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US - Japan


This was supposed to be a triumphant quarter for Japan and its alliance with the United States. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro was going to retake the initiative in Japanese politics, after leading his party to a resounding win in July’s Upper House elections. Then, he would use that mandate to push through an aggressive and ambitious economic reform program, running over the old guard within his own party who pose the chief obstacle to his efforts. Finally, the quarter would close as the United States and Japan joined together Sept. 8 to celebrate a half century of unprecedented cooperation and friendship and embarked on the next phase of their relationship.

Instead, this quarter has witnessed the emergence of what appears to be a troubling – if not dangerous – pattern in Japanese politics. It is still too early to make a definitive diagnosis, but let’s call it the “Koizumi syndrome”: bold announcements that launch high hopes that are then dashed by a combination of a failure to follow-up and the obstacles and inertia that are built into the Japanese political system. Signs of the “Koizumi syndrome” have been visible since the July Upper House election and in the aftermath to the terrorist blasts that occurred in New York City and Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11.  This diagnosis could prove premature: the prime minister might yet confound his critics. But the terrorist attacks have altered Japan’s domestic political terrain, forcing Koizumi to restructure his priorities. They put new pressure on the Japanese government to take decisive action to help its ally, but they simultaneously undermine the economic agenda that Koizumi had hoped to champion. If it derails attempts to reform the country’s ailing economy and blocks substantive efforts to assist the United States in the fight against terrorism, the bilateral relationship could become a victim of the “Koizumi syndrome.”

US - Japan

October — December 2001

Making History the Hard Way

He did it. Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro confounded the skeptics – this writer among them – and delivered on an unprecedented package of measures to support the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. The results are a victory for supporters of the U.S.-Japan alliance and a validation of their strategy to nudge Japan toward a greater role in regional security. And not only did the Japanese government act in a timely manner, but shrewd diplomacy by the prime minister disarmed critics within the region. This outcome is yet more remarkable given the confusion in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, courtesy of the on-going war between Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko and the bureaucrats under her.

If recent events are reminiscent of the halcyon days of the alliance, the memories may be more bittersweet than some prefer. As in the good old days, the strengthening of security ties poses a sharp contrast to those on the economic front. Trade frictions, in that old favorite, the steel sector, are one irritant. The real problem is the continuing deterioration of the Japanese economy. Tokyo’s failure to take forceful action in dealing with the troubled financial sector has set off alarms in Washington. Officials in both capitals recognize that any solution depends on political courage in Tokyo. Japan’s heartening response to Sept. 11 notwithstanding, few expect similar action on the economic front.

US - Japan

January — March 2002

Setting New Standards

The love fest continues.  U.S. President George W. Bush’s visit to Tokyo (Feb. 17-19), the first stop on his three-nation Asia tour, underscored the strength of the U.S.-Japan relationship and the strong personal relationship shared by the president and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro.  Throughout the first quarter of 2002, U.S. officials continued to applaud Japan’s contributions to the war against terrorism and encouraged Tokyo to do more.

The honeymoon might not last, however.  While officials on both sides of the Pacific agree that the security pillar of the relationship is the strongest it may have ever been, there are mounting concerns about Japan’s economy.  U.S. policymakers worry that economic weakness could undermine Japan’s long-term role within the alliance and the region and have been prodding Japan to take action.  But the U.S. must tread carefully. Sharp warnings or a hard line could spark a backlash.  Equally worrisome is the prospect of a loss of popular support in Japan for U.S. policies, a shift that could be triggered by the perception of U.S. unilateralism in its foreign policy.  Japanese support for the U.S.-led war against terrorism is broad, but it is not deep.  The anger unleashed by the inadvertent omission of Japan from the list of contributors to the Afghanistan conflict is a warning: alliance management is more important now than it has ever been.

It has been a relatively quiet quarter for United States-Japan relations.  Political, economic, and security relations have continued on a positive course.  The absence of any key event – read “crisis” – has allowed both governments to focus their attentions elsewhere.

Yet if the trajectory is good, there has been a big change in a critical element of the U.S.-Japan relationship: the popularity of Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro has suffered a precipitous drop.  Since public support was the prime minister’s only card in his battles with the old guard of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the plunge in public approval ratings threatens to undermine his entire legislative program.  Mr. Koizumi’s weakness will also be felt in relations with the United States.  The failure to pursue aggressive economic reform could damage his credibility in Washington’s eyes.  The prime minister has already been forced to give up on the passage of legislation that would allow the Japanese government to respond to crises – an indicator of Japan’s “new” seriousness in security affairs.

US - Japan

July — September 2002

An Oasis of Stability

It has been another peaceful quarter for U.S.-Japan relations. That the bilateral relationship could be so calm despite the tumult in international diplomacy generally is testimony to the current strength and stability of the alliance. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s surprise visit to Pyongyang and the U.S.’s full court press to get the international community to take action against Iraq have provided ample opportunities for friction in relations between Washington and Tokyo. Although critics see tensions on the rise, the two governments seem to be keeping their differences at a manageable level.

Success could prove temporary. At the best of times, the U.S. and Japan have very different approaches to international problem solving; the Bush administration’s muscular foreign policy – as made evident in the newly published National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS) – may prove to be more than the Japanese public is willing to bear. Washington’s fixation on “regime change” in Iraq threatens to put the alliance under serious strain. Fortunately, in this context, managing relations with Japan demands no more of Washington than that which the U.S. should provide the international community more generally: convincing evidence that underpins U.S. concerns and respect for the views of others.

US - Japan

October — December 2002

Vindication!

The alliance optimists should be permitted to gloat. This quarter vindicated their faith in the government of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro. Tokyo continued its support for the U.S.-led war against terrorism and even upped the ante by agreeing to send an Aegis-equipped destroyer to the Indian Ocean after a year of sometimes heated debate on the feasibility and legality of such a move. When news of North Korea’s clandestine nuclear weapons development program broke, concern about a possible split between Washington and Tokyo on dealing with Pyongyang proved unfounded. The U.S. and Japan have worked closely to fashion a solution to the crisis. There has been little daylight between the two governments’ positions.

 

Recent comments about Japanese participation in the missile defense (MD) program also comfort the alliance hawks, but the reaction they prompted reveals that over-reaching is a danger in Japan. Despite the progress of the last quarter, consensus on security issues is still elusive. A similar caution is necessary on the economic front. Japan’s economy has slid again into recession and that will constrain Tokyo’s efforts to share additional international economic burdens.

