Mondale sees few changes to U.S.-Japan alliance from new government

Former Vice President Walter Mondale predicted the U.S.-Japan alliance will remain strong despite tough words from a new Japanese government.

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Mondale, who served as ambassador to Japan during the mid-1990s, said in an interview with The Hill that he’s confident the new Democratic Party of Japan will want to maintain close economic and military ties with the U.S.

“Will Japan continue to be a committed member of the U.S.-Japan alliance?” Mondale asked rhetorically. “My answer is certainly yes. There may be some details in there that they’ll want to review, but I’m confident that they will continue to be an integral part of it,” both economically and militarily.

Japan on Sunday voted to put the Democratic Party of Japan in power for the first time in nearly a half-century. The party’s leader and new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made references during the campaign to loosening Japan’s ties to the U.S.

Mondale’s positive assessment was in sharp contrast with many observers of Japanese foreign policy who warned that Japan would pull away from its close U.S. ties in the wake of the emergence of the new ruling party. However, his assessment was borne out when Hatayama reassured President Obama in a phone call on Thursday that the U.S.-Japan alliance “is the foundation” of Japanese foreign policy.

Mondale said there will be many issues that Hatoyama’s government will want to raise with the U.S., but most will be the same or similar to those that have been around for a long time.

"Hatoyama’s talked about how the American free enterprise system has failed,” Mondale said, referring to a recent op-ed article Hatoyama contributed to The New York Times. “But I don’t think that is a view that he alone shares. I think a lot of people in the U.S. believe that, as evidenced by the 2008 election. So I don’t see that as a radical departure at all."

Referring to SOFA, the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement signed in 1960 concerning the treatment of U.S. armed forces stationed in Japan, Mondale said, “Sure, there will be talk about how our troops are deployed, what will happen with some of the bases that we promised to close years ago but are still open, but most will be the same or similar questions that are really not different from the past.”

One of the biggest crises Mondale had to deal with as ambassador was in 1995 when three U.S. servicemen based in Okinawa kidnapped a 12-year-old Japanese girl and raped her, causing public outrage and large anti-American demonstrations. The U.S. agreed to hand over suspects in serious crimes to the Japanese and the three men were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in Japan and given dishonorable discharges.

Mondale downplayed reports that Japan’s new government will seek closer economic and military ties to China, Korea and other Asian nations at the expense of its ties to the U.S.

“I’m sure there will be some questions about Japan’s relationship with the rest of Asia. But these questions have been around for a long time, too. The U.S. has always encouraged Japan’s engagement with China and its neighbors, and I see nothing but good coming out of that.”

Finally, Mondale said he sees Japan’s groundbreaking election, which he compared to the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, as an opportunity “for the U.S. and Japan to sit down in a wide-open, fresh way to review all the elements of our relationship.”

He added, “We’ve got a new government here, they’ve got a new government there, and the world has changed a lot. But within the spirit of the [U.S.-Japan] alliance, we need to figure out what we can do to freshen it up to make it more appropriate for the 21st century. I think we can do that if we go at it in a spirit of partnership and reciprocity.”

Efforts to reach two other top members of Congress who were ambassadors to Japan, former House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), were unsuccessful. A spokesman for Foley said he is not doing any interviews, while Baker did not return several phone calls.

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