Monday, February 23, 2009

A Cornered Rat will Bite the Cat

Japan’s Foreign Ministry whined. The Prime Minister begged. And the right wing press snarled. The US-Japan Alliance was headed for irreparable damage, they warned, if the Japanese prime minister was not among the very first to visit the new American president. After all, Japan is the cornerstone of American foreign policy in Asia. So the White House demurred.

Prime Minister Taro Aso gets his meeting tomorrow: one whole hour of it. Then he has lunch with former Bush Administration Japan hands such as Richard Armitage and his friends.[Our guess is that former MOFA Vice Minister Yachi, who has planned the trip for Mr Aso, is unaware that Bush is out of office.] After this he visits Arlington Cemetery to lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown. Aso and other conservative nationalists like to compare Arlington to the Yasukuni Shrine. There are many differences; not the least being that convicted war criminals cannot be buried at Arlington.

Was this worth all the effort? With the Aso Cabinet supported by less than 10 percent of the people in Japan, Washington is taking a gamble. “Experienced observers” say ‘yes’ as it is not the man but the office Americans need to respect. It is the process of accommodating Japan that matters. Plus, too many prominent Japanese have painted Democratic administrations are untrustworthy, uninformed, and unreliable. The task is to present an image to the Japanese of the U.S. as friend and ally and not a clone of the Clinton Administration.

But will one hour of face-time make Aso a hero and Japan more confident? The visit was pulled together so quickly that symbolism overtakes substance. There was no time for new ideas or initiatives on both sides; nothing that would energize the relationship. Except for things that were already in the works, the meeting agenda looks simply like an effort to get Aso to agree to cooperate more on Afghanistan and other areas important to Washington before there is a change in government in Japan.

Once Aso commits Japan at the summit on several broad and narrow issues, it will be very hard for the next prime minister, LDP or DPJ, to ignore or remove them. Or, so the Obama Japan managers think. This strategy comes off as cornering Aso. It makes the prime minister look even more desperate than he already is, and appear more submissive than America already asks.

More important, Aso satisfies neither his supporters nor the Opposition. His conservative base wants him to show less dependence upon the US. And, Aso’s acquiescence plays into the Opposition’s strategy of highlighting how the ruling LDP has “blindly followed” the United States. The DPJ has emphasized repeatedly its desire for a more independent Japanese diplomacy based on greater international cooperation. Thus, it remains to be seen if the DPJ will feel it necessary or even politically possible to follow through on Aso’s commitments to the US.

DPJ Leader Ichiro Ozawa met yesterday with the visitng Chinese Communist Party International Department head Wang Jiarui. Ozawa told Wang "As I have a special affinity with China, I want to promote a friendship. If our party gets a good result in the next Lower House election, we will reconstruct the Japanese economy and will try more than ever to improve the friendship between Japan and China." Not heartening words for the White House. And as the Chinese proverb says: “a cornered rat will bite the cat.”

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