US - Japan

January — March 2003

How High is Up?

It just doesn’t get any better than this. The dream of Japan becoming “the UK of Asia” doesn’t seem so absurd after a quarter in which London and Tokyo proved to be the U.S.’s most reliable allies. Those two governments backed the U.S. attack on Iraq despite considerable opposition at home. In a marked contrast to the past, the government of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro has provided the U.S. with vocal political support, active diplomatic support, and expanding logistical support for the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. New realism in Japanese security thinking has propelled the alliance from one high note to another.

It takes some searching – and some cynicism – to find dark clouds on this ever-expanding horizon. The possibility of the war going wrong is one danger – but in that case, the U.S.-Japan alliance is likely to be the least of the concerns. More realistically, dealing with North Korea is likely to be troublesome. It has been relatively easy for Washington and Tokyo to stay in step when dealing with Pyongyang because policy has been immobilized. When the logjam breaks and serious diplomacy begins, the strains will reveal themselves. And, of course, there is the continuing stagnation in the Japanese economy. The last quarter has proven the poverty of the current government’s economic thinking; as the fiscal year ended, the government resorted to old tricks to inflate the stock market. This situation cannot continue. The U.S. cannot bear the economic and military burdens of war alone; Japan will have to step up.

US - Japan

April — June 2003

Still on a Roll

I was wrong:  U.S.-Japan relations could get better – and this quarter they did.  Tokyo continued to provide rock solid support for the U.S. in Iraq and North Korea, even though the Japanese public had doubts about the U.S. war on Baghdad. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro was rewarded for that backing with a summit at President Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch, a privilege reserved for only a very few world leaders.  The passage of “emergency legislation” and renewed enthusiasm for missile defense were more proof that Tokyo’s efforts to modernize its national security policies have not slowed.  The prospect of U.S. force redeployments worldwide only confirmed the significance of the alliance and its increasingly sturdy foundations: while much of the region worried about a reduced U.S. presence, alliance officials discussed adding to U.S. forces in Japan.  Even the fallout from crimes by U.S. servicemen on Okinawa was contained.

Some dark spots became apparent at the end of the quarter, but it would be churlish to focus on them.  Economic issues are still a problem, and dollar devaluation adds a new wrinkle.  But those misgivings aren’t new and I’m tired of sounding like Cassandra. So this quarter we celebrate without reservation the U.S.-Japan relationship.

US - Japan

July — September 2003

The Primacy of Politics

It has been a quiet quarter for the U.S.-Japan relationship. The dispatch of troops to Iraq notwithstanding, there have been no serious, specific bilateral problems for the two governments to address. While they have diverged on some multilateral questions, the goodwill accumulated over the last two years has bridged those differences.

In both countries, domestic politics dominated decision making. Japan Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro focused on re-election as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president; having won that campaign he now turns to the general election expected in early November. U.S. President George W. Bush has begun to concentrate on the 2004 campaign with U.S. voters increasingly concerned about their economic prospects. Fortunately for Japan, in this context, China looms larger in the American mind. Attention will now turn to the Oct. 17 summit between the two men. Both governments will do their best to ensure the meeting goes well. It should: U.S.-Japan relations are one of the few unquestioned successes for both administrations.

US - Japan

October — December 2003

Mr. Koizumi’s Mandate

Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s “victory” in Japan’s Nov. 7 ballot was the big event in U.S.-Japan relations this quarter.  The ruling coalition’s win was a stamp of approval for Tokyo’s support of the United States-led invasion of Iraq and the controversial decision to send Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to assist the postwar reconstruction of that country.  The Japanese public is less than enthusiastic about U.S. policy in the Middle East, but the election results seemingly validated the prime minister’s support for President George W. Bush and Koizumi’s efforts to keep pushing the envelope on security policy.  Thus, this quarter saw the Japanese Cabinet approve the controversial SDF deployment, the departure of the advanced guard of that group, a decision to deploy theater missile defense systems, and agreement to forgo some of Iraq’s debt to Japan.

Astute readers will note the qualifications in this assessment. Still, there are few signs that the cooperation and the partnership will be troubled in the near future.  There are indications of potential long-term difficulties, however. Fatalities during the Iraqi deployment could have a powerful effect on public sentiment and erode support for the alliance. Rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula could have a similar effect.  In both cases, the United States could be seen as having dragged an overly compliant Japanese government into harm’s way or Koizumi could be charged with sacrificing Japanese national interests to protect the U.S.-Japan alliance.  The solution is not to avoid difficult situations; rather Tokyo needs to do a better job of selling its policies to the Japanese public.  The government needs to use the language of national interest instead of merely saying that is acting “as a good partner should.” There are signs that Tokyo is learning.

US - Japan

January — March 2004

Staying the Course

It’s only fitting that the United States and Japan marked the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Kanagawa this quarter as they celebrated “the best relations ever” between the two nations. Cynics will note that it’s only downhill from here, so there is every reason to enjoy the blissful state of relations while we can. To the delight of alliance managers on both sides of the Pacific, both governments managed to stay the course. There were no surprises or shocks, despite concerns about the risks in Japan’s deployment of Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq.

That historic event was part of a larger effort to strengthen the framework for intensified collaboration between Washington and Tokyo. That agenda continues to move forward. There were some bumps along the way, but they were minor. All in all, it was a very good quarter.

Relations between the United States and Japan were very good this quarter, even though a number of events threatened to derail the solid ties between the two governments. A hostage crisis in Iraq and the discovery of an alleged al-Qaeda network in Japan brought home to Japanese the reality of the war on terror. No longer could they disassociate themselves from events half a world away. By the end of the quarter, both governments could point to their relationship as an example of how an alliance is supposed to work; Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro could finally make the case that his close relationship with President Bush paid tangible dividends. Not only was his strategy vindicated, but he could point to an outcome on a key policy that a majority of Japanese could support.

