Is Japan's support for US on the wane?

Prime Minister Koizumi, who visits Washington Thursday, has close ties with Bush. But Koizumi steps down this fall.

Other world leaders covet a White House state dinner, an overnight at Camp David, or a barbecue at President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch.

But given that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is his country's No. 1 Elvis fan, he couldn't have done better than the treatment he'll get on a trip to the United States this week: After talks at the White House Thursday, Mr. Bush will escort Mr. Koizumi to Memphis, Tenn., Friday for a personal tour of Graceland.

The nod to Koizumi's passion is a thank-you gift from the president to one of his staunchest international allies as he prepares to step down. The personal touch also suggests how much Bush appreciates Koizumi's support on issues like Iraq and international terrorism.

"A lot of world leaders expressed their sympathy and support for us after 9/11, but Koizumi was one of the first who came right out and said, 'This is terrorism, and you must win,' " says Michael Green, who served as the National Security Council's director for Asia affairs until December. "It's a key area where he and the president think alike."

Yet with Koizumi preparing to retire as prime minister this fall, questions are being asked in Washington and Tokyo about whether the closer US-Japan relations of recent years are a matter of fleeting personal chemistry – or if they stand on more solid footing. The answer is likely to have an impact on key international concerns such as Iran's nuclear ambitions and North Korea's arms developments.

How US could react

Japan can be expected to return to a less US- centric foreign policy after five years of Koizumi, some analysts say. In fact, the US should probably welcome that, they add.

"The Graceland trip reflects the closeness of the personal relationship between Bush and Koizumi. It's something that is unique in the postwar history" of the two countries, says Daniel Okimoto, chairman of the Global Research Institute at Sterling Stamos in Menlo Park, Calif. "But after Koizumi steps down, we'll see an adjustment back to something that is not so one-sided and pro-American."

As much as the Bush administration has valued Japan's solid support since 9/11, its reversion to a more multilateral foreign-policy stance could eventually work in the US interest, Mr. Okimoto says.

"Koizumi's almost knee-jerk pro- Americanism, his quickness to support Bush, have worried a lot of Japanese as a sign of support for unilateralism and hard power. And that has worried Japan's neighbors as well," he adds. "It is definitely not in US interests that Japan's relations with South Korea deteriorate, or that they have increasing problems with China."

But others believe that the adjustment in relations in recent years is more structural in nature, and is likely to withstand leadership changes.

"The Japanese people look out and see the reasons to support the US-Japan alliance, from China's rise to North Korea's ballistic missiles and the post-9/11 war on terror," says Mr. Green, now an expert in Asian affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "All of the structural reasons for the tightening of the alliance will still be there" after Koizumi's departure.

The direction of relations might be gleaned in how closely the two countries coordinate on North Korea and Iran.

The US is looking to accelerate the planned deployment of Patriot interceptor missiles on US bases in Japan – a response to rising concerns over North Korea's advancing long-range missile system. Japan feels increasingly threatened by Pyongyang's moves, and has already signed on to the installation of US missiles.

But seeing eye to eye on Iran may be more difficult. In the run-up to Koizumi's visit, Japan has been stressing the importance of unified international action to stop Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. Japan also has important economic ties to Iran, importing nearly 15 percent of its crude oil from there. In addition, it has agreed to develop one of Iran's major oil fields.

The US wants Japan to join with it and European countries in targeted sanctions against Tehran in the event that action by the United Nations Security Council proves impossible because of Russian and Chinese opposition.

US officials insist Tokyo would be on board, although Japanese officials have not categorically endorsed the idea publicly, saying rather that Japan would support a unanimous international response.

G-8 meeting in Moscow Thursday

Iran will be on the agenda when foreign ministers of the G-8 group of industrialized countries meet in Moscow Thursday to prepare the group's July summit. The top diplomats, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Japan's foreign minister, will discuss ways to prompt Iran to respond more rapidly to an international package of incentives offered recently to dissuade Iran from uranium enrichment.

"Japan's foreign policy since the Second World War has been focused on soft-power multilateralism, so the Japanese would be reluctant to stray too far from that in favor of 'coalition of the willing' sanctions in the case of Iran," says Okimoto of the Global Research Institute. "Something less than full UN action would be difficult for them to take."

And that is especially true with Iran, Okimoto adds, since Japan worries that China would simply fill whatever economic void the Japanese created – especially in oil-field development – by cutting economic ties.

But Green of CSIS says that Japan's interest in holding on to its expanding place on the global diplomatic stage will trump its economic concerns with Iran.

"The Japanese government is very unlikely to sit out a consensus between the US and the Europeans on targeted sanctions," he says. "As important as that 15 percent [Iran's slice of Japan's total oil imports] may be to them, it's nowhere near as important as their relations with the US and Europe – and their desire to be a player in the larger Middle East."

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