Clinton Visit Reassures Japan, Despite Economy, N. Korea
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The first foreign diplomatic visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clearly impressed Tokyo, despite worsening economic conditions and saber rattling from North Korea.
Clinton visited Japan as part of a whirlwind trip to Asia that included China, South Korea and Indonesia.
Despite her high-profile visit, the economy figured prominently in Tokyo headlines. On Feb. 17, when Clinton invited Prime Minister Taro Aso to be the first foreign leader to visit Washington under the new U.S. administration, scheduled for Feb. 24, Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa resigned over allegations he was drunk at a Group of Seven news conference in Rome.
Clinton’s visit raised expectations the United States would pressure Tokyo to buy more U.S. debt, said Masashi Nishihara, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, Tokyo.
Japan’s foreign currency reserves are now at $1 trillion, second only to China at $1.9 trillion, and Japanese confidence in exports to the United States is falling, making it difficult to justify buying more U.S. debt.
Tokyo announced its worst economic downturn in 35 years, as the economy shrank by 12.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008.
Guam Move for Marines
“We have just signed the Guam International Agreement on behalf of our two nations,” Clinton said during a Feb. 17 news conference with Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone.
“This agreement reflects the commitment we have to modernize our military posture in the Pacific. It reinforces the core of our alliance, the mission to ensure the defense of Japan against attack and to deter any attack by all necessary means.” The pact calls for relocation of 8,000 U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa to Guam.
Crimes committed by U.S. troops against Okinawa residents has been a focal point of controversy.
Abductees and Pyongyang
“Mrs. Clinton had some nice atmospherics,” said James Auer, director of the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation, Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies.
Clinton’s visit with the families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea — “which some say former Assistant Secretary Chris Hill tried to discourage,” Auer said — sent a message that the United States is solidly behind Tokyo.
“She has reassured the Japanese of our commitment on defense against the North Korean threat by meeting with the abductees’ families,” said Mike Green, who holds the Japan Chair at the Washingtonbased Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Clinton’s visit to Japan came at the same time North Korean leader Kim Jong Il celebrated his 67th birthday, Feb. 16, and his government is threatening another missile launch.
Saber-rattling is a key component of North Korean diplomatic strategy. There was no evidence Kim attended his own lavish birthday celebrations, possibly suggesting he is still suffering from a reported stroke.
North Korea has announced plans to launch a missile, believed to be a long-range Taepodong-2 missile, for what it calls its space program.
“The possible missile launch that North Korea is talking about would be very unhelpful,” Clinton said in Japan. She offered North Korea a peace treaty, normalization of ties and aid if North Korea honored previous agreements to denuclearize.
Clinton said that Aso had agreed on the “importance of resolving, in a comprehensive manner, the abduction issue, nuclear, and missile and other pending issues” regarding North Korea.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
Aso and Clinton also discussed Japan’s participation in “efforts with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan because the stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan is a challenge for the entire international community,” Clinton said.
Despite the positive efforts made by Clinton, “I do not think that there will be any sea change in the Japan-U.S. alliance,” Nishihara said. “Any new thing that Japan will have to do for the alliance is likely to require constitutional revision, which is not likely to be realized in the near future.”
This will make it difficult for Japan to participate to a greater degree in U.S. efforts to maintain security in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Japan’s on-again, off-again and on-again refueling mission in the Indian Ocean — for warships supporting the U.S.-sponsored Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan — has been a consistent political battle in Japan’s Diet.
Japan’s Central Role
Clinton’s decision to approach Japan first during her Asian visits demonstrates “Japan remains at the center of U.S. Asia strategy,” Green said.
In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton skipped a visit to Japan during his trip to Beijing.
At the time, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was hurting politically, but the “Chinese didn’t want our president to stop in any country other than China, and President Clinton, unwisely in my opinion, acquiesced,” Auer said.
“In that sense, Secretary Clinton’s invitation to PM Aso on behalf of President Obama is a very nice gesture that Japanese protocol will no doubt appreciate.”