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Thursday, June 29, 2006


Under the surface, structural weakness?

Staff writer

OSAKA — The warm personal relationship between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. President George W. Bush has disguised structural flaws in Japan's relationship with the United States and is not representative of the alliance's true state, a leading U.S. expert on Japan warns.

News photo
Robert Eldridge

"Under Koizumi and Bush, the U.S.-Japan relationship has come to resemble a poorly designed skyscraper. It looks tall and magnificent from the outside, but the inside structure is actually quite weak," said Robert Eldridge, an associate professor and director of the U.S.-Japan Alliance Affairs Division at Osaka University's School of International Public Policy.

Over the past five years, Koizumi has stood beside Bush, sending troops to Iraq despite deep misgivings among both the public and members of his own party, and approving a contentious plan to realign U.S. forces that has angered communities playing host to U.S. military elements.

"The fact that those involved in the Japan- U.S. relationship talk so much about the personal relationship between Koizumi and Bush is endemic of the problem. The overall bilateral relationship must be fairly weak if we have to specifically note the personal relationship is close and play it up in order to run the alliance," he said.

Eldridge, considered one of the world's leading American scholars on the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, warned that Koizumi and Bush have emphasized bilateral military cooperation at the expense of other areas, and military and security aspects now dominate the relationship.

"Such aspects are important. But other aspects of the bilateral relationship — cultural, educational, etc. — are important, too. Yet Koizumi and Bush have said little about them," he said.

Eldridge also reckoned U.S. officials are worried the Koizumi-Bush friendship has emboldened Koizumi to take a harder line toward South Korea and China on issues ranging from the Seoul-controlled disputed islets in the Sea of Japan and his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, actions that have led to Japan's estrangement from these two countries.

"The U.S. as a whole is increasingly concerned about Japan's growing isolation in East Asia. Some Americans in the military and the government now wonder if Japan will end up dragging the U.S. into a regional conflict," he said.

Just how bilateral relations will change in September, when Koizumi leaves office, and whether his successor will be able to enjoy the same kind of ties with Bush, is something U.S. officials who deal with Japan are now keenly debating.

Statements regarding regional affairs by Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe and his predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda, the two likely candidates to replace Koizumi in September, are being watched closely by American experts on Japan.

Although there is a growing sense among them that the Pentagon favors the hawkish Abe while the State Department prefers the more dovish Fukuda, Eldridge says those supporting Abe should be careful.

"If Abe's hawkish rhetoric on East Asia affairs is any indication of the kind of actual policy he would pursue, his becoming prime minister might not be in U.S. interests, including the interests of the U.S. military," he said.

Finally, in addition to the September LDP election and the congressional midterm elections in November, there is one other upcoming election likely to play an influential role in determining just how weak, or how strong, the U.S.-Japan relationship becomes after the Koizumi-Bush era.

"The Okinawa governor's election is in November and current Gov. Keiichi Inamine has said he will not run again. Given Okinawan anger over the base realignment plan, especially the plan to construct the offshore base near Henoko, it now appears that the conservatives will take a beating," Eldridge said.

If that happens, Okinawan opposition to the realignment plan will likely further harden, creating political problems for Koizumi's successor and leaving Bush and U.S. officials to wonder if and when an agreement the president's good friend Koizumi supported can ever be realized.

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