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February 24, 2009
U.S. expects Japan to elevate efforts in war and economy

Japanese merchandise depicts the relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso came to Washington on Tuesday, the first foreign visitor to the Obama White House. He and U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly discussed a range of topics, from the global financial crisis to new North Korean nuclear concerns.

Tobias Harris is a graduate student in political science at MIT who worked for a member of the Democratic Party of Japan in the national legislature for two years. He writes at “Observing Japan” to argue that the U.S.-Japan alliance is seeing rebirth, and that the U.S. has stepped up its expectations of Japan.

The birth of the post-1996 alliance

Prime Minister Aso Taro has arrived in Washington in advance of his meeting with President Barack Obama Tuesday.

Despite Obama’s welcoming Aso as the first foreign leader to meet with him in Washington, and despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tokyo last week, the Japanese establishment continues to fret about the new administration’s approach to Japan. Sankei, for example, notes the “exceptionally warm welcome” being bestowed on Aso by Obama — especially considering that the president is due to give a State of the Union address Tuesday evening — but wonders whether the Obama administration is as committed to Japan as appearances would suggest.

I have been somewhat irritated with the lengths to which the Obama administration has gone to demonstrate its commitment to the alliance (I still think this visit to Washington by Aso is a mistake). But looking at the agenda for the meeting between Obama and Aso, it appears that the new administration is preparing to embark on a new course for the alliance even as it preserves the old forms of alliance reassurance.

Obama is preparing to make winning in Afghanistan a top priority for his administration, making the war in Afghanistan, in Stephen Walt’s words, “Obama’s war.”

The expectation is that Japan will be a part of that effort. But unlike the previous administration, the Obama administration looks unwilling to praise Japan for marginal, symbolic contributions to the effort. While respecting Japan’s constraints on the use of force abroad, the administration appears ready to take Japan at its word. Japanese leaders talk of the need to contribute abroad even as they are reluctant to commit the Self-Defense Forces? Fine, then make a meaningful civilian contribution, the new administration has signaled. As Walt wrote in regard to NATO in Afghanistan, “Is Obama able to persuade our NATO allies to increase their own efforts there, or will they mostly free-ride on Uncle Sam? (And watch out for token deployments intended to signal that the rest of NATO is with us on this one, but that have no real effect on the ground).” The same applies to Japan, with a substantial civilian reconstruction contribution in place of military efforts.

The new administration will surely be watching, and it will surely not accept political instability at home as an excuse.

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