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CRS — Japan-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress

February 25, 2013

Japan-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

Japan is a significant partner for the United States in a number of foreign policy areas, particularly in terms of security priorities, from responding to China’s rise in the region to countering threats from North Korea. The post-World War II U.S.-Japan alliance has long been an anchor of the U.S. security role in East Asia. The alliance facilitates the forward deployment of about 49,000 U.S. troops and other U.S. military assets based in Japan in the Asia-Pacific. If Japan decides to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, it will become an even more critical element in the Obama Administration’s rebalancing to Asia strategy.

Japan has struggled to find political stability in the past seven years. Since 2007, six men have been Prime Minister, including the current premier Shinzo Abe, who also held the post in 2006- 2007. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) returned to power in a landslide election in December 2012. The current opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had ruled for three tumultuous years since their own watershed election victory in 2009. Japan’s leaders face daunting tasks: an increasingly assertive China, a weak economy, and rebuilding from the devastating March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. In recent years, opposition control of one chamber of parliament has paralyzed policymaking in Tokyo and made U.S.-Japan relations difficult to manage despite overall shared national interests. Abe is unlikely to pursue controversial initiatives before the next national elections, for the Upper House of parliament (called the Diet) in July 2013. Perhaps most significantly, the United States could become directly involved in a military conflict between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets in the East China Sea.

Past comments and actions on controversial historical issues by Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet have raised concern that Tokyo could upset regional relations in ways that hurt U.S. interests. Abe is known as a strong nationalist, and he is now under pressure on the right from a newly formed party touting its own hawkish views on national security. Abe’s approach to issues like the so-called “comfort women” sex slaves from the World War II era, history textbooks, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine that honors Japan’s war dead, and statements on a territorial dispute with South Korea will be closely monitored by Japan’s neighbors as well as the United States.

The massive and immediate humanitarian relief provided by the United States following the March 2011 “triple disaster” bolstered the bilateral alliance, but difficult issues remain, particularly those related to the stationing of marines on Okinawa. Washington and Tokyo have agreed to relocate several thousand marines from Okinawa to Guam and other locations in the region, but the two governments have been unable to make tangible progress on implementing a 2006 agreement to relocate the controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to a less densely populated location on Okinawa. In addition, the U.S. Congress has restricted funding for the realignment because of concerns and uncertainty about the cost of the realignment plans.

Japan is one of the United States’ most important economic partners. Outside of North America, it is the United States’ second-largest export market and second-largest source of imports. Japanese firms are the United States’ second-largest source of foreign direct investment, and Japanese investors are the second-largest foreign holders of U.S. treasuries, helping to finance the U.S. deficit and reduce upward pressure on U.S. interest rates. One exception was U.S. criticism over Japan’s decision in 2003 to ban imports of U.S. beef, which have since resumed, resolving one issue that could have been an obstacle to the United States agreeing to Japan’s joining the TPP.

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