Japanese FM in Washington—Who Knew?

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso was in Washington for meetings on Wednesday, and he took time to speak to the media and the public at an event at the Willard Hotel.

There was considerable interest in Aso’s talk, judging from the many microphones at the podium and cameras in the back. And no wonder: if Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi steps down later this year, as is widely expected, Aso would be a leading candidate to replace him. The security retinue of Mr. Aso is already comparable to that of a head of state, judging from the number of people with earpieces standing around the room who showed absolutely no interest in what he was saying.

And yet, Aso’s remarks didn’t merit mention on the front pages of either the Washington Post or the Washington Times. Then again, it didn’t make it into the middle pages of those papers either. The big news in the capital city of a country waging two conventional wars (and numerous smaller unconventional wars) was that the Washington Nationals baseball team had new owners. Other cities, and other papers, also seemed disinterested. After an admittedly cursory glance, I found no mention of Aso’s remarks in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. (By way of comparison, today’s Financial Times has two stories, a news article and an editorial, about the speech.)

The speech presumably got more coverage in East Asia, but Americans need to hear what Aso is saying. Of great concern on both sides of the Pacific is the nature and trajectory of China’s rise to power. If Sino–Japanese relations remain sour or grow worse, there will be a risk of conflict. And with over 35,000 U.S. troops in Japan and another 25,000 on the Korean peninsula, the United States would almost certainly become involved. Then there is the perennial flashpoint of Taiwan, the subject of my friend and mentor Ted Galen Carpenter’s latest book (America’s Coming War with China: Collision Course over Taiwan)

Mr. Aso went out of his way, both in his prepared remarks (delivered in English, by the way) and in his responses to questions, to stress the potential for peaceful coexistence between Japan and China. He did not dismiss questions about the past nor did he minimize or ignore China’s need for greater transparency and openness in its dealings with the outside world. But Aso tried his best to focus on the future. Trade is flourishing between the two countries. China has now passed the United States as Japan’s leading trading partner. There is now tremendous economic opportunity throughout East Asia, a region once characterized by crushing poverty.

As I stress in a Cato Policy Analysis published last month (“Two Normal Countries: Rethinking the U.S.–Japan Strategic Relationship,” PA 566, April 18, 2006), Japan’s emergence as a normal nation, one that is no longer dependent upon the United States for its defense, could play an important role in safeguarding East Asian security. While it would be unwise to dismiss lingering concerns in East Asia about Japan’s intentions, I stress that many of these concerns flow from a period of time that has long since past. It is well past time for Americans and East Asians to embrace the future.

Foreign ministers come and go in Washington almost every day. When Mr. Aso returns to Washington, which he is almost certain to do, it will be interesting to see if the media coverage will be any different. Perhaps the Redskins will replace the Nationals on the front pages of the hometown newspapers, or perhaps foreign policy concerns will remain focused on the Middle East. But I hope that a Prime Minister Aso will be afforded the attention that he, and that the U.S.–Japan relationship, deserves.