It has been another relatively calm quarter for U.S.-Japan relations. There was one potential calamity (the crash of a U.S. helicopter in Okinawa) and a few controversies, but, in the main, the alliance was on cruise control. The issues of note had Japanese domestic political consequences: the Upper House election, comments from U.S. officials about the Japanese constitution and, related to that, the Bush-Koizumi meeting at the United Nations that addressed, among other things, Tokyo’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

In short, the alliance is functioning well and absorbing rather smoothly whatever complications arise: in addition to the helicopter crash, chessmaster and hatemeister Bobby Fischer’s arrest and subsequent asylum request and the return from North Korea of alleged U.S. Army defector Charles Robert Jenkins are the two most significant this quarter. The best indication of the state of the relationship may be the fact that Japan has not come up in this year’s election campaign. The solidity and stability of the alliance have allowed it to recede into the background.

US - Japan

October — December 2004

Planning Ahead

The final quarter of 2004 was uneventful, at least as far as U.S.-Japan relations were concerned. I don’t dwell on this tranquility to fill space; it’s revealing of the maturity and solidity of the relationship and a welcome change from the turbulence of the 1990s. This period of calm permits the two governments to focus on future planning rather than alliance management. To their credit, they are doing just that.

Highlights of this quarter include a public discussion of the meaning of the “Far East” clause in the U.S.-Japan security treaty, a topic that fits into a broader national security debate that is taking place in Japan, Japan’s hosting of a Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) exercise in Sagami Bay, and approval of the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), which outline Japan’s future security posture. The quarter closed with the terrible earthquake in Indonesia and the tsunami it created; Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro was quick to respond, both to deploy Japan’s formidable assets to help combat the devastation, and to demonstrate his country’s ability to play a vital regional and international role.

In the first quarter of 2005, the United States and Japan signed a historic declaration that laid a foundation for the future of their bilateral security alliance. The Feb. 19 Security Consultative Committee (SCC) meeting both locked in the impressive progress that has been made in the security dimension of the alliance over the past four years and committed Washington and Tokyo to continuing efforts to modernize their alliance. Yet, as the two governments looked toward a rejuvenated alliance, an increasingly contentious trade spat over beef reminded both countries that bad old habits were ever ready to spoil celebrations over “the best relations ever.”

Both governments will have their hands full. To help reassure Japanese that a new foreign policy team in Washington – or at least the departure of the most prominent Japan hands – does not augur a shift in U.S. priorities, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made Japan her first stop in East Asia during a six-country Asian tour. In Tokyo, she wowed the crowd despite sending a tough message on beef and walking a careful line on North Korea policy.

 

US - Japan

April — June 2005

Tokyo’s Trials

Two issues dominated U.S.-Japan relations this quarter. The first, Tokyo’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), is a high-profile diplomatic contest that could strain the alliance even though it is not about the alliance. The second is the continuing effort to transform the U.S. military presence in Asia and how the resulting deployments in Japan will look. There was no resolution to either issue, nor will there be one in the immediate future: the interests and constituencies involved are so large that it will take considerable time to work out a solution acceptable to both countries. Smaller trade issues – beef and apples – were also back on the bilateral agenda.  Dealing with all these items will test the alliance management skills of the new team in the State Department, one that is increasingly depleted of senior Japan hands.

The 60th anniversary of the end of World War II poses challenges of its own. Many people, in Japan and elsewhere, see the 60th anniversary as especially significant, signaling the end of an era. Optimists see this as the moment that Japan emerges from its postwar slumber to assume a new role in Asia and the world; pessimists worry that part of the reckoning could focus on the U.S.-Japan alliance, and that the accounting of history that has so roiled Tokyo’s neighbors, will soon engulf the bilateral relationship.

In a show of political derring-do, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro called a snap election in August after facing resistance to economic reform from his own party. The prime minister read the public mood well: the ballot produced a landslide victory that permitted him to steamroll the opposition both within the Diet and within his party. In theory, Koizumi’s new strength should help the alliance; his new mandate should cover security policies, too. In reality, voters were thinking less expansively, however. And in practical terms, the political landscape has been so transformed that adjusting to it will take time. Important decisions will not be made and patience will be at a premium.

Delays hit two important U.S. concerns: redeploying U.S. forces in Japan and lifting the ban on U.S. beef imports. Failure to resolve these issues is ratcheting up pressure in Washington and may even prompt a public falling out. Congressional hearings that evoke the Japan bashing of old may be a harbinger of things to come in the next quarter.

US - Japan

October — December 2005

The Alliance Transformed?

The last quarter of 2005 will be remembered as a historic moment for the U.S.-Japan alliance. In October, the Security Consultative Committee (the “SCC” is the meeting of secretaries/ministers of foreign affairs and defense, sometimes referred to as the “2+2”) ratified an interim report on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan that could usher in a new era in relations between the two countries. If realized, the report will transform the alliance.

That’s a big “if.” This is only an “interim” report and the problems it “solves” have plagued the alliance for a decade. Seeing the agreement implemented will be difficult. Moreover, the weeks before the agreement was reached were marked by rancor and rhetoric that matched that of the dark days of Japan bashing. Petulance and posturing are a poor foundation for a “rejuvenated” alliance.

US - Japan

January — March 2006

Unfinished Business

The U.S.-Japan alliance returned to earth this quarter. After a dizzying five-year run during which Japanese actions consistently exceeded U.S. expectations, old habits reasserted themselves in the first quarter of 2006. Unfinished business – base relocations and the reimposition of the Japanese ban on imports of U.S. beef – bedeviled both governments, while coordination on a range of other global issues proved equally frustrating. This is especially troubling as Japan becomes increasingly focused on the transition to the post-Koizumi era, which begins in September when the prime minister steps down. There is a real danger that alliance issues will fester as the Japanese gaze narrows to domestic concerns.

The second quarter of 2006 went about as well for U.S.-Japan relations as could be imagined. The two governments agreed on a plan to restructure their military alliance; the ban on U.S. beef exports to Japan was lifted (again); the two countries’ diplomacy appears to be well coordinated as they deal with vexing issues (Iran and North Korea); and the “Sayonara Summit” was a PR success (as anticipated). From all appearances, the foundation has been laid for a successful U.S.-Japan partnership that outlives the George Bush-Koizumi Junichiro “special relationship.”

US - Japan

July — September 2006

Enter Abe Stage Right

The key theme for the third quarter of 2006 has been the transition of power from Koizumi Junichiro to Abe Shinzo. Abe has just taken the helm, but he already had command of policy making before becoming prime minister. It was North Korea’s July test-launch of seven missiles that gave Abe a chance to display his leadership credentials, setting the stage for a continued strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Koizumi’s Aug. 15 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine raised questions and criticism in some corners in Washington about how ideological an Abe government might become, but the Koizumi visit may also have bought Abe time to decide how to handle the complex mix of history and power relations with China.

