In the first leg of her inaugural trip overseas, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met her Japanese counterpart Hirofumi Nakasone and other Japanese officials on Tuesday. Her tour of Asia will also bring her to Indonesia, South Korea and China. Her stop in Japan is as much symbolic as it is substantive.
Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State with Hirofumi Nakasone, Japan's Foreign Minister
Many Japanese felt snubbed when former US President Bill Clinton skipped over their nation during his trip to Asia in 1998. But on Hillary Clinton’s first trip abroad as secretary of state, she assured Tokyo that the Obama administration still saw Japan as one of the US’ closest allies.
“America’s relationships across the Pacific are indispensible to addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunities of the 21st century,” Clinton said.
The Japan-US alliance may be even more critical now since both nations have been badly hit by the global economic crisis. Tokyo announced this week that its exports-driven economy had had its worst slump in over 30 years.
Fear that China will take priority
Some here worry that Washington will overlook Japan in favour of improving ties with China during these tough times.
But Jeffrey Kingston, a professor at Temple University in Tokyo, said that the US would not favour one nation over the other.
“We now live in a multilateral world,” he explained and “global problems require global solutions -- that means much more cooperation, so she is saying we are not going to treat China as an enemy, as a rival, but as a partner.”
“She, I believe, is also trying to convince the Japanese of the value of working with China as a partner.”
Military matters on the agenda
Also on Secretary Clinton’s agenda was the signing of an agreement reducing the number of US solders stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
The US military has had a presence there since the end of the Second World War.
Washington now wants Tokyo to commit troops to the war in Afghanistan, something that many Japanese politicians and the public are wary about.
Shift in policy towards North Korea
Clinton’s visit to the region comes as North Korea may be preparing to test-fire a long range missile. The Secretary of State called on Pyongyang to refrain from raising tensions even more, now that multinational talks on ending the regime’s nuclear weapon’s programme are in a deadlock.
Tokyo, for its part, has refused to provide North Korea with promised energy aid until an unrelated kidnapping dispute is resolved. In a showing of solidarity, Clinton also met with the family members of Japanese civilians that North Korea has admitted to kidnapping in the 1970s and 80s.
Temple University’s Jeffrey Kingston said that Clinton might be trying to nudge Japan back into the negotiations with Pyongyang. “I think she is here to say: ‘for us, the main issue is nuclear weapons and what do we need to do to get Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programme?’
“I think she is preparing Japan for America seeking a normalized relationship with North Korea and a much wider relationship of economic cooperation in a sense to bring North Korea into the international community”
Secretary Clinton also announced that President Obama had invited Prime Minister Taro Aso to Washington later this month. Aso will be the first foreign leader Obama meets since taking office last month.