WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The incoming Japanese government’s intention to seek closer Asia ties need not come at the expense of the United States and may actually help Washington if Japan reduces tensions with wary neighbors.
Japan’s next leader, Yukio Hatoyama, raised hackles in Washington with an op-ed published in the New York Times last month that to many U.S. readers struck an anti-capitalist, anti-American tone while playing up Tokyo’s Asian ties.
The translated essay said Japan “must not forget our identity as a nation located in Asia” — a region that was “Japan’s basic sphere of being.” It said Japan must try to forge a community and common currency.
Hatoyama’s outreach to Asia, uncontroversial in Japan, was initially interpreted as a tilt away from its nearly 50-year-old security alliance with the United States. But top officials of his party quickly challenged that notion.
“We are not talking about shifting away from the United States and moving toward Asia,” Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) lawmaker Seiji Maehara, a conservative security expert in the party, told NHK public broadcaster in Tokyo.
Hatoyama on Wednesday assured President Barack Obama in a telephone conversation that the U.S. alliance was the foundation of Tokyo’s diplomacy.
Japan analyst Nick Szechenyi of Center for Strategic and International Studies said the kerfuffle over Hatoyama’s essay was the result of poor word choices and an improper tone, but it was possible to put a “positive spin” on his ideas.
“A close, strong U.S.-Japan relationship enables Japan to reach out and assume a more active leadership role in Asia,” he said. “Of course, it’s in the U.S. interest for Japan to reach out to its neighbors and play a greater role.”
Leif-Eric Easley, a Harvard University Japan scholar, said the United States should do more than just approve of deeper Japanese engagement with its neighbors.
“Washington should encourage this on top of close coordination with Tokyo. If Japan is more trusted and active in Asia, that will be an asset to the U.S.-Japan alliance,” he said.
The platform of the DPJ, which won a landslide victory on Sunday and will form Tokyo’s next government, vows to address Japan’s wartime military aggression and build trust with China, South Korea and other countries Japan invaded or colonized.
DPJ politicians have pledged to stay away from Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines war criminals along with war dead. Visits to the shrine by minister of the ousted Liberal Democratic Party angered both the governments and populations of South Korea and China, among others.
Kevin Maher, head of the State Department’s Japan desk, said a DPJ government would improve Asia’s “atmospherics.”
“I don’t think you’re going to have the same kind of history issues — hopefully — under this government that you sometimes saw in the past few years that really did get in the way of Japan’s relations with other countries in Asia,” he said.
Historical friction between Japan and its neighbors did more than inflame passions in the region. It also alienated a main U.S. ally in Asia from China and South Korea at key security talks, such as the six-party nuclear negotiations with North Korea.
Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said he hoped the DPJ would ease friction between Seoul and Tokyo that under the past government caused ties to suddenly “nose dive” at critical junctures.
“We want to see our two closest allies working more closely together ... focusing more on the future than on the past and I think we see very real prospects for that,” he said.
China may be a tougher nut for Hatoyama’s Japan to crack. Despite thriving trade ties, Tokyo and Beijing are locked in “a very complicated mix of rivalry and interdependence that fundamentally won’t change,” said Michael Green, a George W. Bush White House senior Asia aide.
Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa in Tokyo; Editing by Phil Stewart