 

US - Japan

October — December 2006

Abe Shows the Right Stuff

The third quarter of 2006 began with North Korea’s July 5 missile launches. This quarter, Pyongyang added another provocation with the Oct. 9 nuclear test. The prospect of another nuclear weapons state in Japan’s neighborhood was bad news, but the test also created an opportunity for Japan and its neighbors to begin forging consensus on an approach to this new regional security challenge. While the nuclear test posed a significant threat to Tokyo and prompted discussions (normally considered taboo) of nuclearization as a means to strengthen Japan’s deterrence, it also led the United States to reaffirm its commitment to defend Japan under the nuclear umbrella.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, in his first meeting with President George Bush as prime minister, demonstrated a strong commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance and pledged to cooperate closely on North Korea and other regional security issues. He also pledged to move toward implementing an agreement on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, particularly on Okinawa where the new governor appears willing to work with the central government. It is unclear if implementation will go smoothly, but the dynamics of Japan’s security environment, complicated by the North Korean nuclear test, could facilitate further progress in bilateral security cooperation. In the fourth quarter, Abe engaged in a series of security and diplomatic challenges that allowed him to show that he has the “right stuff” to be prime minister, despite his relative youth and inexperience.  But a sudden sag in popularity at home in December and questions about his commitment to economic reform will be areas to watch in the new year.

In the last quarter of 2006, the first quarter since taking office, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo enjoyed his honeymoon period by showing the “right stuff”: (snap visits to China and South Korea as part of efforts to reconcile relations with the two countries, success in reaching the unanimous resolution of the United Nations Security Council condemning North Korea for its October 2006 nuclear test; and the first summit meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush that reconfirmed the importance of and confidence in the U.S.-Japan alliance). But the decline of his popularity over the same period because of scandals and disciplinary problems in his Cabinet also revealed political weaknesses. Across the Pacific, President Bush saw his political situation deteriorate with Republican defeats in the House and Senate in November.

The first quarter of 2007 turned out to be a rough patch not only for President Bush and Prime Minister Abe domestically, but also for the U.S.-Japan alliance. In the United States the shock came from comments made by Abe and other political leaders in response to U.S. Congressional hearings regarding “comfort women” (women put into brothels for the Japanese army during the war). In Japan, the shock came from the sudden shift in U.S. policy toward North Korea with the Feb. 13 Six-Party Talks agreement. Several major U.S. newspapers criticized Abe for attempting to justify Japanese behavior during the war and virtually all Japanese newspapers criticized the U.S. decision to take a more accommodating line toward North Korea so soon after the nuclear test. For the first time since the 1995 Okinawa rape incident, editorials in both countries raised questions of trust about the other.

Despite this Sturm und Drang in the press and the legislatures, this quarter also saw a marked increase in high-level attention to Japan from the Bush administration, with visits to Japan from Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, and Deputy National Security Advisor J.D. Crouch. Meanwhile, Japan moved ahead with steps to strengthen its security policy institutions, passing legislation that elevates the Defense Agency to a ministry and introducing new legislation to establish a U.S.-style National Security Council. And fears that a more protectionist Congress might start targeting Japan proved mostly wrong as the new Democratic majority instead set its sights on China.

Prime Minister Abe will make his first visit to Washington since taking office in late April. Until then, he has to do his utmost to remind audiences in Japan and the United States that he still has the “right stuff” when it comes to tough problems like North Korea and sensitive issues like the comfort women. He also has to demonstrate his resilience domestically in April local elections just before coming to Washington. And then there is the big test – Upper House elections in July that could be make-or-break.

After taking office last September, Abe Shinzo won kudos at home and abroad by flying to China and South Korea to mend relations with Japan’s two disgruntled neighbors. Critics who worried he would be too blunt and nationalistic to succeed as prime minister were quickly proven wrong. Few anticipated how many problems he would have on the domestic front. In the last quarter, Abe’s high poll ratings were driven down by a series of scandals in his Cabinet and by backroom political maneuvering that gave the impression he was reversing Koizumi’s reformist agenda. At the beginning of this quarter Abe once again used foreign policy – this time a successful summit with President George W. Bush and at the G-8 – to push his poll numbers up again. The success of the summit was particularly reassuring in the context of growing Congressional criticism of Japan over Tokyo’s treatment of the “comfort women” issue.

Abe’s overseas successes were soon offset by a domestic scandal over the government’s mismanagement of pension accounts (that his government could ill afford) in the lead up to Upper House elections at the end of July. Abe will have to survive the Upper House election (he is not running but it will be seen as a referendum on his job) if he is going to move forward with his greatest goal: constitutional revision. Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) hoped at one point that the constitutional revision pledge would carry them to victory in the Upper House election, but the pension system scandal has clearly become the issue on voters’ minds – much to the government’s chagrin. Still, Japanese voters appreciate toughness and perseverance, which Abe has in abundant supply, and that may save him yet.

US - Japan

July — September 2007

Fukuda Takes the Helm

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was defeated in the July 29 Upper House election and lost its majority to a coalition led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).  Abe Shinzo vowed to stay on as prime minister despite calls for his resignation, reshuffling his Cabinet in late August and then continuing diplomatic initiatives in meetings with President George W. Bush and others at the APEC summit in Sydney.  However, presented with news from his doctors that his ulcer-related health problems were now chronic and facing intractable opposition from DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro to an extension of the government’s counterterrorism law in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Abe suddenly resigned a week after the Sydney summit.  The quarter came to a close with Fukuda Yasuo succeeding Abe and vowing to forge ahead with economic reforms and strong support in the war against terror.  But Fukuda only has three months to win back public support as the Diet could deadlock during contentious budget negotiations early next year, forcing an election for the more powerful Lower House by the spring.  Such a showdown seems likely, given Ozawa’s pledge of a no-holds-barred fight to destroy the LDP.

Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo outlined his foreign policy agenda in an address to the Diet, highlighting – as did his predecessors Abe Shinzo and Koizumi Junichiro – the U.S.-Japan alliance and international cooperation as the foundations of Japanese diplomacy.  But legislation authorizing Japan’s naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean became a political football in a divided legislature and expired on Nov. 1, forcing Fukuda to draft a new bill and extend the Diet session twice in an attempt to continue Japan’s support for the war on terror.  Fukuda noted the importance of the bill during a November summit with President Bush in Washington that also covered other issues including the Six-Party Talks and concerns in Japan about a perceived shift in the U.S. position on Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.  Other developments such as a new agreement on host nation support for U.S. forces in Japan and a successful sea-based missile defense test demonstrated forward trajectory for alliance cooperation.  Yet the quarter ended with other issues unresolved, namely Japan’s suspension of Indian Ocean refueling operations and Pyongyang’s failure to come clean on its nuclear programs.

Japanese domestic politics was in turmoil this quarter due to a divided legislature and the opposition’s efforts to block several key pieces of legislation in an attempt to force Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo out of office.  The deadlock centered almost exclusively on economic issues, much to the dismay of U.S. investors who have increasingly begun to question the ability of the political leadership in Japan to manage the economy.  The Fukuda administration signaled Japan’s sustained commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance and a leadership role in international security by passing a bill re-authorizing Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) refueling operations in the Indian Ocean.  But a collision between an MSDF Aegis-equipped destroyer and a fishing boat near Tokyo in February, coupled with continued fallout from a bribery scandal last fall, forced the government to focus more on structural reform at the Defense Ministry at the expense of new policy initiatives.  Rape allegations against a U.S. soldier stationed in Okinawa and the detainment of another as a murder suspect sparked demonstrations against the U.S. military presence in Japan, though the two governments worked closely to prevent a crisis.  Bilateral coordination on the Six-Party Talks continued and there were hints of renewed interest in a trilateral consultation framework with South Korea.  Several events in Washington were dedicated to the U.S.-Japan alliance and brought public attention to pressing issues and ideas that might inform a bilateral agenda going forward.

The debate in the Japanese Diet remained contentious this quarter as opposition parties challenged the Fukuda government on several legislative issues including the gasoline tax, a new health insurance program for the elderly, and host nation support for U.S. forces.  Fukuda’s approval rating fell suddenly due to public dissatisfaction with his domestic policy agenda but later rebounded enough to quell rumors of a Cabinet reshuffle prior to the Hokkaido G8 Summit in July.  The arrest in early April of a U.S. serviceman charged with murdering a taxi driver in Yokosuka brought negative publicity for U.S. forces.

Japanese anxieties also continued to mount as the U.S. prepared to lift terrorism-related sanctions on North Korea as part of the Six-Party Talks, despite earlier pledges that this would not be done without progress on the abductee issue.  President Bush did announce his intention to lift those sanctions on June 26, but his strong reaffirmation of support for Japan on the abductee issue helped to assuage some of the concerns in Tokyo.  It also helped that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed during the G8 foreign ministers meeting in Kyoto that the U.S. actions would be reversed if North Korea’s claims could not be verified; a message of reassurance Bush would likely echo and broaden during his visit to Japan in July.  All of this took place as the Japanese public paid close attention to the U.S. presidential race and as the candidates took their debate into the pages of Japanese newspapers.  Speculation also persisted about possible dissolution of the Diet and new elections in Japan sometime in the next year.

The quarter began with President Bush and Prime Minister Fukuda meeting on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Hokkaido, but their bilateral agenda and Fukuda’s own premiership were eclipsed by dramatic political and economic developments in both countries.  Fukuda resigned suddenly on Sept. 1 having failed to convince the public he could strengthen the economy and move important legislation through a divided legislature.  Aso Taro won the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential race in a landslide and began his tenure as prime minister stressing economic stimulus measures, the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance, and Japan’s role as a global leader, but with uncertainty about whether his government would even survive to the end of the year.  Ozawa Ichiro was re-elected president of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and touted a populist manifesto to woo the public in anticipation of a Lower House election this fall.  Meanwhile, the U.S. government struggled to contain a financial crisis that rattled world markets, prompting Japanese banks to take major stakes in ailing U.S. businesses.  A successful ballistic missile defense test in September augured well for sustained bilateral defense cooperation, assuming defense budgets survive the current financial turmoil.  And North Korea’s move toward reprocessing plutonium at Yongbyon threatened to erase the diplomatic progress made in the Six-Party Talks at a time when leaders in Washington and Tokyo already had plenty of diplomatic challenges and tough domestic elections to manage.

US - Japan

October — December 2008

Traversing a Rough Patch

The U.S. decision to rescind the designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism tested the bilateral relationship this quarter as the Bush administration was perceived in Japan as having softened its commitment to the abductee issue in favor of a breakthrough on denuclearization in the Six-Party Talks, which ultimately proved elusive.  The Aso government managed to extend the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) refueling mission in the Indian Ocean for one year, though bilateral discussions on defense issues continued to center on whether Japan could move beyond a symbolic commitment to coalition operations in Afghanistan.

Japanese domestic politics remained tumultuous as the opposition led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) thwarted the Aso legislative agenda to increase pressure for a snap election.  Prime Minister Aso’s approval rating plummeted over the course of the quarter due mostly to frustration with the response to the financial crisis, prompting him to postpone the widely anticipated Lower House election in an attempt to shore up support for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).  Public opinion polls revealed increased interest in offering the DPJ a chance at the helm with most observers predicting an election sometime next spring.  Other polls at the end of the quarter showed the Japanese public less sanguine about the U.S.-Japan alliance, a sobering development as President-elect Obama prepared to take office.

US - Japan

January — March 2009

A Fresh Start

A new calendar year did little to change the tenor of Japanese domestic politics as the public became increasingly frustrated with parliamentary gridlock and the leadership of Prime Minister Aso Taro, whose approval rating plummeted amid a deepening recession.  Opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro continued pressure tactics against the government and became the favorite to succeed Aso until the arrest of a close aide damaged his reputation and stunted momentum for a snap election.  Aso demonstrated the art of political survival, touting the urgency of economic stimulus over a poll he could easily lose and which need not take place until the fall.  In an effort to prevent political turmoil from weakening Japan’s global leadership role, the government dispatched two Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyers to participate in antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

The Obama administration wasted little time in establishing a positive trajectory for the U.S.-Japan alliance, first sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Tokyo in mid-February and receiving Prime Minister Aso at the White House shortly thereafter.  The core agenda items for both visits – the economic crisis, North Korea, Afghanistan, and climate change – reflected both regional and global challenges. Bilateral issues also featured prominently on the agenda in the form of an agreement on the relocation of U.S. forces from Okinawa to Guam.  In a fitting end to a quarter of close bilateral coordination, Washington and Tokyo were poised to monitor an anticipated missile test by North Korea and orchestrate a cohesive response that could determine the fate of the Six-Party Talks.

