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Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008

Repeat of Clinton-era friction, concerns unlikely

Staff writer

Democrats in the United States and residents in the town of Obama, Fukui Prefecture, may be getting carried away Wednesday by news of Sen. Barack Obama's victory in the U.S. presidential election.

But foreign policy experts and Japanese diplomats in Japan are staying composed, analyzing the change to determine whether the switch from a Republican government to a Democratic one will cause problems between Tokyo and Washington, although U.S. concerns over trade friction have already shifted to China and South Korea from Japan.

Japan was once a mighty trade rival for the U.S. before and during the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton, whose election in 1992 spread deep concerns among Japanese government and business leaders because of the Democrats' tradition of protecting domestic industry.

In fact, Tokyo and Washington are said to have drifted apart during the Clinton era, when auto exports caused major trade disputes and the Clinton administration used pressure-based strategies to expand foreign access to Japan's auto market.

However, during the two terms under Republican George W. Bush, ties between the U.S. and Japan ameliorated "due to similar conservativeness" on both sides of the Pacific, political science expert and professor emeritus Mitsuo Okamoto of Hiroshima Shudo University said.

Japan specialists, including former Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage, advised Bush on how to handle Tokyo, which brought out his "honeymoon" relationship with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Okamoto said.

But he added that he is assured that the end of a Republican administration and the ascendance of a Democrat to the White House does not necessarily signal tougher relations with Tokyo.

The "principle strategies with Japan are basically the same today between the two parties," he said.

Obama acted as a probusiness advocate during the campaign, saying the Bush administration wrongfully thought all free-trade agreements were favorable for the U.S.

But he chose to raise the trade imbalance and trade friction the United States was experiencing with South Korea and China instead of Japan, in one presidential debate.

But things have changed since Clinton, a senior Foreign Ministry policy official explained last week.

Japan accounted for a large portion of the U.S. trade deficit in Clinton's time, "But that is no longer the case today," the official said.

Washington and Tokyo still have economic concerns to deal with, including Japan's protected agriculture market, but they are unlikely to pose the same problems they did in the Clinton era and drastically alter relations, the official added.

Meanwhile independent experts say one Obama strategy that could affect Japan is his take on denuclearizing North Korea and leading international counterterrorism efforts in and near Afghanistan.

While his rival, Republican Sen. John McCain, said he did not support lifting U.S. sanctions against Pyongyang without progress on the Japanese abduction issue, Obama backed Bush's decision to remove North Korea from the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring states.

Observers thus say Obama may reshape the U.S. approach to denuclearizing North Korea, and influence Japan's strategy on resolving the abduction issue in the process.

Japan may also be asked to play a larger role in counterterrorism than refueling warships in the Indian Ocean. Obama has called for more troops on the ground.

Another high-level Foreign Ministry official said he was confident Tokyo and Washington would overcome such issues, saying the new U.S. administration will continue to value the bilateral alliance.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of ministry policy, noted Obama sent a greeting last November to then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda when he visited Washington. The official argued that Obama had shown much consideration to Japan-U.S. ties, even before he emerged as a powerful candidate.

"Smooth sailing of the friendship depends on whether both sides can elucidate the needs and requests of each other," the official said.

But Okamoto at Hiroshima Shudo University also said the U.S. presence in international politics has diminished, and its economy isn't as dominant as it used to be.

On global issues, including the environment, for example, the world has discounted America, and Japan and Europe are spearheading all the action. Tokyo should thus prepare itself for a multipolarization of global power that includes Europe and China, he said.

Okamoto also said Obama will probably try to improve coordination with the international community, since the U.S. struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that absolute military power isn't globally effective.

The U.S. probably won't remain the only superpower, Okamoto said, noting Japan shouldn't expect another honeymoon or fear drastic policy changes.

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The Japan Times

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