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Commentary (March 4, 2004)

Is a Kerry White House Bad for Japan?

Weston S. Konishi (Senior Research and Program Officer, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation)

The U.S. presidential race entered a new phase this week as U.S. President George W. Bush launched his first attack on Democratic front-runner John Kerry. Observers in Japan are closely watching such developments as not only is it believed that a new Democratic administration might set back Japan-U.S. relations, but many speculate that a Bush defeat would weaken the Koizumi Cabinet. Is a Democratic victory in November bad for Japan? The answer is no, relax!

Even in Washington, there is a hint of anxiety in the Japanese ex-patriot community about the prospects of a Democratic administration in 2005. This presumably is based on unpleasant flashbacks of Bill Clinton's first term, when the newly elected Democratic president vowed to fight Japan's record trade surplus and questioned the sustainability of the U.S. military presence in Asia.

In contrast, the current Bush administration has witnessed what is likely to be the Golden Era of Japan-U.S. relations --a time of smooth economic interaction and historic military cooperation. The depth of bilateral relations is epitomized by the rapport between Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, surpassing the legendary Ron-Yasu friendship between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.

Would a President John Kerry resonate as closely with Prime Minister Koizumi? Maybe, but all would not be lost if it was not so.

Bush has been a steadfast supporter of Koizumi. Even though the prime minister has made little progress in economic reforms, such as cleaning up bad loans in the banking sector, the president has refused to criticize Tokyo publicly for dragging down the global economy. Summit meetings have also provided an opportunity for Koizumi to stand side-by-side with the U.S. leader.

But there is no reason to believe that a Democratic president would be less supportive of Koizumi. Conventional wisdom in Washington holds that Koizumi still stands the best chance of reforming the economy and an alternative leader, such as Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) leader Naoto Kan, would be a disaster for the alliance. Of course, there would be no more invitations to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, but summits would continue to be held regardless of who is in office. And, to be frank, the impact of U.S. presidents on the political fate of Japanese prime ministers is often exaggerated --just ask Nakasone.

The outlook on economic ties is a legitimate concern though, particularly as trade is now a hot campaign issue. Democrats are lambasting the Bush administration for "exporting jobs," and Kerry is sounding increasingly protectionist on the campaign trail. As Japan owns a 66 billion dollars share of the 489 billion dollars U.S. trade deficit, it is possible that Japan could reemerge as a target of Democratic trade hawks.

Again, that scenario is possible but unlikely. China, as everyone knows, is in the political hot seat, with a 124 billion dollars trade surplus and a currency that many lawmakers on Capitol Hill believe to be undervalued. However, Japan's economy largely has been written off as a concern but not a real threat to U.S. jobs. Crudely put, there is a general perception in Washington that attacking Japan's economy would be like kicking a dead horse as it ultimately would damage Japan's confidence when its economy is showing signs of life.

Even if Japan is not the main target of the trade hawks, it could still be vulnerable to broader protectionist measures under a Democratic White House. But that is possible under any administration, as it was when Bush imposed tariffs on steel imports.

The Japan-U.S. alliance is another aspect of the bilateral relationship that could falter if Bush is no longer in office. Many observers believe that the recent success of the alliance, particularly Japan's cooperation in the war on Iraq, is due to the Bush administration's expertise in Japan. It is true that the current administration has an extraordinary number of officials who are deeply familiar with Japan and have played an important role in guiding the alliance through unprecedented changes over the past three years.

The result is that the bilateral security relationship is more grounded than ever and enjoys deeper and wider institutional cooperation. Working-level interaction between officials on either side of the Pacific Ocean is the best in memory and is likely to continue despite potential changes in administration, according to many of these officials.

It is not a foregone conclusion that a Democratic White House would lack a team of officials who are experienced in formulating policy regarding Japan. It is unlikely that a future administration would have as many Japanese hands in various agencies as the Bush administration, but several top-level positions could be filled by names that are familiar to many Japanese.

Former Clinton Defense Department officials such as Kurt Campbell and Joseph Nye come to mind.

Despite these arguments, what if an incoming Democratic president does unsettle bilateral relations? History shows that even the most inauspicious presidential inaugurations can turn out better than expected.

Clinton's early presidency did prove to be a contentious era in Japan-U.S. relations. However, the looming trade wars of the early 1990s never came to fruition, and Clinton went on to launch a series of initiatives with Japan that are now the basis of bilateral cooperation in Iraq and elsewhere.

So regardless of who wins the presidency, the Golden Era of Japan-U.S. relations does not necessarily have to end in November.

Konishi is a senior research and program officer at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation.

(This commentary first appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, March 3, 2004, under the title "Golden era of ties to continue even if U.S. govt changes")

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