Will Abe learn to rock and roll? / US-Japan alliance management can’t go on auto pilot

Under the leadership of Junichiro Koizumi, Japan-US ties reached an unprecedented closeness. The world will be watching how Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, will build on a relationship that plays a pivotal part in the security of Asia.

JAPAN’S new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have the ghost of Elvis Presley by his side.

The American rock and roll singer is the idol of his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi who, in June this year, made the famous road trip to Graceland, Memphis, the home of his hero.

United States President George W. Bush accompanied him on the trip. It was seen as Mr Bush’s farewell gift to Mr Koizumi for cementing Japan’s alliance with the US after a decade of fits and starts in the relationship.

The Elvis aficionado will be a hard act to follow. But some believe that the strong US-Japan relationship is not an aberration based on just good chemistry between the two leaders.

If anything, Mr Abe looks set to continue a long-term trend of bilateral cooperation even if there are problems that could test the 50-year-old alliance periodically.

Dr Michael Green, an influential Japan scholar and former Bush aide in charge of Asia at the National Security Council, told The Sunday Times:

“The strategic convergence began before the Bush-Koizumi relationship and will very likely continue for years after. The relationship between the two leaders was as much a reflection of this convergence as it was a cause.”

He noted that the prevailing Asian security environment would bring both countries closer together.

North Korea is a major factor. Pyongyang’s ballistic missile tests in June this year and its threats to carry out an underground nuclear bomb test increased Japan’s sense of insecurity and brought Tokyo closer to the US.

China is another reason. Washington would have to position itself in the face of increasing rivalry between two Asian countries that have never been powerful at the same time.

China’s military modernisation over the last 10 years has increased the number of submarines and battle ships in the disputed Senkaku — or Diaoyutai to the Chinese — island chain, much to the concern of the Japanese Self Defence Force (SDF).

Both militaries have been manoeuvring at close range around the group of eight un-inhabited, rocky outcroppings in the East China Sea that lie 384km south of Okinawa.

And on the diplomatic front, Tokyo and Beijing are competing to extend their influence in Asia.

Mr Abe is known to have hawkish views on China and North Korea. He became prime minister primarily because of his ability to tap conservative and nationalist sentiments on these issues.

He gained popular support for his tough stand on the abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang.

His new Cabinet line-up, unveiled after his election as prime minister on Tuesday, is strongly conservative. He has taken in only those who share his nationalist views on the Constitution, security and Japan’s wartime past.

Retaining the tough-talking Mr Taro Aso as foreign minister does not augur well for his Asian diplomacy either, especially with Beijing and Pyongyang.

Having a neoconservative in power in Japan appeals to factions of the American political elite, especially the hawks in the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon.

It dovetails with American security objectives in the region. Washington wants to demonstrate that its alliance with Tokyo is the linchpin of US strategy in Asia.

Push to deepen bilateral ties

INDEED, since 1996, both sides have strengthened defence cooperation. Besides dispatching forces abroad for peacekeeping and disaster relief, Japan is working with the US to develop an advanced missile defence system.

The new Japanese leader has made it clear that he will continue to deepen alliance ties.

It was Mr Abe, after all, as chief cabinet secretary in the Koizumi administration, who helped push through the legislation allowing the SDF to be deployed in Iraq.

He also appeared on television regularly, appealing to the Japanese public to support the US so that Washington would back Japan in future Asian crises.

Mr Abe has said he wants to pursue the revision of the Japanese Constitution in order to permit Japanese forces to take part in “collective self defence’’.

Under the Tokyo government’s present interpretation of the Constitution, the SDF cannot go to the aid of the US if an American vessel were to come under attack while on patrol with Japanese ships.

Mr Abe wants to change the Constitution so that such an attack would be regarded as a strike on Japan itself, thus allowing Tokyo to go to the aid of the US.

As far back as the start of the Bush administration in 2000, Tokyo’s inability to take part in collective self-defence was described as a “self imposed limitation” that restricted the US-Japan security alliance.

Washington wants Japan to take part in joint military operations, and has made it a central player in its force posture realignment in Asia.

But Mr Abe knows that any constitutional revision will need a two-thirds majority in Parliament. He seems prepared to settle for second-best- namely, a new interpretation of the Constitution.

With North Korea in its backyard, he has talked about the possibility of a doctrine of pre-emption.

Mr Jeffrey Bader, a seasoned Asia hand in the Clinton administration who is now with the Brookings Institution in Washington, said: “Until now, Japan has been secure under the US security umbrella. The question for the Japanese leadership is: How long can it step aside and watch when a neighbouring rogue state is arming itself?”

But any attempt to go nuclear or to revise the Constitution will meet fierce resistance from opposition parties and also arouse the concerns of neighbouring countries, which could see such moves as attempts by Japan to become a military power.

As a result, Japan’s shift away from its pragmatic pacifism will continue to be slow and incremental, said political scientist Mike Mochizuki of George Washington University.

But this is good for the US, he added. “It will give Washington time to think through, whether it prefers a Japan that will fight side by side with US forces throughout the world, or a Japan that can reassure its neighbours that it is not re-militarising.”

Domestic opposition a challenge

FOR now, Mr Abe is obliged to continue the implementation of a new bases pact reached with Washington in May to transform and consolidate US military facilities in Japan. But, like Mr Koizumi, he is likely to face continuing domestic opposition to such changes.

The governor of Okinawa, where most of the US bases in Japan are located, has already reminded Mr Abe that the government has done nothing to lighten the burden of such bases on local communities.

