President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan are poised for progress when they meet this weekend.
The last time President Obama met his counterpart in Japan, their pledge to revitalize the alliance fell like the proverbial tree in a lonesome forest. That was one year ago. This time, despite being overshadowed by multilateral economic summitry, the American president and the Japanese prime minister are poised for progress when they meet this weekend. After a period of drift, the US-Japan alliance is ripe for renewal.
Two events brought this period of drift in the alliance to an end.
The first was the Democratic Party of Japan’s maturation. While the DPJ has a long way to go toward transitioning from an opposition to a governing party, the intraparty election two months ago provided a turning point. By winning a convincing victory over Ichiro Ozawa (the man who created the party), Naoto Kan solidified his authority.
In addition, the election accelerated the ascendance of a younger generation of politicians, including but by no means limited to foreign minister Seiji Maehara, who take a pragmatic stance on security issues, strongly support the alliance, and are determined for Japan to make a greater contribution in the world. The election dispelled much of the political uncertainty overhanging Tokyo and refashioned the DPJ into a more effective US partner.
The second event was a maritime confrontation between Japan and China. On September 7, as video footage demonstrates, a Chinese fishing trawler rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels patrolling near the Senkakus – an island group administered by Tokyo but also claimed by Beijing. When Japan took the trawler captain into custody, China retaliated by cutting off exports of rare-earth elements, minerals vital to Japan’s high-tech industry. For the DPJ as well as the Japanese public, this crisis underscored the value of the alliance.
Unlike a year ago, the alliance is now ready to move from rhetoric to action. Post-summit efforts to revitalize the alliance should initially focus on the two most pressing issues – China and the economy.