Other Views

Saturday, May 1, 1999

U.S. relations with
Japan are decaying

Only an act of statesmanship by
Clinton or Obuchi will keep the
alliance intact

By Richard Halloran
Special to the Star-Bulletin


On the eve of Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's meeting with President Clinton in Washington, United States relations with Japan are slowly decaying despite the administration's repeated declarations that those links are the "pillar" or "linchpin" of America's security posture in Asia.

Curiously, it's hard to pinpoint just what's gone wrong. American political and business leaders are not engaging in the Japan-bashing of a decade ago nor are Japanese as openly critical of the U.S. as they were in the recent past. Instead, an undertone of irritation in both capitals has become corrosive.

Japanese are quietly annoyed by what one diplomat called America's biggest export -- preaching. Clinton administration officials mutter about Japanese indecision. Japanese politicians, already insular, have become even more inward-looking as their economy lingers in the doldrums. President Clinton and his administration have been preoccupied with the conflict in Kosovo, the running sore of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the president's domestic scandals.

The recent election of Shintaro Ishihara, popular novelist, outspoken nationalist and critic of the U.S., as governor of Tokyo, which is the political equivalent of a prefecture or state, has raised disquieting questions about whether nationalism, anti-Americanism and even militarism are resurgent in Japan. But Ishihara, who was elected with a mere 30 percent plurality, has so far not acquired national political standing.

Unless there is a surge of statesmanship by Clinton or Obuchi when they meet Monday, the alliance that has served Japan and America for a half-century will continue to crumble. Relations with Japan will thus join an expanding list of issues in Asia that the Clinton administration has either failed to resolve or has neglected. Individually, each problem may be manageable. Collectively, they add up to serious jeopardy for American interests in Asia. Among the issues:

Bullet China: Premier Zhu Rongji's recent visit to Washington did little to settle the issues of Chinese theft of U.S. nuclear secrets or alleged donations intended to influence the 1996 presidential election. Zhu came prepared to negotiate on China's admission into the World Trade Organization but found Clinton unprepared despite a $57 billion U.S. trade deficit with China. Add to that disagreements over the future of the island of Taiwan, U.S. plans to build a regional anti-missile defense and China's controversial record in human rights.

Bullet North Korea: Negotiations among the U.S., South Korea, North Korea and China to devise a peace treaty to end the Korean War of 1950-53 have gone nowhere. An agreement designed to halt Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions is unraveling. North Korean missile sales to rogue nations continue unabated. U.S. forces in the Pacific intended to reinforce the 37,000 American troops in South Korea have been drawn away to Iraq and Kosovo. North Korean diplomatic and propaganda belligerence continues to be relentless.

Bullet Indonesia: Senior U.S. diplomats and military officers have lamented the Clinton administration's neglect of Indonesia, which is in danger of disintegration from political, economic and social turmoil. Yet Indonesia is a leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum concerned with security issues.

Bullet South China Sea: Closely connected with Indonesia is the South China Sea through which pass 41,600 ships a year, more than through the Suez Canal (20,075 ships a year) and the Panama Canal (15,300 a year) combined. These sea lanes are, obviously, vital to the economies of Asia and, indirectly, the entire industrial world. Troubled Indonesia lies across the three main southern entrances to the sea while small islands alongside the sea lanes are disputed by China and several Southeast Asian nations. The U.S. supports freedom of navigation through the sea but has done little to guarantee that freedom.

Bullet India-Pakistan: The Clinton administration has so far been unable to slow the nuclear and missile arms race between India and Pakistan despite giving high priority to non-proliferation. Both nations exploded nuclear devices last year and have been swapping missile tests this year. Political tumult in New Delhi and Islamabad further complicates the issue as does emotional nationalism in each nation.

Bullet Economic crisis: The Clinton administration, which was slow to recognize the financial collapse in Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea and other Asian nations in 1997, has never gotten involved in helping those nations to recover. Instead, it has left that task to the unpopular International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Asian Development Bank, whose members include most nations in Asia, published on April 19 an assessment of 1999's prospects in which mention of the U.S. was conspicuously absent.

Symptomatic of the decay in U.S.-Japan relations has been the political paralysis in Japan that has delayed the adoption of new defense guidelines agreed upon with the U.S. in September 1997. They were designed to shape Japan's military aid in the event of a conflict in Northeast Asia, including U.S. access to bases and logistic support.

To put those guidelines into effect required legislation by the Japanese Diet, or parliament, but the implementing bills languished there for 18 months. Just this week, the lower and controlling house of the Diet passed the bills barely in time for Obuchi to take word of their passage to Washington.

When the guidelines were announced in 1997, the Chinese, South Koreans, and North Koreans asserted that they would lead to a revival of Japanese militarism. Today, the question is not whether Japan, which has recently reduced its armed forces, will remilitarize but whether it will have the political will and the military power to fulfill its obligations under the guidelines.

The tentative answer: Not likely. Japan has the money, industry, technology and people to assemble a modern military machine but the political will to do so is almost completely lacking.

Richard Halloran, a former New York Times Asia correspondent ,
is a freelance writer based in Honolulu.

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