Japan is sending warning signals about the state of the U.S.-Japan alliance, but it is questionable whether the Americans get the message. Japanese nervousness about the next U.S. presidency, the direction of the six-party talks on North Korea, and Washington’s long-term strategy toward China are easily dismissed as the obsessive sensitivities of the United States’ junior ally across the Pacific.
Yet these concerns should be taken more seriously. On a deeper level they reflect a profound fear of abandonment by the United States, which may ultimately lead Tokyo to take steps that hedge against further drift in the alliance. The next administration in Washington, be it Republican or Democratic, should address these concerns head on or risk losing Japan’s full support of U.S. leadership over the long run.
After nearly a decade in which the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush went out of its way to reassure Tokyo about the strength of the bilateral alliance, Japanese now see signs that Washington’s attention is rapidly fading. The common assumption in Japan is that the next U.S. administration, particularly a Democratic one, will likely accelerate this trend.
Much of the crisis of confidence comes in the wake of the Feb. 13, 2007, six-party agreement with North Korea. The Japanese media accused U.S. negotiators of “betraying” Japanese interests in order to strike a deal with the regime.
Particularly stinging was a section of the Feb. 13 agreement that offers to remove North Korea from the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for progress on the nuclear issue.