US and Japan : Obama election and special ties

While Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States is expected to shake up international relations it may not bring any change in Washington’s special ties with this country. “I wish to maintain the relations that we have cultivated for more than 50 years,” said Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso. He has already called up president-elect Obama to

outline some preliminary points on major issues demanding close bilateral cooperation, including Afghanistan and the global economic crisis.

“The president-elect, according to his advisors, has an appreciation and respect

for Japan and the US-Japan alliance that will keep it the cornerstone of security in the Asia-Pacific region,” Weston Konishi, adjunct fellow at the Mansfield Foundation in Washington DC, said. “I expect that

he will appoint a new American ambassador to Japan who will reflect the

importance of the bilateral relationship,” Konishi said. The new appointment may signal that Obama’s administration would have a different foreign policy approach than that of the Bush administration — one that is more multilaterally oriented and uses diplomacy rather than force.

Like the president-elect himself, the administration will probably show a proclivity to seeking greater consensus in the international community on a range of challenges, from energy policy to climate change and arms control.

Obama has said that he will break away from bilateral diplomacy on the economic crisis, the Iraq war and the “war on terror”. One concern for Japan is the possibility of new restrictions being placed on trade. During the campaign, the Republicans tried to pin down Obama as an anti-free trade candidate, but Konishi believes that label was grossly exaggerated.

“Obama has stated repeatedly that he is fundamentally pro-free trade, but

that he also wants “fair trade” agreements that take into account labour and environment standards and that do not unfairly disadvantage the American workers,” Konishi said.

The challenge for Japan will be to step up and take on greater responsibilities in

the international community, particularly in the realm of peacekeeping operations and other security-related measures, noted Konishi.

If Japan recedes into a passive international role for itself, then the new United States administration may look towards more active partners in attempting to solve global challenges.

Japan is stuck in a passive mode, despite the appearances of activism under former prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe. Koizumi’s remark that “the better Japan-US relations are, the better Japan’s relations with Asian countries will be,” is symbolic of Japan’s policy toward the United States.

According to Robert Dujarric of Temple University, the United States under Obama will continue to protect Japan, station troops, and provide stability in East Asia, which is good enough for Tokyo.

It will be Obama’s policy toward North Korea that will have the biggest impact on Japan. North Korean government agents abducted Japanese civilians in the 1970s and 1980s. Only 16 are officially known by the Japanese government, but there may have been as many as 80 who were abducted. In 2006, the North Korean government officially admitted to kidnapping 13 of the victims.

“They were left in the lurch big time by George Bush when he de-listed [as a state sponsor of terrorism] North Korea,” Dujarrac said. “Even if they still feel that way, there’s little the Japanese leaders can do. They have no pressure points on the United States.”

“Bottom line is that Japan is not high on the president-elect Barack Obama’s agenda, nor would it have been high on McCain’s, if he had won,” Dujarric said. “The US administration’s priorities are the economy and South-west Asia.’’

The bilateral relationship ought to be strong and flexible enough to withstand

a change of administration in the United States.

However, what may happen if the Liberal Democratic (LDP), which has monopolised power in Japan for the last 50 years, suffers a massive setback in the next general elections is left to be seen. Many Japanese are envious of the US election system because it has the power to change its country’s policies. “People in the United States are more active than us,” said hair stylist Yuko Okunishi.

“Americans and their president have the power to change things, but our prime ministerial system hasn’t changed and that’s why we can’t do anything.”

Dujarric said that for Japan, strong ties with the United States will continue to be the cornerstone of its security policy. If not for the alliance with the United States, Japan would have to spend much more of its GDP on defence and take on a more active posture in foreign policy. — IPS