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US Diplomat Downplays Concerns about New Japanese Government

By Kate Woodsome
03 September 2009

The top U.S. envoy to East Asia is welcoming the new Japanese government's plans to develop closer ties with its neighbors. The diplomat says the United States could benefit from the new dynamic.

Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, is downplaying concerns that Japan's new leader may distance Tokyo strategically from Washington.

"It's important that Japan feel confident and independent," said Kurt Campbell. "And in fact, the United States supports that. We don't see any contradiction in terms of a close alliance and a greater independence in terms of doing business."

Campbell spoke this week in Washington at a forum on Japan's recent parliamentary election.

That vote ended more than half a century of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. It ushered in a new leader, Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan. The U.S.-educated politician campaigned hard against the LDP's unwavering support of U.S. policies.

Hatoyama has suggested he may not extend Japan's mission to refuel ships supporting the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. He has also questioned an agreement on U.S. military bases in Japan.

Since his party's victory, Hatoyama has said his policies are not anti-American. He is advocating closer ties with South Korea and China, Japan's largest trading partner. U.S. envoy Campbell says that is a good thing.

"We would like to see Japan play a stronger leadership role as partners with friends in Asia," said Campbell.

Japan is Washington's closest ally in the region. About 50,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed on the island nation, which sits across the Sea of Japan from nuclear-armed North Korea. It is the world's second largest economy and the second largest contributor to the United Nations.

Michael Green, the former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, says Japan and the U.S. disagree on very little. He says the Democrats' attack on their rival's relationship with Washington likely was just campaign rhetoric.

"I think it's going to start dying out as these guys come into office and start looking at what do they do about North Korea, what do they do about the rise of China," said Michael Green.

Japan and the United States have disagreed with China in the U.N. Security Council on how to respond to North Korea's nuclear threat. They also have expressed concern about China's growing military power.

Green says Japan's support of U.S. foreign policy is critical.

"We especially need it now with the rise of China - not that either Japan or the United States wants to contain China - but to provide a stable environment so we can both engage China from a position of confidence," he said.

Of the 308 DPJ members recently elected to Japan's parliament, nearly half have never been lawmakers before. Few have held Cabinet posts.

Campbell says Washington has to be patient and recognize that Japan's new leadership will be learning on the job.

"One of the things I think we have to be careful about is not to have unrealistic expectations in the short-term about clear, coherent policy statements," he said. "It may take time for them to able to fully enunciate."

Hatoyama won the election with a promise to clear out the bureaucrats who have run Japan's government for most of the past 54 years.

Steven Clemons, a senior fellow with the policy group the New America Foundation, says purging the long-time civil servants will handicap the Democrats as they set out to make both foreign and domestic policy.

"There's a whole infrastructure within the LDP that has been there in place for decades that essentially, much of the internal organs of policy and legislative work don't exist in any mature way within the DPJ. Not to the same level," said Steven Clemons.

The Japanese people will soon have a chance to judge the success of the new government's policies. The country must call elections for the upper house of parliament next year.

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