US-Japan ties intact despite diplomatic spat

by P. Parameswaran
Wed Jan 31, 3:55 AM ET

US experts on Japan say official displeasure in Washington over Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma's criticism of the US invasion of Iraq does not reflect any major tensions in bilateral ties.

But incoming number two US diplomat John Negroponte cautioned that Washington should not take its relations with its staunchest ally in Asia for granted.

Last week, Kyuma called the US decision to invade Iraq "wrong" and later accused Washington of being "too cocky" in pressing Tokyo to relocate a US military base on the strategic island of Okinawa.

The US State Department expressed displeasure with the comment and Kyuma was slapped down by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office, concerned that the remarks could hurt the Japanese-US alliance, touted in both capitals as the strongest in decades.

Although rare, US experts do not believe the criticism illustrates a rift in bilateral relations, saying Kyuma could be positioning himself ahead of Japan's key upper house elections in July.

"There has been discomfort about Iraq among the Japanese public, just as there has been in Australia or the UK, but Kyuma is the first cabinet member to actually give voice to that sentiment," said Michael Green, a senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council until a year ago.

Kyuma is largely out of tune with his own government, Green said. "I don't think his comment is reflective of a broader rift or tension in US-Japan relations."

Kyuma was appointed the first head of the defense ministry since World War II after it was upgraded from "defense agency" as Abe moves to revise the US-imposed 1947 pacifist constitution.

The defense minister has reportedly told people in Tokyo that the criticism was aimed at winning support from the pacifist Komei party in Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led ruling coalition for continued Japanese deployment in support of operations in Iraq.

"But that rings a bit hollow and it is clearly not something that his own ministry or the prime minister's office or the foreign ministry think is necessary or appropriate," said Green, now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Abe's predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, a close friend of Bush, strongly supported the 2003 invasion and took the landmark step of deploying Japanese troops to Iraq.

Koizumi withdrew the troops last year before leaving office but Japan has continued to deploy its air force.

Kyuma had said that President Bush "made a mistake" in attacking Iraq, contradicting Tokyo┬’s official pro-Washington stance.

He also ticked off Washington for allegedly ignoring the opinion of local leaders in its bid to reduce the US military footprint on Okinawa, home to about two-thirds of the 50,000 American troops in Japan.

Without referring to the diplomatic spat, Negroponte, set to take over as deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday that relations with Japan "has always been a cornerstone of our policy towards East Asia."

"I don't think we should take the relationship for granted, I think it needs to be nurtured and Japan remains one of our most important allies in the world," he said.

The State Department first expressed unhappiness over Kyuma's latest outburst and indicated it could affect upcoming key talks among US and Japan's defense and foreign ministers, but later played down the concerns.

Asked whether the remarks could jeopardize the so-called "two plus two" talks, department spokesman Sean McCormack said "No, no."

Tokyo has made clear that Kyuma's comment was "his personal views" and that the Okinawa basing agreement was a "good compromise" after "really tough negotiations," he told reporters Monday.

"We think we have a good deal and we're ready to follow through on our end of the bargain. I expect the Japanese are as well," McCormack said.

The Japanese parliament discusses a bill next month to help fund the redeployment of 8,000 US marines from Okinawa to Guam under a program that requires Tokyo to bear the bulk of the 10 billion dollar cost.

"I think the Diet will be able to pass legislation this spring, enabling the financing and other arrangements for the move to Guam which is going to be very expensive and complicated," Green said.