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The Morning After: A Japanese Take

Japan is one place where Hillary Clinton’s drubbing in Iowa may spark some optimism.

During a just-completed visit to that country, high government officials reminded me repeatedly of a statement by Mrs. Clinton that had shocked them by the way it ignored Japan’s pivotal role in Asia. She had written in the November 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, that: “Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.”

No one who, like me, regularly visits both countries can possibly imagine that China is remotely close to reaching the levels of living standard, education, and economic and technical sophistication of Japan today, to say nothing of its political freedoms.

Japan is in addition a far more formidable military power than is usually recognized. Her self-defense forces are superbly trained and competent. On December 18 she became only the second country in the world to intercept an incoming missile in space—when one of her Kongo class Aegis destroyers destroyed a target, designed to resemble a North Korean Nodong, outside the earth’s atmosphere in a test near Hawaii.

Furthermore, geography dictates that any Chinese attempt at force projection in northeast Asia would hit, almost immediately, the likely unyielding boundaries of Japanese territory and interest. Japan is far larger than her four main islands. The most distant point in the chain of islands that runs south of Nagasaki through Okinawa and beyond is Yonaguni island. It’s more than 1,312 miles from Tokyo (Beijing,Seoul, and Manila are all closer) and only sixty miles from the northeast coast of Taiwan. As the Chinese well understand, this fact means that any operation against Taiwan would almost certainly involve violation of Japanese sea and air space, which would lead to hostilities with Japan and her ally the United States.

These geographical, economic, and political facts mean that in Asia the most important relationship for Washington must be with Japan. Lip service is regularly paid to this concept. In reality, however, as Mrs. Clinton’s essay demonstrates, Washington gives relatively low priority to consultation with Japan and attention to Japanese issues, particularly when compared to China.

Hillary mentions Japan only once, near the end of her piece, observing: “We must find additional ways for Australia, India, Japan, and the United States to cooperate on issues of mutual concern, including combating terrorism, cooperating on global climate control, protecting global energy supplies, and deepening global economic development.” That is all.

So my Japanese friends may be forgiven if they feel some relief at the primary defeat of a candidate who so conspicuously ignored their country. But they will continue to worry (as I will too) for Hillary’s views are sadly typical of elite American foreign policy thinking today.

Will someone else be better? That’s far from clear. A quick Google search of keywords “Barack Obama” and “Japan” suggested that, on this issue, Iowa’s winner has spoken out so far only about the superior gas mileages of Japanese made automobiles.



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