Most analysts had thought this quarter would begin with the dissolution of the Lower House of the Diet and elections, but Prime Minister Aso Taro put off the election with the hope that additional economic stimulus measures would translate into increased support for his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.  The stimulus package helped a bit, but Aso received a real boost when Ozawa Ichiro resigned as opposition leader in May due to a funding scandal.  That boost in the polls quickly evaporated when Ozawa was succeeded as head of the Democratic Party of Japan by Hatoyama Yukio.  Revelations that an aide had falsified his political funding reports for several years tarnished Hatoyama’s image, but did not help Aso and the government raise their support rate beyond the low teens in many polls.  As a result, most analysts continued to predict a victory for the DPJ in a general election expected in August and uncertainty continued hanging over the U.S.-Japan relationship because neither political party in Japan is likely to win a landslide – meaning another year or more of parliamentary gridlock.

Japan’s political mess did not get in the way of close U.S.-Japan coordination in response to a series of North Korean provocations, including missile tests and the detonation of a nuclear device.  President Obama also made progress in nominating key personnel to guide the U.S.-Japan relationship including the nomination of attorney John Roos for ambassador to Japan and the confirmation of Kurt Campbell as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs.  The quarter came to a close with the U.S. Congress gearing up for a budgetary battle with the Obama administration over the future of the F-22 stealth fighter, which the Aso administration has said it wants to buy, and Secretary of Defense Gates has said he does not intend to sell.

US - Japan

July — September 2009

Interpreting Change

Hatoyama Yukio led the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to a landslide victory in the Aug. 30 Lower House election and was elected prime minister after a spirited campaign for change both in the form and substance of policymaking.  Exit polls showed that the public had grown weary of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) but had not necessarily embraced the agenda of the coalition government Hatoyama would subsequently form with an eye toward consolidating power in an Upper House election next summer.  Though the election centered primarily on domestic policy, Hatoyama began his tenure by outlining foreign policy priorities during visits to the UN in New York and the G20 summit in Pittsburgh less than a week after he took office.

The Obama administration emphasized respect and patience as Japan experienced a transition to a non-LDP government for only the second time since 1955.  Senior U.S. officials visited Tokyo for consultations soon after the election and prepared for the first meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama in New York on Sept. 23.  The leaders reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance and set the stage for a visit to Japan by Obama in November.  The quarter ended with good atmospherics but also questions about the extent to which Hatoyama would try to implement several campaign pledges – such as renegotiating the realignment plan for U.S. forces on Okinawa – with the potential to strain bilateral ties.

Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio moved to implement his domestic policy agenda with an eye toward the Upper House elections this summer but watched his approval rating fall as he and members of his ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) were beset by political fundraising scandals.  The impasse over the relocation of Marine Air Station Futenma continued to dominate the bilateral agenda and alternative proposals put forth by the Hatoyama government failed to advance the discussion.  Concerns about barriers to US exports and the restructuring of Japan Post emerged in commentary by the Obama administration and congressional leaders but a joint statement highlighting cooperation on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) reinforced the economic pillar of the relationship.  The Toyota hearings in Congress were covered extensively by media in both countries but did not have an immediate impact on US-Japan relations. However, the recall issue and other developments point to potentially negative perceptions that could cloud official efforts to build a comprehensive framework for the alliance over the course of the year, the 50th anniversary of the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty.

US - Japan

April — June 2010

New Realism

The relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa remained the predominant issue in the US-Japan relationship and the two governments issued a joint statement in late May reaffirming a commitment to realize a plan adopted in 2006 with some modifications to be explored.  Prime Minister Hatoyama then resigned as polls revealed frustration with his handling of the Futenma issue and weak leadership overall.  Finance Minister Kan Naoto succeeded Hatoyama as premier and outlined his own policy priorities just weeks before an important parliamentary election.  Kan stressed the centrality of the US-Japan alliance to Japanese diplomacy and reiterated the theme in his first meeting with President Obama at the G8 Summit in late June.  The two leaders’ first meeting was business-like and lacking for drama – exactly as both governments had hoped.  New public opinion polls suggested political turmoil at home has not had a significant impact on Japan’s standing globally or in the US, but some observers continued to suggest the US should lower expectations of Japan as an ally in the debate about the future of the alliance.

US - Japan

July — September 2010

Hitting the Reset Button

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) suffered an embarrassing defeat in the July Upper House election less than a year after assuming power.  Prime Minister Kan Naoto subsequently took a beating in the polls but managed to withstand a challenge from former DPJ Secretary General Ozawa Ichiro in a party presidential election marked by heated debate over economic policy.  Political turmoil did not preclude active diplomacy on the part of Kan’s government, nor coordination between Washington and Tokyo on a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues including the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma on Okinawa; a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands; and sanctions on Iran to condemn its nuclear activities.  The quarter came to a close with President Obama and Prime Minister Kan taking stock of a rapidly developing bilateral agenda during a brief yet productive meeting on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, setting the stage for the president’s trip to Japan in November.

US - Japan

October — December 2010

Tempering Expectations

Prime Minister Kan Naoto opened the quarter with a speech promising a government that would deliver on domestic and foreign policy, but public opinion polls indicated he was failing on both fronts, damaging his own approval rating and that of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).  The US and Japanese governments continued a pattern of coordination at senior levels and North Korea’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 furthered trilateral diplomacy with South Korea and exchanges among the three militaries.  President Obama met with Kan on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leader’s Meeting in Yokohama to take stock of the relationship, though a once-anticipated joint declaration on the alliance did not materialize and the optics of the meeting appeared designed to lower expectations as the Futenma relocation issue remained unresolved.  A bilateral public opinion survey on US-Japan relations released at the end of the quarter captured the current dynamic accurately with Futenma contributing to less sanguine views but convergence in threat perception and an appreciation for the role of the alliance in maintaining regional security as encouraging signs for the future.

