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Tending to Japan-U.S. Ties

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated April 27, 2007

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Ahead of his arrival in Washington, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed the U.S.-Japanese alliance as “indispensable” (WashPost). But relations between Tokyo and Washington have shown signs of a chill since Abe came to power in the fall of 2006. Abe lacks the personal connection his charismatic predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had with President Bush, and the two countries appear out of sync in pressuring North Korea to acknowledge responsibility for the kidnapping of Japanese citizens (Reuters) two decades ago. Vice President Dick Cheney said the relationship “has never been stronger” during his February visit to Tokyo. But weeks before Cheney’s arrival, Japanese officials criticized the Bush administration’s Iraq policy (FT), with Taro Aso, the foreign minister, going so far as to call it “naïve.” The alliance was further tested by Abe’s comments denying evidence of Japanese military participation in the sexual enslavement of some 200,000 “comfort women.”

Despite the tensions, Bush and Abe signed a joint agreement on April 27, supporting cooperation on trade, energy, and environmental issues. Many experts say Japan must remain a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Asia. In a recent op-ed, CFR President Richard N. Haass calls Japan, the second biggest economy in the world, an “overlooked” power. Japan has one of the world’s most advanced militaries, and Haass says it can play a central role in securing Asian peace. A Center for Strategic and International Studies report by Richard L. Armitage and Joseph S. Nye also emphasizes the U.S.-Japan alliance while recognizing China’s growing prominence. But some experts warn the United States places too much importance on relations with Tokyo. “We hitch our wagon to Japan while the rest of Asia is hitching its wagon to China,” says regional expert David C. Kang in a Backgrounder on America’s Asia policy.

Meanwhile, Sino-Japanese relations appear to be improving. Abe’s trip to Washington comes on the heels of President Wen Jiabao’s visit to Tokyo, the first by a high-level Chinese official in seven years. Relations between the two countries had suffered from lingering differences over Tokyo’s treatment of China during Japanese occupation. At the April meeting, the two countries agreed to cooperate on the disputed territory of the East China Sea, which likely has oil reserves, and pledged “to face history squarely.” Tokyo also assured Beijing assistance with curbing emissions at a time when China appears on the verge of surpassing (Independent) the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The Financial Times says that Abe, thus far in his term, has accomplished more in Asian diplomacy than domestic politics. He headed to Beijing (as well as South Korea) shortly after taking office. He has also refrained from making official visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japanese war dead, including some war criminals. In a face-saving effort following his recent “comfort women” remarks, Abe voiced support for a 1993 statement apologizing for Tokyo’s role.

Yet some say it was China’s president who came out shining after the Sino-Japanese meet-up. The New York Times’ Howard French says Wen, the first Chinese leader in twenty-two years to address Japan’s Diet, emerged as “perhaps Asia's most accomplished and sure-footed politician” after acknowledging Japanese regret over its past aggressions and thanking Tokyo for post-World War II development assistance. But Noriko Hama, an economist at Tokyo’s Mitsubishi Research Institute, warns that despite longtime Sino-Japanese economic ties, the “spring romance” between China and Japan must overcome historically cold political relations (openDemocracy).

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