Many people nowadays think of Japan as a society that can do no wrong. But Japan sometimes seems as if it can't do anything right when it comes to foreign policy. On that, the rich new kid on the block gets little respect.
Take the Persian Gulf crisis. Having quietly retreated to the sidelines after an unsuccessful attempt to send troops to the gulf, Tokyo now is slowing its military spending while boosting its support of U.S. troops stationed in Japan.
That's good news on two fronts: Asian countries, wary of Tokyo's military buildup, are relieved. Closer to home, Washington had been pressing Tokyo to pick up a bigger share of the tab for maintaining 50,000 U.S. servicemen and women in Japan. That should ease the U.S. deficit, now burdened by the costs of Operation Desert Shield.
Tokyo's new five-year defense budget caps annual spending increases at 3%, compared to 5% before. Its share of expenses at U.S. bases will rise to 50% from 40%. With its defense spending pegged at 1% of a rising gross national product, the military budget has been growing.
For all this, Tokyo can't escape the fire over Iraq. There's renewed criticism in Congress that Tokyo isn't doing its share. Of the promised $4 billion in nonmilitary aid and loans, Tokyo has provided about $830 million. The State Department and the Pentagon say this in line with expectations. But it's not $4 billion.
Both Tokyo and Washington concede that Japan needs some visible presence in the gulf. Its attempt to send a 100-person volunteer medical team to the Mideast flopped, which speaks sadly of what Japanese citizens see as their world responsibilities. Domestic opposition killed the controversial U.N. peace cooperation bill that called for sending Japan's self-defense forces overseas. That's prohibited by the U.S.-inspired Japanese constitution.
Tokyo's attempts to fulfill international obligations have fallen short of expectations. A place in the new world order is eluding Japan. For a variety of reasons, that won't change overnight.