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Abe Arriving in Washington with Mixed Baggage
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By Feng Zhaokui

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is finally making his first visit to the United States today, seven months after taking office.

Two weeks after taking office in September 2006, Abe made a whirlwind visit to China and the Republic of Korea. In January, he emphasized Japan would strengthen its cooperation with NATO during his visit to several European countries.

His moves are noteworthy since usually a new Japanese prime minister calls on Washington first.

There have been different interpretations of the timing of Abe's belated US trip. One is that Abe has full confidence in the closest-ever relations between Japan and the US forged by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, and can afford not to rush to Washington. The other is that despite the Abe administration's pledge to further strengthen the Japan-US alliance, Abe is modifying Koizumi's overly pro-US policy and is attempting to pursue Japan's own self-determined foreign policy.

There have indeed been some unpleasant exchanges between Japan and the US since Abe took office. To be more specific:

During his trip to Japan in late February, US Vice-President Dick Cheney refused to meet with Japanese Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga because Nukaga had earlier characterized President George W. Bush's decision to launch the war in Iraq as a "mistake" and accused the superpower ally of being arrogant toward Japan over the issue of US military bases in Japan.

On March 20, Yomiuri Shimbun, the largest daily newspaper in Japan, unexpectedly questioned the US nuclear umbrella for Japan. Some officials in the Japanese Defense Ministry said publicly that Japan needs to know "when under a nuclear attack from North Korea, how soon the US would retaliate with its own nuclear arms and how the US would notify Japan" of the counterattack. The ministry insisted that Japan must know beforehand if the US would definitely use nuclear arms.

In March, the North American Aerospace Defense Command unexpectedly published some sensitive data about Japan's two new spy satellites which were deemed top secret, much to the dismay of Japanese military and government. Some analysts speculated this move was the US way to warn Japan against trying to end its dependency on US intelligence.

That same month, Japan became concerned when the US and North Korea appeared to be heading for reconciliation at the six-party talks in Beijing.

The Sankei Shimbun newspaper slammed the US for "making unbelievable concessions" to North Korea. The Yomiuri Shimbun went so far as to claim "some people within the Japanese government have begun to suspect the US and the North Korea have made some shady deals behind Japan's back."

When the US Congress was to consider a bill demanding that Japan apologize to victims over the issue of wartime "comfort women", the Japanese prime minister's office sent two assistants in succession to Washington in an unsuccessful bid to intercept the bill.

Both the White House and State Department found various excuses not to hear what the Japanese envoys had to say. The US was also angered by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso's negative comment on the US occupation of Japan after World War II.

When Abe initially denied the Japanese government's responsibility for "comfort women" in early March it touched off anger in the international community.

Before Abe's US visit, the Washington Post published an interview in which the prime minister seemed to soften his position saying, "I must sincerely express my sympathy to those who had been victimized during the war as comfort women. As a human being I must express my sympathy and as the Japanese prime minister I must apologize to them." His statement was apparently meant to clear the air before his US trip.

All the above-mentioned episodes suggest the Japan-US ties from Koizumi's days as prime minister have lost some warmth.

Under the Koizumi administration, the close personal relationship between the Japanese prime minister and the US president with their similar strongman stands effectively suppressed potential friction.

Koizumi was able to visit the North Korea without prior notice to Washington and the US government did not show its displeasure publicly.

Also, in July 2006, Bush planned for Koizumi to address a joint session of Congress. (To date, the only foreign statesman to have the honor was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.)

However, because the then Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman Richard G. Lugar demanded that Koizumi cease visiting the Yasukuni Shrine as a precondition for addressing the Senate and the House, Koizumi considered canceling the trip.

Bush salvaged the situation by inviting Koizumi to his ranch in Texas as a sign of personal appreciation. An enthusiastic Koizumi gave a memorable song and dance performance for his host and other guests, bringing his honeymoon diplomacy to a spectacular climax.

Unfortunately, with the Bush administration's dramatic defeat in the midterm elections last November and Abe facing mounting problems in domestic politics, it remains to be seen whether the two heads of state can effectively manage the potential frictions between Japan and the US.

Nevertheless, Abe's long-held hardline pro-US political philosophy (which is even stronger than Koizumi's) suggests the guidelines for continued strengthening of the Japan-US alliance will not change. At least as important, it does not serve Japan's national interest to alter the current national strategy.

Abe already made it clear after taking office that he would continue to strengthen Japan-US ties and the Japanese Diet passed legislation allowing the Japan Air Self-Defense Force to fly supply missions in Iraq.

Abe's US visit is apparently aimed at telling his US ally that Japan is determined to reinforce the bilateral alliance. He also needs to exchange ideas with Washington after the recent improvement in Japan-China relations. He is expected to emphasize that Japan will develop its ties with China against the background of the continuing Japan-US alliance and that better relations with China will not lead to the "emptying" of the Japan-US alliance.

But Abe also needs to closely follow US political developments in the next year or two to tailor his US policy to new directions in US domestic politics. Japanese media have speculated that Abe's short visit to the US is unlikely to achieve tangible results.

It should also be pointed out that, after decades of continued strengthening and institutionalization of the Japan-US alliance, both countries have penetrated deeply into each other's domestic politics (especially the US political penetration of Japan) and nurtured a large number of elites whose careers and futures are linked to the bilateral alliance.

The human network formed by such penetration remains a force in maintaining the Japan-US alliance.

The author is former deputy director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily April 26, 2007)

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