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U.S. Should Press Japan to Mend Fences With China

Op-Ed, San Jose Mercury News, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006

This article is reproduced by permission.

When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Graceland with President George W. Bush this summer, Japanese-U.S. friendship took center stage. Koizumi, an avid Elvis fan whose suave hairstyle contributed to his maverick image at home, enjoyed a close relationship with Bush. But Koizumi’s tepid relations with China and other Asian nations pose a challenge to both Tokyo and Washington. His departure this week is an opportunity for a much-needed change.

Under Koizumi, Japan supported the invasion of Afghanistan and sent troops to Iraq, despite constitutional limits on military deployment. Koizumi’s team worked with the Bush administration on security in Taiwan and North Korea, and Japanese-U.S. economic ties are healthy.

But just as Koizumi strengthened cooperation with the United States, he slowed diplomatic relations with China to a virtual crawl through his uncompromising behavior on historical issues. Koizumi’s handling of the so-called “history problem'’ has been so ham-handed that Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council last year resulted in dozens of anti-Japan demonstrations in China, including the largest single demonstration in Beijing since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.

The Chinese government was already fed up with Koizumi. Fulfilling a campaign promise to a right-wing interest group, Koizumi made five yearly visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead since the 1860s, including 14 people convicted as Class A war criminals after World War II. The Chinese and South Korean governments have loudly chastised him for the visits, which they say are a nod to Japan’s imperialist past.

The Bush administration, preoccupied with anti-terrorism efforts and a troubled Iraq strategy, has stayed out of this dispute. Some say Bush’s failure to scold Koizumi on historical issues, while humoring his Elvis impersonation, was read as a snub in East Asia. But soon, everything might be “all shook up'’ in Japan. Shinzo Abe, who most agree will become prime minister this week, has defended Koizumi’s shrine visits, but he has made no promises to visit regularly. Indeed, seeing the opportunity to improve ties with China, he has already hinted that he might forgo a visit this fall to pave the way for a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao in November.

Now it’s time for the United States to fully engage in the region. The White House should tell Abe that antagonizing Japan’s neighbors is not an option, and it should make sure China overhears. Then the administration should commit to greater engagement with China. Policy-makers concentrating on the Middle East need to be reminded that East Asia, too, is a vital region for America’s future. East Asia won’t wait for Washington to wake up.

If Japan mends ties with China and becomes more independent of the United States, American businesses may lose customers. Japan already trades more with China than with the United States, and a Japanese Cabinet minister last month found international support for an $80 million study toward an agreement to open up trade in Asia. The proposed agreement would include Japan, China, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries, as well as Australia, New Zealand and India. If it comes through, the accord would include more than 3 billion people, but Americans would be left out.

The position of the United States as a moral leader in the world is also in jeopardy. China is working to improve its image and turn itself into a regional leader. Privileged Southeast Asians, who for years have seen value in learning English or Japanese, are now considering Mandarin, and China is building the schools to teach them. The United States should be a driving force in Asia for human rights, but Washington must lead by example. The Bush administration’s treatment of detainees in Guantánamo Bay, and highly publicized crimes by U.S. forces at Abu Ghurayb and Al-Hadithah, undermine U.S. moral authority.

Finally, the world’s military balance may change. In the coming decades, both Japan and the United States are likely to face a more powerful China and perhaps even an end to unilateral U.S. dominance in the Pacific. But Japan and the United States will be more secure if both countries work with China and avoid any standoff over such potential flash points as Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula.

To maintain peace and prosperity in East Asia and at home, the United States must make the region a high priority. If we don’t, we ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog at Heartbreak Hotel.

GRAHAM WEBSTER is associate editor of CampusProgress.org, the youth-oriented magazine of the Center for American Progress in Washington. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.