Unease in Washington about future role of its close ally

ABE’S RESIGNATION: THE FALLOUT

THE United States responded gingerly to the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, clearly indicating unease here about the future role of a close strategic ally.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack made clear on Wednesday that Washington did not want to be seen as interfering.

But when asked by a reporter what the Bush administration was looking for in Japan’s next leader, he replied that the US hopes the next premier is “a good partner, and I suspect that that will be the case”.

Observers, however, believe that Washington is concerned that it could test a military alliance that has grown stronger over the last decade.

The fear is that Mr Abe’s resignation spells the end of an attempt among more conservative members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to loosen the bounds of postwar pacifism.

It could force Japan to look inward and return to the arm’s length relationship it had with America for most of the Cold War.

Noted Mr Michael Auslin, a Japan scholar at the American Enterprise Institute: “This is a turning point for Japan, as opposition leaders will try not only to take power from the LDP, but also to restrict cooperation with the United States on anti-terror activities.”

President George W. Bush and senior administration officials had lobbied strongly for Tokyo to extend an anti-terrorism law that would allow the Japanese navy to provide fuel support for US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Mr Abe resigned just as the Japanese government faced a battle in Parliament over whether to extend such military help.

Critics in Japan say such pro-US operations violate Japan’s pacifist Constitution, which strictly limits the country’s military activities.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan maintains that Tokyo should participate only in UN-led peacekeeping missions.

Some argue, however, that US-Japan relations have become rock solid to weather any potential problems.

The prevailing Asian security environment – with the looming threat of North Korea and China – has brought both countries closer together. Washington’s challenge is to play a delicate diplomatic dancing act.

Mr Bruce Klinger of the Heritage Foundation explained: “Securing renewal of the anti-terrorism legislation is America’s most pressing priority in the current political turmoil.

“US policymakers, however, should be careful about using the legislation as a measure of the countries’ relationship.”

He added: “Washington runs the risk of needlessly straining the broader relationship with Tokyo, potentially undermining its longterm objective of having Japan assume a larger security role in North-east Asia as a bulwark against the military threats of North Korea and China.”

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