JAPANESE PRIME Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit to the United States today will be accompanied by the usual rhetoric about shared visions and common values. The warmth will be genuine, but on both sides, there will also be real concern about the true health of the alliance.
Especially among Japan’s closest friends, there is frustration at Abe’s inability or unwillingness to deal effectively with the “history issue.” Following his election, Abe skillfully sidestepped the question of whether he would continue to visit a shrine that honors his country’s war dead (including, to the dismay of Japan’s former victims, a number of convicted war criminals). This gesture won plaudits in Washington and cleared the way for a warming of Japan’s relations with China and South Korea. Unfortunately, by then questioning whether Japan’s Imperial Army forced Asian women into sexual slavery, Abe offended his neighbors, gave new ammunition to those in Asia who seek to isolate Japan and raised questions in Washington about his diplomatic and political acumen. For their part, the Japanese have been seized anew by their perennial worry that the United States may be starting to tilt toward Beijing. And they are troubled by Washington’s softening on the North Korean nuclear issue.
For four years, Tokyo and Washington moved forward in virtual lock step to isolate North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, constrict his access to illicit cash and compel him to abandon his nuclear ambitions. The other participants in the six-party talks -- China, South Korea and Russia -- resisted U.S. efforts to ramp up pressure on the North, instead offering inducements and reassurances. Only Japan was a wholehearted supporter of the firm U.S. approach. Last October, when Kim finally tested a nuclear device, the Japanese government wanted to push ahead with tough U.N. Security Council sanctions. But the U.S., after having long resisted Chinese urgings that it engage in direct negotiations with the North, reversed course and held secret meetings in Berlin with North Korean diplomats. In a move that left lingering suspicions, Tokyo was barely informed. It had little choice but to go along with the deal.
Many Japanese strategists believe that the U.S. has been too quick to lift financial pressure on Pyongyang. They worry that Japan may be isolated if it persists in restricting trade with the North, despite the fact that it did so initially at U.S. urging. They fear that the State Department may remove North Korea from its list of state terror sponsors before Pyongyang gives a full accounting of abducted Japanese citizens. Worst of all, they doubt the recent agreement will actually lead to full North Korean denuclearization. One way or another, they fear the North will retain some nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles with which to lob them across the Sea of Japan. Some in Tokyo believe the U.S. has decided it can live with a situation that leaves its closest Asian ally dangerously exposed. Washington’s effusive thanks for China’s help in achieving this dubious outcome makes matters worse.
Whatever happens next on the nuclear front, the Bush administration needs to bolster the foundations of one of the most crucial U.S. alliances. Washington and Tokyo have made considerable progress in recent years on deepening security cooperation, developing effective missile defenses and realigning U.S. bases in Japan. What the alliance needs now is a much broader and more ambitious shared strategic vision.
The Abe government has sketched the outlines of such a vision: an “arc of freedom and prosperity” extending throughout Asia. More concretely, it is trying to create a regular dialogue among the major Asian democracies modeled on the U.S.-Japanese-Indian-Australian response to the deadly 2004 tsunami. Instead of shunning Abe’s proposals for fear of offending China, the United States should embrace them, joining forces with Tokyo to build a new, loose grouping of Asian democracies. Such a project would help Japan build trust and goodwill with its neighbors, calm its fears of abandonment and acknowledge its growing emphasis on values, as well as material interests, in foreign policy. Embedding Japan firmly in a network of Asian democracies (much as postwar West Germany was anchored in NATO) should also reassure any who might have genuine concerns about its intentions. If Beijing is really worried about resurgent Japanese militarism, rather than intent on keeping Japan isolated and off-balance, it should welcome such a development.