Thursday, February 22, 2007

Cheney comes and goes

The vice president has swooped in, addressed US navy personnel in Yokosuka, talked and dined with Prime Minister Abe and Foreign Minister Aso (I wonder if Aso had anything to say about the "comfort women" resolution currently being debated in Congress), met with the parents of abductee Yokota Megumi, and is now en route to Australia, which is, in Cheney's words, along with Japan the "most reliable" US ally in the region. (That may be true -- but it is a not so subtle dig at South Korea; as much as I think more cooperation between the US, Japan, and Australia could be a good thing for all three, I'd rather the US expend its energy on patching things up with Seoul.)

In any case, Adamu at Mutantfrog Travelogue argues in this post that Cheney's visit was "boring." Now, I'm not going to disagree about the risk of some kind of distortion in the space-time continuum as a result of Abe and Cheney meeting -- I've written about Abe's anti-charisma before, most notably here, and having seen Vice President Cheney speak on two occasions, the best I can say is that he is a competent public speaker, but not one that anyone would mistake for charismatic.

But "boring" is exactly the point: both governments needed a routine exchange of views to remind themselves that, even as the region changes, the alliance is still important.

I am less sanguine about Adamu regarding tensions in the alliance. They do exist. How could they not, after the US cut the deal it did in the six-party talks? A nuclear North Korea, still intransigent about its abductions of Japanese citizens, being welcomed to back into the fold while being given energy support to boot -- and in return only having to close its reactor at Yongbyon? All with the support of the US, in cahoots with Beijing, among others? Given the importance the North Korea threat has had not only for Japanese governments but for the Japanese people as a whole since the "Sputnik moment" that was the 1998 Taepodong launch, if the Beijing deal survives, Japan will have some serious thinking to do about its foreign policy goals. Much more than the indiscreet comments by members of Abe's Cabinet, regional dynamics suggest the possibility of Japan's being abandoned, or, to be less dramatic, ignored (i.e., Japan passing again).

So hopefully Cheney was able to assuage concerns about a renewed bout of Japan passing, and provide the political foundation for bilateral discussions on the political management of the alliance. His visit wasn't going to result in a major agreement -- substantial work on the alliance is nearly always done at the subcabinet level, with some guidance from the relevant ministers and the blessings of political leaders. But hopefully Cheney helped clear the air. Now for the allies to begin thinking about how the political management of the alliance has to change, as suggested by the new Armitage-Nye Report. Perhaps next month's 2 + 2/Security Consultative Comittee meeting, in recent years the major forum for accelerating progress on alliance cooperation, will help map out how to strengthen the alliance politically in changing times.

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