It’s Time to Get Off That Rocky Road : Vital for U.S. and Japan to coordinate their Moscow policy

In the days of the Cold War, there was no question about Japan’s friendship and closeness to the United States. The two nations have been bound together for more than 30 years by a mutual security treaty. The relationship has survived repeated and, on occasion, bitter disputes over trade. But amid the rapid changes in the post-Cold War era, new tensions have surfaced between Tokyo and Washington.

Relations are a bit rocky now, strained by what some U.S. officials perceived as Tokyo’s disappointing response to the Persian Gulf crisis. Washington is still bristling over Tokyo’s lack of manpower commitment to the war despite its $11-billion contribution to the multinational forces in the Gulf.

Such tensions come at a time when Washington and Tokyo should be working harder than ever to make sure they are on the same wavelength in dealing with an important foreign-policy player: the Soviet Union. A historic summit meeting is scheduled in Tokyo on April 16 between Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. It will be the first visit to Japan by a Kremlin leader. Adding to its significance is the fact that the two nations have never signed a peace treaty to end World War II, in large part because of a dispute over four tiny islands off of Hokkaido.

The Soviet Union has occupied the four southernmost Kuril Islands since 1945. Tokyo has been insisting on their return as a condition to opening diplomatic and economic relations with Moscow. Tokyo reportedly now is willing to settle for the return of two islands first and the rest later in exchange for $28 billion in economic assistance that the Soviets desperately need. If agreement on the island issue can be reached, it will pave the way for a formal peace treaty between Tokyo and Moscow. Until last September, Tokyo had classified Moscow as a threat to its security.


Whatever deal is cut, if any, the Tokyo-Moscow summit will be watched closely by Washington. While the United States favors the return of the four islands to Japan, neither Tokyo nor Washington wants to see a Soviet treaty that might jeopardize U.S.-Japan relations.

That may be a major consideration behind the suddenly scheduled meeting between Bush and Kaifu expected to be held April 4 in Los Angeles. Kaifu reportedly is eager to meet with Bush before Gorbachev’s mid-April visit to Tokyo--no doubt to get some political lift at home. Although Tokyo has ruffled feathers in Washington, Kaifu is hoping that some one-to-one diplomacy with Bush will help bilateral relations and polish Tokyo’s tarnished image.

Bush and Kaifu hastily met a year ago in Palm Springs to discuss trade issues. The meeting helped the prime minister pave the way for some commitments from Tokyo on structural trade reforms. That helped quiet congressional critics of Japan and may have headed off U.S. trade sanctions.

Later, Tokyo quickly supported economic sanctions against Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. But although it committed billions of dollars to help underwrite the costs of Operation Desert Shield, its cooperation always appeared reluctant and uncertain. Japan’s U.S.-drafted constitution forbids the use of troops overseas, but Tokyo wasn’t even able to muster a 100-member volunteer medical force.


U.S.-Japan relations are an important and crucial element in the new world order. The Gulf issue will fade, as House Speaker Thomas Foley has said, but trade tensions will continue. Washington and Tokyo must work hard on redefining and preserving U.S.-Japan relations in a changed world. The days leading up to Gorbachev’s historic visit to Tokyo will provide the latest test of how well the United States and Japan deal with each other when under duress.