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Japan's Alliances Torn Between U.S. and China

It would be no surprise if President Barack Obama has gotten a little tired of meeting new Japanese prime ministers; after all, prime minister Yoshihiko Noda arrived in the United States last week as the third Japanese prime minister elected since Obama took office. Given the frequent turnover plaguing Japan’s highest elected office, it is hard not to wonder if Noda will be the last. 

Still, Noda’s U.S. trip and recent statements in enthusiastic support of the U.S.-Japan alliance are cause for a sigh of relief — and a positive sign of Noda's foreign policy intentions. During the past several years, the U.S.-Japan alliance has been rocked by an ongoing dispute over the relocation of an American air force base to a less-populated area of Okinawa. After campaigning on a pledge to move the base out of Okinawa entirely, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama backtracked after the election, angering domestic anti-base activists and frustrating his American counterparts. Seeking to repair relations with the U.S., his successor, Naoto Kan, announced his support for the planned relocation, but largely avoided tackling the controversial issue.    

Only a few weeks after assuming office, Noda seems far less reticent. In his inaugural speech, Noda declared his intention to “further advance and develop” the U.S.-Japan alliance, and in recent interviews he has emphasized his determination to resolve the base relocation issue. Noda’s attempts to explain his position may not curb local opposition to new base construction, but his vocal support for the project sends clear signals that his administration hopes to work closely with the U.S. on security issues.

This affirmation of shared goals will come as a relief to many Japan experts in the U.S., who worried about plans by Noda’s predecessors to strengthen the country’s relations with China. In particular, former prime minister Hatoyama’s championing of an “East Asian Community” sparked concerns that increased Chinese clout would undermine U.S. influence in the region. Noda recently backed away from these plans, writing that Japan need not “set out a grand vision, such as [the creation of] an East Asian community, for now.”

Still, the Noda administration’s embrace of the U.S. should not be seen, as some analysts have suggested, as a decision to back away from Japan’s neighbors in East Asia. Diplomacy in the region is not a zero-sum game, and Noda has in recent weeks taken pains to smooth over potential diplomatic disputes with China and South Korea.

After initially reaffirming his view that Japanese convicted by military tribunals after World War II were not legally criminals under Japanese law, Noda has since adopted Japan’s official position, which acknowledges the tribunals’ rulings. Noda has also definitively ruled out visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where several of these Class A war criminals are buried — traditionally a diplomatic stumbling block with Korea and China.

Given rising tensions between Japan and China over the past year, it remains to be seen if Noda can improve relations with China. His job has certainly been made more difficult by Chinese media, which have labeled him a hard-liner and a nationalist for his initial stance on Class A war criminals. Still, his decision to directly confront the Yasukuni issue makes it likely that he will take a pragmatic approach to regional diplomacy — giving him at least a fighting shot at real foreign policy successes.

Photo Credit: U.S Department of Treasury

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