The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that struck Japan on March 11 tested the leadership credentials of the Kan government and the capacity for alliance coordination in response to simultaneous crises.  With the exception of disconnects in assessing the nature of the nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the March 11 tragedy revealed the strength of the alliance as the Obama administration further demonstrated US solidarity with Japan by announcing a partnership for reconstruction to support Japan’s recovery.  Prime Minister Kan reshuffled his Cabinet for the second time and unveiled a policy agenda aimed at “the opening of Japan” but faced scrutiny for failing to usher budget-related legislation through a divided Diet.  Bilateral diplomacy proceeded apace and was aimed at advancing economic and security cooperation though a controversy over alleged remarks about Okinawa by a senior US diplomat had the potential to cause another crisis in the alliance.

Kan Naoto resigned as prime minister on Aug. 26 after promising to step aside almost three months earlier amid dissension within his ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and dwindling public support after a clumsy response to the tragedies of March 11.  He was succeeded by Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko, who prevailed in the DPJ presidential race despite little evidence of support in the polls, but strong backing within the party.  The US and Japan convened the first Security Consultative Committee or “2+2” in four years to outline common strategic objectives and strengthen alliance cooperation in a regional and global setting.  The two governments also consulted on the margins of international events to discuss cooperation on various issues.  Vice President Joseph Biden visited Japan in late August to reiterate US support for the recovery effort and met victims of the disaster in Tohoku.   Public opinion polls in Japan and the United States revealed a solid foundation of support for the US-Japan alliance.

Prime Minister Noda accomplished important steps including the selection of the F-35 as Japan’s next-generation fighter, relaxing the three arms export principles, and announcing a decision to join negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – all of which demonstrated the current Japanese government’s readiness to revive the economy and strengthen security ties and capabilities.  At the same time, the government’s support rate began to collapse in a pattern eerily similar to Noda’s five predecessors, raising questions about the ability of the government to follow through on the more challenging political commitments related to TPP.  President Obama met Noda at the United Nations in New York and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hawaii in an active season of bilateral diplomacy.  Public opinion surveys revealed generally positive views of the US-Japan relationship in both countries but the impasse over relocating Marine Corps Air Station Futenma fueled negative perceptions in Japan.

US - Japan

January — April 2012

Back to Normal?

After three tumultuous and frustrating years as the DPJ tried to find its legs, Prime Minister Noda finally visited Washington.  Noda has been busy pursuing an increase in the consumption tax, trying to gain support for some continuation of nuclear power, cobbling together domestic support for Japanese participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, and facing the perennial struggle on relocating Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa.  By the time of his visit, Noda had started to line up support for the consumption tax, backed off temporarily on TPP, and waited on restarting nuclear plants. However, he did manage to complete an agreement to de-link the move of about 9,000 US Marines to Guam and other locations in the Pacific from the Futenma relocation issue.  That announcement was a rare victory and set a positive tone for the summit and the joint statement pledged to revitalize the alliance.  The prime minister returned home to face the same domestic political challenges, but with an important if limited accomplishment in foreign policy.

Prime Minister Noda advanced a legislative package on tax and social security reform but faced stiff political headwinds in the form of a frustrated public and a jaded opposition steeling for an election.  Japanese concerns over the safety of the MV-22 Osprey aircraft scheduled for deployment in Okinawa dominated the bilateral agenda – at least in the media – and tested the mettle of Japan’s widely-respected new defense minister.  The two governments agreed to continue consultations on Japan’s interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) but political paralysis in Japan and presidential politics in the United States could complicate efforts to make progress in the near term.  Two reports issued over the summer addressing US force posture strategy in the Asia-Pacific and the agenda for US-Japan alliance, respectively, focused on the future trajectory for the bilateral relationship.

The Liberal Democratic Party won a Lower House election in a landslide and Abe Shinzo became prime minister for the second time amid public frustration with poor governance and anemic economic growth.  The United States and Japan continued a pattern of regular consultations across a range of bilateral and regional issues with tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands and another North Korean missile launch topping the diplomatic agenda.  The US military presence on Okinawa also featured with the deployment of the V-22 Osprey aircraft to Okinawa and the arrest of two US servicemen in the alleged rape of a Japanese woman.  The year came to a close with Prime Minister Abe hoping for a visit to Washington early in 2013 to establish a rapport with President Obama and follow through on his election pledge to revitalize the US-Japan alliance.

US - Japan

January — April 2013

Back on Track

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo generated a buzz in the media and the markets by introducing a three-pronged economic strategy designed to change expectations for growth as his ruling Liberal Democratic Party prepares for a parliamentary election in July.  President Obama hosted Abe in Washington for a summit that paved the way for Japan’s inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.  Bilateral coordination on regional security and defense cooperation accelerated with high-level visits in both capitals to reaffirm the vitality of the alliance. The reemergence this spring of tensions between Japan and its neighbors over history issues was the only wrinkle in an extremely productive period in US-Japan relations.

US - Japan

May — August 2013

Abe Settles In

Prime Minister Abe focused intently on economic policy and led his Liberal Democratic Party to a resounding victory in the July Upper House election, securing full control of the Diet and a period of political stability that bodes well for his policy agenda.  Multilateral gatherings in Asia yielded several opportunities for bilateral and trilateral consultations on security issues, and the economic pillar of the alliance also took shape with Japan’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and discussions on energy cooperation.  Comments on sensitive history issues sparked controversy but did not derail bilateral diplomacy.  The nomination of Caroline Kennedy as US ambassador to Japan marks a new chapter in the relationship.

US - Japan

September — December 2013

Big Steps, Big Surprises

Prime Minister Abe continued to focus on the economy but also introduced diplomatic and defense strategies as his first year in office came to a close.  The US and Japanese governments participated in TPP trade negotiations and bilateral talks but could not resolve differences on agricultural liberalization and market access for automobiles.  A meeting of the bilateral Security Consultative Committee set forth priorities for defense cooperation, and China’s announcement of its East China Sea ADIZ put bilateral coordination to the test.  The governor of Okinawa approved a landfill permit for the Futenma Replacement Facility on Okinawa, establishing some momentum for the realignment of US forces there.  Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine disappointed the Obama administration and sparked major debate in the US, but was not expected to upend bilateral diplomacy.

US - Japan

January — April 2014

The Sushi Summit

The Abe government focused on the economy, energy strategy, and defense policy reform but the timeline for implementing these pillars of Abe’s agenda was uncertain.  A flurry of bilateral diplomacy paved the way for various initiatives including a trilateral summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and President Obama in The Hague.  Obama made a state visit to Japan highlighting areas for strategic cooperation between Japan and the United States but the two governments were not able to conclude a bilateral trade agreement that would strengthen the economic pillar of the alliance.

