U.S.-Japan ties, which foundered on a dispute over an American military base, are on the mend as territorial spats in Asia underscore the need to deepen the 50-year alliance, an Obama administration official said.
“There has been a clear desire on both sides to step up our diplomatic engagement,” Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said at a briefing today in Tokyo. “We’re living though a period of very consequential developments. There’s now full recognition in both Washington and Tokyo of the task at hand.”
Campbell praised Prime Minister Naoto Kan for his handling of a territorial dispute with China over rival claims to uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that sent ties to their lowest level in five years. Kan met two days ago with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Brussels at a Asia-Europe summit and both leaders pledged to repair relations.
“These circumstances have the potential to spin out of control,” Campbell said. “At critical moments they require a leader to take stock and recognize the potential for long-term harm. In this circumstance, that’s exactly what Prime Minister Kan did.”
The U.S. seeks to “facilitate these dialogues” between Asian countries over maritime issues without acting as a go-between, Campbell said. He said the Obama administration played no part in mediating between Asia’s two biggest economies after a Chinese trawler last month collided with two Japanese Coast Guard boats near the islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
Ties between the U.S. and Japan soured during an eight-month dispute over whether to move a U.S. Marine facility off the island of Okinawa. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned in June after submitting to U.S. pressure to keep the Futenma Air Base on the island against the wishes of local residents and some members of his government.
Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan overturned half a century of one-party politics when it came to power in September 2009. The rise of the DPJ meant “there would be some inevitable challenges associated with the new government,” Campbell said.
The U.S. envoy, who goes to South Korea tomorrow, said “it’s too soon to make any judgment” about the elevation last week of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s third son as heir apparent. Kim Jong Un, who may be 27 or 28, was named to North Korea’s second-highest military position and made a four-star general. The appointments were announced amid speculation his father is preparing to hand over power since suffering an apparent stroke in 2008.
Campbell said North Korea has to demonstrate it is serious about improving relations with the South following the March sinking of a South Korean naval vessel that an international panel determined was caused by a North Korean torpedo.