Trouble in the alliance?

Updated On: Feb 23, 2007

While relations with its closest neighbour, China, is on the mend and on an upswing, Japan’s relationship with its closest ally, the US appeared to be a little strained of late.   

It is still too early to tell if the US turnabout in the North Korea six-party talks which saw the Bush administration “unceremoniously dumping” the Japanese in their eagerness to strike a deal with North Korea, would have an impact on Japanese domestic opinion on the same scale as the Nixon shocks of the 1970s.

At that time, the Nixon administration went ahead secretly to establish relations with China without prior consultation with Japan after preventing Japan from launching its own rapprochement with the PRC for decades after 1949. This time round, the US agreed to the fuel exchange deal without discussing the kidnapping issue that is central to the heart of the Abe administration and perhaps to Japan at this negotiation. Japan must have felt betrayed but are these feelings intense enough to hurt the alliance?

After being encouraged by President George W. Bush's State of the Union address in which he named North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as part of an "axis of evil", the Koizumi but especially Abe administrations have powered ahead with a hardline uncompromising stance on North Korea.  For years, the US has supportedJapan’s hardline position.  Now that a deal is suddenly struck, Tokyo is left in the political wilderness by being the only party that has not agreed to provide North Korea with fuel. And this has created frictions with the other US ally in Northeast AsiaSouth Korea. "It is just a matter of time before Japan takes part in the assistance measures," a South Korean government official said. "With Russia and possibly other European nations participating, it will not be possible for Japan not to take part."

Perhaps in trying to “reassure” Japan that the issue of the abduction has not been forgotten, US vice president, Dick Cheney in his short visit to Japan to discuss about broader security and strategic issues had squeezed in a chat with a couple whose daughter was abducted by North Korea decades ago. But he also warned that if Japan refused to participate in the deal in providing Pyongyang with fuel aid in return for closing and eventually disabling its nuclear facilities, Japan could be isolated ‘if progress is made toward denuclearisation’.

Cornered and with no where to turn to, Abe asked for Beijing's cooperation in pushing for progress in Japan-North Korea relations, especially concerning the abduction issue, through visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing on Friday 16 Feb 2007. China, with a newfound status as a peacemaker given the breakthrough at the six-party talks, has Li its Foreign Minister responding to Japan's request saying in Tokyo: "I fully understand Japan's concerns and would like to offer support as much as possible".

Boiling also in the transpacific alliance, is Japan anger at a US Congress resolution calling on Tokyo to apologise for the country's use of sex slaves in WWII. The non-binding resolution calls on Japan's Prime Minister to "formally acknowledge, apologise and accept historical responsibility" for the comfort women. Conservative Hawkish Foreign Minister Taro Aso, who has recently spoke out against the US War on Iraq, said the resolution was not based on facts and has criticized it as "extremely regrettable".

Officially, in 1993 at the weakest point of the dominant LDP rule and a short window of postwar political history where the Japanese parliament was controlled by the opposition party, the Japanese government admits its army forced women to be sex slaves during World War II but has rejected compensation claims. Outside Japan, the number of women believed to have been the sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army is estimated to be at least 200,000 young women with most of them Korean; others included Chinese, Philippine and Indonesian women. Instead of official compensation, the Japanese government set up a special fund in 1995, which relies on private donations to provide compensation.

Also on the historical issue, and potentially troublesome, is Japan's protestations of Australian Ben Hill's new books on Princess Masako which the Japanese government has criticized as having "unfounded and highly contemptuous descriptions" of the imperial family. Japan's foreign ministry demanded an apology and "prompt measures to remedy the situation" from the publisher Random House and made an official protest of its "grave concerns" about the book to a senior official of the Australian government.

The Japanese government also said the book contains "irresponsible citation of rumors" and "disrespectful descriptions" of the imperial family. Japan added: "Under the Japanese Constitution, the emperor is a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people," the letter said. "The government of Japan can by no means ignore contempt for his majesty the emperor who holds this constitutional status, nor contempt for other members of the imperial family as well as the people of Japan." This sideshow with Australia, a pivotal self-appointed US deputy sheriff in the region, may add more difficulties into Japan's role and place in the inner circle of US military network of allies (Japan, Israel, Great Britain and Australia), of which Japan is the only non-Anglo-Saxon or non-Judeo-Christian entity.

All these may, however, demonstrate to the Japanese that they need an independent foreign policy and their own place in regional security without over-reliance on the US or its allies like Australia.  (22 February 2007)


Cheney meets N. Korea abductee’s parents in Japan (Straits Times Interactive, 22 February 2007)

Cheney’s visit masks Tokyo’s unhappiness (Straits Times, 21 February 2007)

Japan anger at US sex slave bill (BBC news, 19 February 2007)

With U.S. shift, Abe's N. Korea containment policy falls apart (Asahi, 18 February 2007)

Li: China to help on abduction issue (Asahi, 18 February 2007)

Abe, Li agree to cooperate on N. Korea (Japan Times, 17 February 2007)

Japan joins US in WTO action against China (Channelnewsasia, 16 February 2007)

Pyongyang displeased with Tokyo's refusal of aid: official (Japan Times, 15 February 2007)

South Korea and Japan Split on North Korea Pact (NY Times, 15 February 2007)

Abe PR flack U.S.-bound for media spin control (Japan Times, 15 February 2007)

Foreign Ministry protests book about Princess Masako (Asahi, 14 February 2007)

Japan faces isolation over North Korea (AFP, 14 February 2007)

Tokyo unwilling to provide energy aid (Straits Times, 14 February 2007)