The Abe government outlined an economic growth strategy and introduced a package of defense policy reforms aimed at enhancing Japan’s leadership role on security.  Bilateral dialogue on security cooperation and military exercises featured prominently, complemented by trilateral coordination with other US allies on the margins of multilateral gatherings in the region.  The two governments conducted several rounds of bilateral trade negotiations related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership but were unable to make progress on sensitive market access issues that threatened to prolong efforts to boost the economic pillar of the alliance.

Weak economic data prompted Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to postpone painful tax increases and call a snap election to extend the window in which to advance his policy agenda. US-Japan negotiations on TPP slowed, but President Obama made his first significant public push in December on TPP. Discussions on revising the bilateral defense guidelines advanced somewhat but were extended into 2015 to better coincide with the legislative debate in Japan on defense policy. Trilateral coordination with Australia and South Korea reflected a shared commitment to network the alliance agenda. Public opinion surveys revealed a foundation of support for the US-Japan relationship across a range of issue areas. All of the bilateral agenda on defense and trade was aimed at a potential Abe visit to Washington in the spring.

US - Japan

January — April 2015

Strategic Alignment

Benefiting from a window of political stability, the Abe government continued to focus on the twin pillars of economic strategy and defense policy reform.  Bilateral engagement on security, trade, and regional and global issues informed the agenda for the prime minister’s official visit to Washington in late April, the first by a Japanese leader in nine years.  Abe also became the first Japanese leader to address a joint session of Congress and relayed the main themes from his summit with President Obama by reflecting on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, celebrating the evolution of the US-Japan alliance, and outlining a strategic vision for the future.

In the wake of a highly successful April visit by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to Washington, the US-Japan relationship seemed poised for a celebration of success in revamping the alliance. Two focal points of alliance policymakers were the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  But over the summer, both of these initiatives came under political scrutiny. Beyond alliance priorities, the US and Japan faced additional dilemmas in how to deal with a more assertive and sensitive China. Artificial island building by China in the South China Sea brought the US and Japan into closer dialogue over regional maritime cooperation.    At the end of the summer, the much-anticipated commemorations of the end of World War II in Japan and China brought heightened sensitivity to the region.

Washington and Tokyo made significant progress on two new initiatives this fall – Japan’s implementation of legislation for the exercise of collective self-defense and the conclusion of negotiations with other participants in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). With Japanese Upper House elections in the summer and US presidential elections in the fall, trade, military strategy, and US-Japan security cooperation will be part of the political discourse in both countries. Along with the ratification process for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, two challenges for Washington and Tokyo that will continue into the new year are how to respond to Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea and how to deal with local opposition to Tokyo’s plans for building a new airfield to replace the Futenma facility on Okinawa.

US - Japan

January — April 2016

2016 Opens with a Bang

The US-Japan relationship was relatively steady in the early months of 2016 until the US presidential primaries began to stir things up.  For the first time in decades, Japan became the focus of debate on the campaign trail when Donald Trump began to single out Japan on trade and on security cooperation. There was also a setback on the Futenma replacement facility when construction was halted following a compromise between the central government and Okinawa that calls for a court decision on how to proceed. Nevertheless, the two governments continued to refine alliance coordination in the face of North Korea’s nuclear test and missile launches and pursued maritime cooperation as Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea continued to roil regional waters. With major elections on the horizon, both countries are likely to be consumed by politics in the coming months.

President Obama and Prime Minister Abe traveled to Hiroshima, where Obama took the opportunity to speak of the devastating consequences of war in the nuclear era. The summer months that followed were full of politics, with an Upper House election in Japan in July and the Republican and Democratic Party conventions in the US kicking off the general election campaign for president. The Obama administration continued to work toward congressional passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the end of the year. With less political contention but growing skepticism over Washington’s ability to ratify the agreement, the Abe Cabinet decided to postpone Diet discussions on the topic until after its election. Regional relations continue to shape the US-Japan alliance agenda with Chinese maritime activity in the East China Sea and South China Sea and ongoing North Korean provocations garnering the most attention.

US-Japan Relations and the Trump Effect

The US presidential election was the primary influence affecting US-Japan relations in the fall of 2016. Japan was brought into the spotlight during the campaign with Trump repeatedly criticizing Tokyo for unfair trade practices and free riding in the alliance. The outcome of the election left many Japanese worried about the future of the alliance. Prime Minister Abe quickly reached out to President-elect Trump, arranging a meeting with him in New York on Nov. 18. Beyond the attention given to the election, the LDP and Abe also sought to support the Obama administration by ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership and promoting maritime capacity building in Southeast Asia.  President Obama and Prime Minister Abe met for the last time in Hawaii on Dec. 27. Uncertainty abounds on the economic and strategic fronts in the coming year, but the biggest unknown for the bilateral relationship will be the new US president and his approach to Asia.

Tokyo Transitions to Trump

The transition to the new Trump administration was far smoother for Japan than for other US allies. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit to Trump Tower the week after the election in November undoubtedly helped smooth the way, and his visit in February proved to be a successful confirmation of Tokyo’s highest priorities for alliance cooperation. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both headed to Northeast Asia, reassuring Tokyo and Seoul of the administration’s commitment to its Asian allies. This early effort helped ensure continuity rather than disruption would be the theme for the US-Japan alliance for the next four years. North Korea, of course, helped that return to normalcy. Yet not all was settled in these early months. How the new administration was going to define its approach to trade remained ill-defined. The Japanese government, however, was not interested in a conversation that focused only on trade.

A Summer of Setbacks

The summer of 2017 was an uneasy one in both Tokyo and Washington. In Japan, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo struggled as public approval dropped precipitously following scandals and a miserable performance for his party in the Tokyo metropolitan elections. In the US, President Donald Trump moved from conflict to conflict, resulting in a historically low approval rating for a new administration and deep fissures within the Republican Party. Alliance cooperation largely focused on the continuing tensions with North Korea. A long-awaited Japan-US Security Consultative Committee (2+2 Meeting) between the defense and foreign policy principals could not be scheduled until after Abe reshuffled his Cabinet in August. While the discussions proved cordial, there was little indication that a strategic look ahead was in the making. Troubles at home for both administrations seemed to forestall any effort at a comprehensive US-Japan discussion about the Asia-Pacific region.

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