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Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009

Obama and the alliance


Under the Bush administration, the Japan-U.S. alliance has undergone a quiet but important transformation in the eyes of most Japanese people: It has become a global alliance instead of a regional or bilateral one.

Such a transformation can be witnessed in at least two aspects: the strategic and the ideological. The strategic aspect was most clearly manifest in the role of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in Iraq and in the Indian Ocean. Though they were not involved in military operations in combat areas, their role cannot be said to be limited to "peace building" in the narrow sense of the term.

The more important change in the alliance, though it was more subtle and invisible, was the alliance's bearing a more ideological tinge. The ideological aspect of the alliance has been much emphasized under the Bush-Koizumi-Abe period, particularly by the catchword of "sharing values," which later crystallized into Taro Aso's expression of the "arc of freedom and prosperity," which was assumed to stretch from Japan to Australia.

This development or transformation became possible mainly because both Japan and the United States were deeply aware of the strategic merits of the alliance to them. Indeed, we have noticed in recent years that not only a convergence of U.S. and Japanese interests, but also the closeness of the political ideologies of the conservative governments of both countries, have strengthened the alliance.

From the American strategic perspective, Japan is a key player, an important provider of the sites and services for American bases in the Far East, making it possible for the U.S. to deploy its military forces around the world, including the Indian Ocean. Japan has also been a valuable partner for the U.S., one of the few important coalition partners outside Western Europe that has joined hands with the U.S. in its "war against terror."

Viewed from the Japanese angle, the alliance has also had a strategic importance in coping with the nuclear threat from North Korea and with China's ever-growing military strength.

Such a balance of strategic interests is likely to have some sway in the Obama administration. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the emphasis on dialogue with North Korea, together with a possible realignment of troops in the Korean Peninsula, are likely to tip the delicate strategic balance of interests of the alliance unless they are very cautiously handled.

There is also the question of ideology. The Bush administration has emphasized "right and wrong" in its international politics and introduced a religious tinge in dealing with its foes. This was not only because of the "neocon" philosophy or Bush's personal character, but also because of the underlying political trend of "conservatism" that characterized American society over the past decade.

It should be noted that U.S. conservative ideas were echoed in the minds of the conservative party in Japan, which had been searching for its "true" identity. The Bush-Koizumi alliance and the subsequent solid relations between the American leader and his Japanese counterpart were based on the sense of sharing a conservative philosophy. This aspect of the alliance is not simply an ideological question but touches upon the delicate problem of burden-sharing in the alliance.

Under the shared values of conservatism, both the U.S. and Japanese governments did not have to emphasize the need for Japan to share more of the "responsibility" shouldered by the U.S. because the conservative government in Japan was more than willing to strengthen this alliance with the U.S., not only for diplomatic or strategic purposes, but also for domestic political reasons for redefining more clearly the political identity of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Now, however, conservative ideology is definitely receding in the U.S., which is one of the important factors that helped Obama's victory. In addition, one might even say that the long-standing ideological debates are now almost irrelevant in U.S. politics, particularly under present economic difficulties.

In these circumstances, it may not be easy for the Japan-U.S. alliance to proceed further along the road of "globalization" because, as mentioned above, both the strategic and the ideological basis for consolidating the alliance are likely to be weakened unless military tension rises dramatically in the Far East or the Japanese conservative party scores a dramatic victory in the coming election.

It is very symbolic that Japanese political circles have started debating military deployment in the Indian Ocean not for "military" purposes but for coping with piracy in the area. Unlike the war against terror or the idea of democratization in the Middle East, the prevention of piracy has not, in itself, any "ideological" tinge.

In any event, it is now all the more important for Japan to carefully watch the attitude of the new American administration on issues such as past abductions of Japanese nationals by the North Korean government and the strategic approach toward China, not to mention its policy toward the Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama's policy on these problems will directly or indirectly affect Japanese perception of the balance sheet of the merits of the Japan-U.S. alliance and the willingness to share "responsibility."

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation.


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