This is just one of several problems that could mean bumps ahead in bilateral ties.

Professor Mochizuki, who is writing a book about the US-Japan alliance and the rise of China, explains: “Koizumi has set the standard for other Japanese leaders in dealing with the Americans, especially Bush. But that relationship might have concealed problems between the two countries. Under Abe, these might become more apparent.”

Friction over Teheran, Yasukuni

ONE of them is Iran. Japan imports nearly all the oil that it needs to power its economy. In recent years, oil sales and other ties with Iran have grown stronger and more extensive, much to the concern of Washington, which suspects Teheran of developing a nuclear bomb.

This has caused occasional friction in the relationship.

The Yasukuni issue is another, perhaps, thornier issue for the US and Japan’s neighbours.

Visits by Japanese prime ministers to the shrine, where war criminals are enshrined along with Japan’s war dead, have been condemned by China and South Korea.

They view the visits as attempts to legitimise Japan’s past militarism, demonstrating Tokyo’s lack of remorse for its wartime atrocities.

For the US, the shrine issue can become a dangerous flashpoint in China-Japan ties with the Americans caught in between.

There is widespread agreement that rivalry between Japan and China is not in America’s interest.

Given such deep-rooted concerns, will Mr Abe follow in the footsteps of past Japanese leaders and also visit the shrine?

Known as a hawk and a staunch supporter of Mr Koizumi’s trips to the shrine, Mr Abe skipped visiting Yasukuni on the Aug 15 end-of-war anniversary this year. He, instead, made a secret visit in April, which was widely seen as a gesture of compromise. The view in Washington and Tokyo is that as prime minister, Mr Abe may be tempted to make a public visit next year, fuelling another round of tensions with China.

Speaking at a recent meeting of the New York Asia Society, Professor Gerald Curtis of Columbia University reportedly said that Mr Abe was more “worrisome” than Mr Koizumi because he is “ideological where Koizumi is sentimental”.

Mr Koizumi visited Yasukuni because he believed he was praying to the nation’s war dead and he did not care if his visits gave neighbouring countries the wrong impression.

In the case of Mr Abe, he may have other reasons to visit the shrine.

His maternal grandfather — the late post-war Japanese leader Nobusuke Kishi — was a suspected Class A war criminal. His grandfather’s uncle, Yosuke Matsuoka, a pre-war foreign minister, is one of 14 Class A war criminals honoured by the shrine.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Mr Abe has problems admitting that Japan was guilty of war crimes. Like so many members of the country’s conservative elite, he also questions the legitimacy of the post-war Tokyo war crimes tribunal.

If Mr Abe takes too tough a stand on this issue, he could run into problems with the US, which was essentially behind the tribunal.

Recognising that possibility, US congressmen have urged Mr Abe to stop visiting Yasukuni. They have also denounced the portrayal of World War II in the Tokyo shrine’s museum and in some school textbooks, which they said downplay atrocities committed by Japan during the war.

Sources said that Washington would never publicly call on Japan’s leaders to stop visiting the shrine. This unwillingness to be involved is reinforced by the comments of US ambassador to Japan, Mr Thomas Schieffer, during the Bush-Koizumi summit last November.

He told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo that “Japan is trying to figure out how to honour its war dead” but that it would not be “terribly helpful for foreigners to opine as to how that should be done”.

Clearly, the US wants to tread carefully and not ruffle the feathers of its main ally in Asia.

But attempts could be made through back channels to register American concerns. “It means quietly sending someone like Richard Armitage to Tokyo for a private meeting with Mr Abe and other Japanese politicians,” said Prof Mochizuki.

Mr Richard Armitage, a former deputy state secretary in the first Bush administration, is a staunch supporter of close US-Japan ties.

The US and Japan also have different views on the question of what to do about Myanmar. In June, the US was dismayed by Japan’s decision to join Russia and China in opposing UN Security Council action against the military junta.

Tokyo maintained that Myanmar did not pose a threat to international peace and security, a key prerequisite for council action. With Washington increasingly turning the screws on Yangon, this could emerge as a sticky issue in bilateral ties.

Iraq, where the US is bogged down in a controversial war, could also be a problem. As a gesture of support for the US, Japan sent troops to Iraq to help in reconstruction efforts — a groundbreaking dispatch that tested the limits of its pacifist post-war Constitution.

But in July this year, domestic pressure led to Tokyo withdrawing all its 650 ground troops.

A US State Department official said that such problems pointed to “tactical differences” between the two countries. “The more important point is that US and Japan share a broad strategic perspective on most issues,” he said.

“We don’t anticipate major changes in our ties with Japan. But with a new leader in Japan, both sides will have to work harder to manage the relationship.”

The key issue is whether senior officials will have the time to put into alliance management. Some would argue that Mr Koizumi did not do much given that the fundamentals of US-Japan ties were already in place when he took office.

But unlike his predecessors, he played his cards better. He reaped handsome political dividends in supporting Washington in the global war on terror and Iraq.

He won much American praise, some autonomy for Japanese foreign policy, and US backing for Tokyo’s position on North Korea. Mr Bush, likewise, has invested in a relationship that seeks to maintain American influence in Asia.

Dr Green, who is now an adviser at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, noted: “The closer Washington-Tokyo relationship in recent years suggests that alliance management cannot be done on auto pilot. The alliance can easily drift without attention from the top.”

Mr Abe will have to learn to rock and roll, just as Mr Bush will have to do the Kabuki.

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