FORGIVE JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER Junichiro Koizumi if he seems at all impatient during his White House dinner tonight. The toasts and backslapping with George Bush may provide an ego boost, but tomorrow the real fun begins, when the president accompanies Koizumi on a tour of Graceland. That might be small hat for some foreign dignitaries, but not for the crooning premier who has released a CD of his favorite Elvis Presley tunes and once sang an Elvis duet with Tom Cruise.
Koizumi rides into Washington today as the most colorful, telegenic, and recognizable Japanese leader of the postwar era. He has few closer chums on the world stage than Bush, who often pals around with Koizumi as if he were an old chum from Yale. The two men boast an "exceptional personal relationship," says James Kelly, a former State Department official. Indeed, Koizumi is in many ways the Tony Blair of East Asia.
Not unlike Blair, Koizumi risked his premiership on support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq. He championed a special law that let Tokyo contribute over 500 noncombat troops to relief efforts in Samawah, a relatively peaceful town in the southern province of Muthanna. This decision caused rancor in Japan, where the pacifist constitution imposed after World War II has traditionally squelched any overseas military deployments to countries still engulfed by violence. Last week Koizumi signaled that Japanese ground troops would soon be coming home, their mission completed.
As a general rule, most Americans pay serious attention to a foreign ally only when that ally has dropped out of favor. Thus France grabs the headlines, while Japan is almost an afterthought. But the U.S.-Japan security alliance, which seemed to be unraveling after the Cold War, is now the chief regional anchor for checking Chinese adventurism and defending against the North Korean threat. Just this week, as Pyongyang appeared poised to test its nuclear-capable Taepodong-2 rocket, Japanese media reported that America would for the first time deploy Patriot interceptor missiles to its bases on Okinawa.
So much for the claim that Bush officials have "ignored" East Asia. Upgrading the alliance with Tokyo represents one of the most unsung diplomatic feats of this White House. Neither Bush nor Koizumi did it alone. Both built on the security dialogues of their predecessors. But the Bush-Koizumi years have witnessed an acceleration of the process and historic levels of military cooperation. Their work has already bore fruit. "I think the Chinese have been deterred," says Michael Green, a former National Security Council staffer. (Beijing squealed loudly in February 2005 when America and Japan affirmed that protecting Taiwan was a "common strategic objective.")
To be sure, the U.S.-Japan picture is not all rosy. The pacifist Japanese constitution essentially bans collective self-defense. This could complicate U.S.-Japan policy on Taiwan, as might Taiwanese domestic politics. Then there is the prickly matter of Japanese investments in Iranian oilfields, which may become a growing concern if Washington seeks to introduce anti-Iran sanctions. Japan's vaunted economic recovery is still shaky, and the free-market reforms of the Koizumi era will need succor from future governments. Japan must also mend relations with its neighbors, who have complained about Koizumi's repeated trips to the Yasukuni shrine, a memorial for some 2.5 million Japanese military dead including a handful of war criminals found guilty by the Tokyo Tribunal.
Thanks to these issues, and North Korea, it won't be all levity for Koizumi and Bush, whose past summits have included tossing a baseball at Camp David and feasting on barbecue at the Bush ranch in Texas. Tokyo smoothed over one wrinkle in the alliance last week, when it announced the resumption of American beef imports pending inspections of U.S. meat plants. American and Japanese officials have also reached a landmark agreement on U.S. troop relocations from Okinawa. (Though both issues are far from settled for good.)
Over the long term, the two biggest challenges for U.S. policymakers in East Asia are managing the peaceful rise of China and defanging North Korea. Both challenges will require a robust security relationship with Japan--a relationship that Bush and Koizumi have done more than any other pair of leaders to nourish and expand. It is true that Japan may never see another Koizumi. A big fan of American westerns, especially High Noon, the maverick prime minister has blended cowboy-like populism with a boldly pro-American foreign policy. The alliance may inevitably fade a bit after he retires next September.
But in Iraq and elsewhere, Koizumi has crossed the Rubicon. As U.S. ambassador Tom Schieffer recently put it, "Under Koizumi there was a fundamental change." Future Japanese leaders may find there is no turning back.
Duncan Currie is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.