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Japan Overrated as US Ally

Saturday, April 2, 2005 Posted: 12:19 AM JST

(by Mindy Kotler) - The United States and Japan have been in the midst of an old-fashioned trade war. For more than 15 months, Tokyo has closed its US$1.4 billion market for US beef because of one case of mad-cow disease discovered in December 2003. Beef exports are just one of many economic and foreign-policy disputes grating at the US-Japan relationship. Until now, the emphasis on military security has helped characterize relations as the "best ever". The recent visit of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, highlights the imprudence of letting one issue control the agenda when dealing with Japan.

Modernizing the security alliance with Japan has been President George W Bush's most important foreign policy in Asia. His administration began in 2000 with a written plan and seasoned experts to draw Japan closer into the alliance. Economic issues were approached gingerly, due to Japan's fragile economy and the desire to reduce diplomatic tensions. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States hardened this Bush administration bias toward Japan.

There has been some modest response from Japan. It has improved its domestic terrorism legislation, made preparations for revising its no-war constitution to permit combat, and sent troops to Iraq. A Japanese oiler now sits in the Indian Ocean fueling US and allied naval ships, Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces (SDF) did participate in a Proliferation Security Initiative exercise, and Tokyo has signed on to a missile defense plan. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did all this in spite of substantial domestic opposition.

These developments to the United States' advantage have come at the expense of other potentially contentious issues with Japan. Besides the beef issue, other economic irritants include Tokyo's excessive currency manipulation to sustain the value of the yen, its unwillingness to take a leadership role in the Doha trade round, laxity in financial reconstruction and deregulation, steel dumping, continuing to keep its market closed to apples, and its refusal to extradite a Japanese scientist indicted for economic espionage.

And the scorecard on foreign policy has not been all that great. In contrast to US policies, Japan has refused to halt investment in Iran's Azadegam oilfield or to end aid to Myanmar, and it has held its own negotiations with North Korea despite being part of the suspended six-party negotiations. More troubling has been Tokyo's series of "rock" grabs in the territorial waters of China, South Korea, and Russia and Prime Minister Koizumi's insistence on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine that holds the ashes of Japan's World War II soldiers and convicted war criminals. By aggressively resurrecting these historical disputes, Japan has succeeded in deepening the already many fissures between Tokyo and its Asian neighbors, all of whom are needed by the United States to maintain regional stability.

Even Japan's gesture of sending troops to Iraq is beginning to look hollow. Six hundred-odd members of Japan's SDF are sitting in a custom-built desert bunker guarded, until last week, by Dutch troops and now by the British and Australians. The locals rarely see the Japanese - who had proclaimed they were undertaking a strictly "humanitarian" mission of reconstruction and other aid - and Iraqis express disappointment about the quality of aid offered. Indeed the one time the SDF did venture out, it was to set up a "friendship" monument, which the Iraqis promptly blew up.

If the advantages of Japan's support on Iraq are beginning to diminish, so are those of Japan's alliance support. Japan has balked at concluding a long-negotiated relocation of the US Air Force base at Futema, decided to decrease the "sympathy budget" that supports US bases in Japan, disagreed with US defense transformation plans to move the US Army's 1st Corps Headquarters to Japan, balked at moving US troops to other locations in Japan outside Okinawa, and objected to inter-operability between forces.

Even "resolved", the beef dispute is unlikely to go away. One result of the eventual lifting of the beef-import ban is the likely imposition of high tariffs. By World Trade Organization rules, Japan can increase its beef tariff from 38.5% to 50% if there is a year-on-year increase of more than 17% in imported beef on a cumulative quarterly basis. This "safeguard clause" is certain to be activated once the imports go from zero to anything. In the past, the US Trade Representative called this move "inappropriate" and said it "considers this safeguard to be a right and not a rule, and as such, believes Japan can choose not to exercise it".

Yes, Japan has moved incrementally toward a more contemporary security strategy. How much of this turns into an "alliance" remains to be seen. As Prime Minister Koizumi's veiled threat to have Japan stop buying US Treasuries after President Bush asked him to open up the beef market showed recently, economic issues remain linked to Japan's notion of its national security. Separating trade and financial concerns from what defines a US-Japan alliance was only the White House's wishful thinking.

Mindy Kotler is founder and director of the Japan Information Access Project in Washington, DC. The Project is an independent, non-profit research center studying US policy relationships with Japan and Northeast Asia.

(Copyright 2005 Mindy Kotler.) This article was also published at "Speaking Freely", a feature of the Asia Times Online.

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Keywords: opinion_item

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