HONG KONG: With friends like these, who needs enemies? The United States could well be wondering why its relationships with three major countries that should be close allies have become so frayed. Ties with Japan, India and Turkey are all being damaged as domestic politics in these countries upsets shared national interests.
Japan has balked at continuing its naval refueling support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. India has hedged on proceeding with its nuclear agreement with Washington. Turkey is angry at the inability of the United States to rein in attacks by Iraq-based Kurdish separatists. These difficulties arose before General Pervez Musharraf put even more question marks in front of America's relationship with Pakistan by imposing emergency rule.
All this is not just a coincidence. Although these problems have domestic causes, they also reflect a broader erosion of America's influence linked to its war in Iraq and its broader Middle East policies.
In Japan, the disarray in domestic politics has contributed to a series of stumbles in international relations. The loss of control of the Upper House of Parliament in July elections left the new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, trying and failing to forge a compromise with the opposition on the issue of naval supply. This is embarrassing for Fukuda, who is scheduled to meet with President George W. Bush on Nov. 16.
Fukuda's government may eventually get its way, but the fact that it has been unable to deliver on an issue so important to relations with Washington should be very troubling to both countries. Japan's apparent lack of commitment to the United States will have reverberations at a time when Japan needs its American ally more than ever to balance China's growing power. It is clearly not in Japan's broader interest to reject a role in aiding America in Afghanistan, but the domestic controversy does reflect a distaste for U.S. policies in the Middle East as well as pacifist attitudes which, though diminishing, are still popular.
In India, the unwillingness of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to risk his fragile parliamentary coalition for the sake of the nuclear agreement with Washington is an even more obvious case of domestic politics standing in the way of national interest. Politicians in Delhi, left and right alike, appear not to understand how far Washington has gone in undermining its own nonproliferation stance in order to seal its new relationship with India. Prickly nationalism has combined with the hubris inspired by recent economic success to block an agreement that would have had many advantages for India, as well as cementing a friendship with the United States in the face of China's growing influence.
Given the mood in the U.S. Congress, the nuclear deal is unlikely to remain on the table for long. But at least some blame must go to the general distaste for U.S. policies in the Middle East, including pressure on New Delhi not to go ahead with a gas deal with Iran that India badly needs, stirring up the old anti-imperialist rhetoric so loved by Indian politicians in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the case of Turkey, a longtime U.S. ally in the world's most unstable region, Washington is more directly to blame. Whatever the faults of Turkey's policy toward its Kurdish population, the casual manner with which the United States has addressed the issue of Kurdish separatism is remarkable. Of course, the issue is being exploited for domestic political reasons in Turkey and has exposed some nasty aspects of Turkish nationalism. But more broadly, Turkey is threatened by the chain of events set off by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
From one end of Asia to the other, Iraq is a dead weight on America's relations with its regional friends. Domestic issues in these countries are taking priority in relations with the United States in a way that would have been unlikely a decade ago, when the America was viewed as both stronger and more benign.