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Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato meets with President Nixon at the Western White House in San Clemente on January 6, 1972.

In 1971, Washington and Tokyo maintained a strong economic and security relationship, but as with any alliance, the relationship was tested by various matters of wider international concern such as textiles trade, a new Okinawa Treaty with the U.S. and the impending China representation vote at the United Nations. In addition, the Prime Minister of Japan Eisaku Sato was weathering a storm in the Japanese Diet (Parliament) with the opposition party and warring factions within his own Liberal Democratic Party. The July 15th surprise announcement by President Nixon to visit the People’s Republic of China the following February escalated the intense political siege in Japan, threatening to break the embattled Prime Minister. The opposition claimed that Sato lacked a China policy of his own and was blindly following the Chinese policy of the United States, which had in this case betrayed him. Over the coming months however, Sato successfully maneuvered his way through the Japanese political minefield with the aid of the Nixon Administration.

In early January of 1972, PM Sato paid a visit to the United States and met with President Nixon at the Western White House in San Clemente. Aside from the Okinawa agreement, the two discussed China policy extensively. Before the meeting, Sato signaled to the U.S. that he was ready to play ball in the region and that he and President Nixon should seriously reevaluate Japan’s place in East Asia.

The U.S. side clarified to the Japanese that Japan is and will be America’s strongest ally in the region, thus making their cooperation in the U.S.’s China initiative that much more important.

In the past, Sato and his predecessors staved off domestic pressures on China policy by maintaining a flexible trade relationship with mainland china while tying Japan’s China policy (particularly in its political aspects) to that of the US while also paying careful attention to the sensitivities of the government in Taipei. Therefore at the January meeting, the President stressed that the United States would like to see Japan more engaged in the region through increased military assistance to South Korea and stronger economic ties with South East Asia. In return, Nixon assured Sato that the intentions for his China visit were strictly to work towards a limited improvement of relations with China as opposed to a formalization of relations then or in the near future, which Japan feared would have severe domestic and international consequences. The President also agreed to consult with the Japanese government in the future on any possible changes to China or Taiwan policy. Most importantly, the United States expressed its desire to uphold and strengthen its security assurances to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, which the U.S. had shown by signing the Okinawa Reversion Agreement with Japan the previous year allowing for a large American military presence on that island.

With the help of the Nixon Administration, Japan (and Sato in particular) survived a sensitive internal debate over the direction of Japan’s China policy. After Nixon’s visit to China in February, which allowed for an opening process of that country to the rest of the world, Japan-China relations became stronger well into 1973 and 1974 under the guidance of the new Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. By the time Nixon left office in 1974, Japan and China had begun discussing a normalization of their diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level. Previously, the only offices the GOJ and PRC held in each other’s territory were small trade offices; the upgrade to ambassadorial level representation was a huge leap forward in Japan-PRC relations and likely a direct result of President Nixon’s own initiative to reopen China to the world.