Yomiuri newspaper: 'Strengthening the US-Japan alliance is going to demand strong, courageous, and innovative leadership from Tokyo and Washington alike.'

They expected 'to have a partner in Japan that is willing to assume a role in international affairs that reflects its political, economic and self-defence capacities.'

They added: 'The United States in turn must itself be a responsible, reliable ally to Japan, and a good global citizen. US power does not mean we can do whatever we want, whenever we want. If we are to ask more of each other, we must also pay greater attention to each other's concerns and goals.'

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington