Welcome Respite in U.S.-Japan Relations

By Armacost, Michael H. | Brookings Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Welcome Respite in U.S.-Japan Relations


Armacost, Michael H., Brookings Review


President Clinton's visit to Tokyo in mid-April strengthened U.S.-Japan security cooperation and infused good will into the bilateral relationship - an accomplishment that exceeded expectations and earned high marks from both the Japanese and American press. Displaying cordial personal relations, Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto abandoned the hard-nosed, occasionally acerbic, exchanges over trade that had marked recent summits and instead celebrated the benefits of economic cooperation.

Despite anxieties about the alliance raised by public reaction in Japan to an ugly rape involving U.S. Marines in Okinawa last summer, both sides reaffirmed the security relationship and pledged to improve defense cooperation. Most notably, to ease local concerns in Okinawa, the Pentagon agreed to adjust the size and operational activities of the U.S. military there without significantly reducing forward deployed forces in Japan. Japan agreed to pay for these adjustments, provide new forms of logistic support, and promote a more balanced sharing of defense technology. The decision by Clinton and Hashimoto to "accentuate the positive" reduces the likelihood that U.S.-Japan relations will become a hot button issue in upcoming elections.

Still, there are few grounds for complacency. The summit's outcome was a matter of luck as well as planning. Had the meeting taken place when scheduled last November, the results would have been different. A bilateral summit then would have diverted attention from the APEC Summit Meeting in Osaka to the chagrin of other Asian leaders. Trade disputes would likely have flared, for dramatic reductions in Tokyo's surplus with the world and with the United States had not yet shown up in the trade statistics. And the press would have amplified the emotional reaction of many Japanese to the conduct of some Marines in Okinawa at a time when neither government was prepared to address the problem.

The delay in the summit's timing produced a new prime minister, one much more likely to augment defense cooperation, and allowed the dust to settle on the rape trial of U.S. Marines. It permitted Washington and Tokyo to hammer out details of agreements that accommodated both nations' security and political concerns in Okinawa. And by April China's provocative military exercises in the Taiwan Straits and growing doubts about Pyongyang's commitment to the Korean armistice agreement had reminded Americans and Japanese alike that the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security provides valuable insurance for which the premiums remain modest. In short, the five-month delay seemed to confirm Bismarck's observation that a special providence appears to look out for "drunks, fools, and Americans. …

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