America's most significant relationship is with Japan

Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2001

France is our oldest ally, and centuries of history have made England our most steadfast friend in this troubled world. But right now and in the years to come, the United States has no more important relationship than that with Japan.

So it's hard to overstate the significance of the news that dark-horse candidate Junichiro Koizumi will be taking over as prime minister of Japan from the wildly unpopular Yoshiro Mori.

Japan's economy got Americans' attention in the 1980s, when some even feared the Japanese juggernaut. In recent years, though, the cause for concern has not been Japan's economic strength but its weakness.

Japan has spent the better part of a decade mired in recession and stagnation. When the world's second-largest economy performs so anemically for so long, the world's largest economy needs to worry, especially in this age of globalization.

New election rules gave Koizumi a chance to turn the unhappiness of rank-and-file Japanese over the economy into electoral victory. This charismatic, 59-year-old single father and rock-'n'-roll fan has promised to turn things around, though he hasn't volunteered many details on how.

With Japanese interest rates practically at zero in a fight against falling prices and too much personal saving, the Japanese government has few tools with which to spur things along in the short term. Nevertheless, Koizumi has laid out, in broad strokes, some proposals for reform that have inspired confidence in large numbers of Japanese.

But the Japanese economy is only part of why America's fortunes are so tied to those of Japan. With U.S.-Chinese relations in a cool stretch and Chinese pressure on Taiwan heating up, Japan represents a crucial strategic partner in its part of the world.

For confirmation, one need look no further than current events: The U.S. surveillance plane downed in China, remember, took off from a U.S. air base on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Japan's direct relationship with China has its own complications -- among them, the Chinese government's annoyance with Japan for granting a visa to former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. Although he is ostensibly in Japan to receive heart treatment, Lee has seemed to revel in this opportunity to flout Chinese mainland authority and has emboldened many of his countrymen in the process.

The Chinese, meanwhile, have postponed some diplomatic visits to Japan.

Also likely to rankle the Chinese are signs from Koizumi that he will push for changes in the Japanese Constitution that will enable the nation to further develop its own military capabilities. Some of these changes might come in name alone, such as calling Japan's already formidable land-based defenses an army instead of "Self-Defense Forces."

But China has not forgotten Japanese aggression during World War II. And it is not likely to forget anytime soon, given such reminders as Koizumi's recent visit to a shrine that honored Japanese World War II veterans, including those convicted of war crimes.

Since the end of that midcentury conflict, the United States and Japan have had a special and evolving relationship. With more than ever riding on that relationship now, it falls to President Bush and his foreign-policy team to move beyond incidents like the submarine accident off Hawaii and reinforce this key bond.

As with Vicente Fox in Mexico, the ascension of an energetic leader in an important American ally who is willing to break with the past presents an opportunity. Much of Bush's success in the realm of foreign policy will ride on how well he is able to work with these partners. Economically and strategically, there might be none more important than Japan's newly elected prime minister.

Dan Rather works for CBS News.

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