The Rising East
SOMETIMES what doesn't happen is more telling and newsworthy than what does happen. Take the summit meeting between Japan's prime minister, Junichro Koizumi, and President Bush last weekend. As the supposed start of a strategic dialogue, it was all very pleasant but almost devoid of substance.
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The clues are easy to spot. The meeting took two hours; with amenities and translation, that meant less than an hour of talk. The communique that is boilerplate for such get-togethers usually has a nugget of news to be mined from the diplomatic verbiage, but not this time. A press conference was limited to a half-dozen desultory remarks. The usual briefing by an unnamed admin- istration official who explains who said what was omitted altogether.
In sum, this was merely what the Japanese call aisatsu, or greetings, and a get-to-know-you conversation. That was useful, no doubt, for leaders new to their respective offices and meeting for the first time. The Asahi Shimbun, a leading newspaper in Tokyo, had it right in calling it "a cordial, friction-free summit."
There was one clear signal, that Bush has restored Japan to the center of American foreign policy and security posture in Asia, in marked contrast to President Clinton's focus on China. Even that was not new as Bush had made his plans known during the campaign and his early days in the White House.
THE REASONS the much awaited strategic dialogue was left for another day are also relatively easy to discern.
In Washington, the Bush administration has been undertaking a sweeping review of the nation's stance in international affairs. Evidently, little of that has been completed in the Asian field other than adopting a firm negotiating attitude toward North Korea. Thus Bush has yet to determine what he wants of Japan.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Koizumi is equally inexperienced in foreign affairs, is preoccupied with getting his nation's economy going after a decade in the doldrums and presides over a nation still wrapped in the pacifist cocoon in which it has covered itself since its devastating defeat in World War II.
The strategic agenda confronting the president and the prime minister could be formidable, if they ever get past the rhetoric and slogans that appear to be the only glue holding together the drifting U.S.-Japan alliance. In the main, they include:
>> China: Neither Japan nor the United States has a thorough assessment of where the emerging power of Asia is headed nor a comprehensive plan for dealing with it. Neither, therefore, has any idea of how to coordinate its policy with the other.
>> Korea: The United States has set its posture toward both South Korea, where 37,000 American troops are stationed, and North Korea, which has been hostile toward America for a half-century. Japan, the target of North and South Korean antagonism that is a legacy of its colonial rule, has no Korean policy to speak of.
>> Okinawa: Certainly this southern Japanese island is the sticking point in U.S. relations with Japan. Most of the 40,000 American troops in Japan are deployed on Okinawa, whose citizens increasingly demand that their numbers be reduced or withdrawn.
>> Defense guidelines: A recent agreement calls on Japan to assist the United States in contingencies in Asia. The underlying question: Does Japan have the political will to acquire the forces needed to fulfill its obligations and to employ them in an emergency?
>> Japan's military posture: Successive American administrations have encouraged Japan to "do more" in self-defense, collective military operations, and peacekeeping ventures. President Bush's advisers have not disclosed what, if anything, they expect the Japanese to do.
ON THIS LAST point, Koizumi has made noises about having Japan be more assertive in providing for the security of East Asia. That has stirred protests, notably among Chinese and Koreans who claim they fear a revival of the Japanese militarism of the 1930s and 1940s.
More likely, their opposition should be attributed to a fear that Japan will enhance its alliance with the United States and thus make it more difficult for Beijing and Pyongyang to achieve their primary objectives, which are, respectively, the conquest of the island of Taiwan and the destruction of South Korea. At this moment, they need not worry.
Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org