As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kicks off her visit to Tokyo, she seems to be finding just the right pitch on Japan. In her Senate confirmation hearings in January she embraced the United States-Japan alliance as the "cornerstone" of America's Asia strategy. She struck another chord when she said she would meet with the families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, reportedly overruling careerists in the State Department who fretted about Pyongyang's possible response.
These are positive steps, but the biggest challenge for Secretary Clinton will be navigating the unraveling political situation in Tokyo. Taro Aso is the third prime minister in as many years, and his rapidly waning support in the polls points to a likely victory by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in elections later this year. However, the DPJ is deeply divided, and many analysts expect that government to also collapse in short order. It could take months, or even years, for stability to return.
In the meantime, there is a danger that Washington may lose its initial focus on the strategic importance of the alliance as a series of ministers rotates through the Japanese cabinet. So it is important to launch an agenda now that builds on our shared interests and values and that will endure regardless of political developments in Japan.
First, the U.S. and Japan should forge a new partnership on climate change. Most of President Barack Obama's energy experts are fixated on a strategic partnership with Beijing, and China certainly is the most difficult outlier in the global debate on climate. But that is precisely why the U.S. and Japan, as the world's two largest economies, should lead in setting standards on a market-based cap-and-trade system and technology cooperation that can be used to build a broader consensus in Asia that helps to draw in China.
Second, the U.S. should be more willing to cooperate with Japan on defense and space programs. Tokyo is eager to procure fifth-generation American fighter aircraft and wants to collaborate on satellites and launch vehicles. But officials in Washington, excessively nervous about the possible diplomatic and security consequences of such sales, have been stonewalling for more than a year on both fronts. Given the growing North Korean missile threat and the rapid expansion of China's People's Liberation Army Air Force, this is no time to pull back on defense cooperation.
Third, the two countries should revitalize the subcabinet-level economic dialogue begun in 2001 to encourage Japan to take action on regulatory reform, disposal of nonperforming loans and deflation. But this time, the U.S. side also needs to listen to Japan, particularly on deflation. Both sides still have much to do, but Tokyo has been far more proactive than Washington about returning liquidity to the economy by purchasing stocks and buying back regular and inflation-adjusted bonds.
Finally, the U.S. should pick up on one of Mr Aso's better ideas: the promotion of an "arc of freedom and prosperity" across Asia. At a time when weak states need stronger institutions and Chinese economic assistance is increasingly undermining good governance in the developing world, the U.S. and Japan should be at the center of a new development alliance that helps states strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law.
In Japan there is frequent concern that Democratic administrations in Washington become too protectionist, too close to China and too accommodating to North Korea. Secretary Clinton has gone a long way toward dispelling those misgivings. Now both sides must craft a strategic agenda that reflects both countries' core interests and ensures that Washington's attention does not drift in the face of domestic turmoil in Japan.
The writer is senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University.© Reprinted with permission from the Wall Street Journal Asia