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Friday, June 13, 2008

Japan will be pressed by next U.S. leader

Staff writer

Whether Tokyo and Washington can keep up a positive security relationship under the next U.S. president who takes office in January will largely depend on Japan, experts told a recent symposium in Tokyo.

News photo
Crystal ball: University of Tokyo professor Fumiaki Kubo (second from right) discusses U.S. foreign policy under the next administration during a symposium June 2 at Keidanren Kaikan in Tokyo with (from left) Hiroshi Nakanishi, Kevin Nealer and Tsuneo Watanabe. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

The winner of the November election, presumably either Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, will maintain the "global war on terror" as a priority and will likely step up U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and the next president will expect Japan to play an even greater security role than in the eight years under George W. Bush, the experts said.

However, Japan may be unprepared to comply, partly because of the divided Diet bedeviling the ruling coalition and unresolved legal questions over military action abroad, said Hiroshi Nakanishi, a professor at the Kyoto University School of Government.

He was among the panelists who spoke at the June 2 symposium organized by the Keizai Koho Center to discuss U.S. foreign policy under the next president. The event was held just before Obama finally beat Hillary Clinton to clinch the Democratic nomination.

Nakanishi said Japan and the U.S. saw a "qualitative change" in the security alliance during the Bush years as Tokyo "stepped into areas that had previously been avoided" because of constitutional questions on whether Japan can engage in collective defense with its allies. Following the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Japan sent the Self-Defense Forces on a naval refueling mission to support the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan and a noncombat mission in Iraq.

It will be a major challenge for both Tokyo and Washington to carry on such ties under the next U.S. administration, he observed.

A special law authorizing the Maritime Self-Defense Force's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean is set to expire in January, while a law allowing the Air Self-Defense Force to airlift troops and supplies between Kuwait and Baghdad runs through July 2009.

Lacking a majority in the House of Councilors, the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is again expected to face great difficulty obtaining Diet approval to extend these laws, Nakanishi said.

The idea of enacting a permanent law for SDF operations abroad, discussed by the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito alliance as an alternative to these special laws, will also involve various legal hurdles that need to be cleared, Nakanishi added.

And despite a formal agreement between the two countries, the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa is treading water due to the domestic political gridlock, and questions are being raised by lawmakers about the financial burden to be borne by Japan for transferring the marines to Guam, he pointed out.

While the U.S. has essentially refrained from pushing more on these matters, Japan will ultimately be pressed to fulfill its pledges on the U.S. military realignment, which will impose "a heavy political burden" on Tokyo, he said.

"The ball is in Japan's court," said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute and moderator of the symposium.

The U.S. thinks some aspects of the military reorganization are on hold due to circumstances on Japan's part, and it would be a problem for relations if Washington comes to believe Tokyo can't be counted on to meet its pledges, Watanabe said.

Thus how security ties evolve under the next administration, and whether it feels it can rely on Tokyo, will largely depend on Japan, he said.

On the economic front, there is an assumption in Japan that Democratic presidents tend to take tougher stands than Republicans on trade disputes.

However, regardless of who wins in November, the next president "will inherit a bilateral trade relationship facing few high-profile issues and none that are bumper-sticker" material in the U.S, said Kevin Nealer, a partner in the Scowcroft Group.

"Market realities have operated to reduce trade tensions" between the two countries, Nealer said. The Scowcroft Group is an advisory firm managed by Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald R. Ford.

Compared with the 1980s and the 1990s, Japan's barriers to foreign investments have fallen, although the U.S. would like to see easier rules on cross-border mergers and acquisitions, Nealer said.

None of the trade policy differences between the two nations "appear to threaten the relationship and foster the kind of mistrust" that emerged in the mid-1980s, he said.

Nakanishi of Kyoto University also said that regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 4 election, the possibility is low that Japan and the U.S. will face any acrimonious trade disputes like those during the last Democratic administration of Bill Clinton.

Today, Japan's largest trading partner is China, and Japan-U.S. economic ties also need to be considered from trilateral or even regional perspectives, Nakanishi said.

Fumiaki Kubo, a law professor at the University of Tokyo, said he expects U.S. policy toward Japan in general to change little if McCain wins.

And while much remains to be seen on what policies a possible Obama administration would adopt toward Japan, Kubo said he believes Obama's foreign policy advisers recognize the alliance with Japan is a cornerstone of U.S. diplomacy in Asia.

Kubo said the scope of Japan-U.S. cooperation on various issues might become broader under a Democratic administration because Democrats are likely to pursue more multinational approaches on matters like global warming, the fight against poverty, development aid, education and HIV, compared with the unilateralist tendencies of the Bush administration.

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