I wrote in effect that Mr. McCain’s prospects are looking a little better, as the Clintons’ attack on Barack Obama appears to be making some headway. That got me to thinking…
Conventional wisdom has it that the Republicans are nicer to us Japanese. That is, the Republicans see Japan as a valuable ally and, the occasional cookie-tossing aside, treat us accordingly. Indeed, the personal relationships from Ron-Yasu to George-Junichirō definitely have been good. The Democrats, on the other hand, are viewed with more skepticism here, in large part as the legacy of the last Democratic administration, when President Clinton swayed between benign neglect, i.e. Japan Passing, and commercial belligerence, i.e. Super 301, while snuggling up to the Chinese. Most recently, it was not lost on Japanese conservatives that Democrats were the main force behind the House of Representatives resolution on the comfort women.
The Foreign Affairs essays by the presidential candidates if anything served to strengthen this impression among the Japanese elite. Where John McCain said all the right things about Japan and its role as a valuable US ally, the Democratic candidates all but ignored Japan and focused their attention － albeit not completely benign － on China. So, we should be rooting for Mr. McCain, no?
Not quite. Even though the Japanese defense establishment shares US worries over China’s rapid and sustained military buildup behind the bamboo wall, Japanese foreign policy has always been firmly rooted in a pro-China stance since Prime Minister Tanaka normalized bilateral relations in 1972. And it works. Shinzō Abe, the nationalist Prime Minister, enjoyed the one unqualified success of his short, unhappy tenure when he made a surprise trip to China (and South Korea) as soon as the imperial seal dried on his appointment notice. It is also easy to forget in the face of the long chill preceding Mr. Abe’s reign that Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi’s relationship with Chairman Jiang Zemin had begun on a highly auspicious note, only to flounder on Mr. Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (which in turn were not intended in any way to provoke the Chinese public and authorities). Even when Tarō Asō, as Foreign Minister in the Abe Cabinet (and Koizumi Cabinet holdover), pushed the now not-gone-but-mostly-forgotten “arc of freedom and prosperity” as well as “value-oriented diplomacy”, he went out of his way to emphasize the central importance and positive aspects of our relationship with China.
Currently, Japanese efforts to investigate the poisoned Chinese dumplings are being rebuffed by Chinese authorities in Beijing and the provinces while the standoff over the China Sea gas fields elude easy resolution, casting shadows on President Hu Jintao’s spring visit to Japan. Yet all this only serves to highlight Prime Minister Fukuda’s pro-China leanings, as the Fukuda administration downplays the differences and the difficulties. After all, China is Japan’s largest trading partner, and Japan is the net exporter. Japan’s cultural penetration into the Sinic nations is becoming at least as substantial as the spread of anime and sushi in the West. We are neighbors for better or worse and, at least for the foreseeable future, the good outweighs the bad.
Given this Japan-China bilateral relationship, it is difficult to see how the Japanese administration can avoid disappointing President McCain’s likely expectations based on his more traditional, value-oriented views on the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. And I haven’t even begun to consider what demands that he will put to Japan in the Middle East, even as the current DPJ leadership and the rest of the opposition gear up to in effect shut the Japanese Self-Defense Force out of Iraq when the authorizing legislation expires in July 2009.
Japan certainly has Mr. McCain’s attention, and perhaps we should be grateful for it. But let's be careful what we wish for, too.