Secretary Clinton’s Asia Visit: It’s Tokyo’s Turn to Respond

Keiko Iizuka
Keiko Iizuka Washington Bureau Chief - The Yomiuri Shimbun

February 17, 2009

By choosing Japan as her first official overseas visit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has successfully sent a clear message to Japanese that the Obama administration places a great deal of importance on its relationship with Japan.

In a series of meetings held in Tokyo on February 17th, the Secretary delivered President Obama’s invitation for Prime Minister Taro Aso to become the first foreign leader to visit the Obama White House, on February 24th to discuss the world economy.

These “orders” from the President have much effect in reassuring and relieving Japanese officials as well as political leaders (and the media), negating their earlier concerns that the Obama administration might tilt toward China and adopt a mentality of “Japan passing.”

Furthermore, Japanese officials are heartened to hear the Secretary stressing that the Obama administration will closely coordinate with Japan in dealing with North Korea, one of the issues that most frustrated Japan in the last years of the Bush administration as Tokyo felt it was left out by the closer bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

Secretary Clinton’s performance in Tokyo was perceived by the Japanese as positive signs that the foundation of the U.S.-Japan bilateral alliance is as firm as ever, and that the U.S. pays a sufficient amount of attention to Japan.

There is, however, a point that Japan should carefully see through:

Prior to the Secretary’s flamboyant tour of East Asia, the Obama administration had already dispatched key members to other crucial areas of concerns: Vice President Joe Biden to Germany for the Munich Security Conference, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell to the Middle East, and Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke to South Asia. Understandably, Japan is not the first country visited by the key members of the administration.

It seems that each dispatch was carefully crafted and balanced with each other. The Obama team has stressed that the U.S. could not tackle difficult issues such as conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq unilaterally, therefore would seek help from other capable countries. In the Secretary’s own words, “it is part of a larger context in which we (the U.S.) intend to create networks of partners in order to deal with the problems that no nation can deal with alone.”

While the special envoys that were dispatched in the very initial days were to work directly with the targets, an ally like Japan is expected to support and contribute as the U.S. tackles these challenges. That is the primary reason that Secretary Clinton visited Tokyo in the first place: to obtain support. It is not enough for Tokyo to be relieved to receive kind words from the Secretary.

With the Secretary’s trip to Tokyo, the period of Japan’s wondering or whining for attention is over. Secretary Clinton made it very clear that the Obama administration’s expectations for Japan are very high. It is now Tokyo’s turn to respond, no matter how its own domestic political confusion deepens: in short, it is not Mr. Aso whom Mr. Obama invited to the White House next week, but the Prime Minister of Japan – the world’s number two economy and “the cornerstone” of U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.