The Cable

Climate and Cherry Disputes in WikiLeaks Documents Show U.S.-Japan Relations Can Be the Pits

New WikiLeaks cables purportedly show U.S. eavesdropping on ally Japan for diplomatic -- if diminutive -- details on trade and environmental policies.

OSAKA, Japan - Imported American cherries from California, a popular taste in Japan in early summer, are checked at Kansai International Airport in Osaka Prefecture, western Japan, on May 28, 2014. (Kyodo)
OSAKA, Japan - Imported American cherries from California, a popular taste in Japan in early summer, are checked at Kansai International Airport in Osaka Prefecture, western Japan, on May 28, 2014. (Kyodo)

New U.S. spying records offer a view of the mundane diplomacy between two allied, industrialized nations. But five excerpted cables, released Friday by WikiLeaks, show relations aren’t always sunny or sweet.

Take, for example, the NSA’s summary of a 2009 conversation within Japan’s agriculture ministry, where officials were “alarmed” at angering the U.S. over cherry imports. That year, Tokyo initially had planned to buy cherries from America’s Pacific-Northwest region to make up for a less-than-stellar showing from Japan’s annual bumper crop. But a domestic outcry among Japanese farmers put the imports on hold.

“One approach under consideration is to have the ministry admit to Washington, through back channels, that the decision had been the product of political pressure,” said the NSA summary, which was not dated and did not name any specific Japanese officials. It described the ministry as blaming “Japanese politicians and growers” for the flap, and said officials were “seeking ways to prevent damage to relations with the U.S.”

Two years earlier, in 2007, Japanese officials preparing for a summit with officials of the administration of then-President George W. Bush, debated how much to play up their goals for tackling climate change. The Japanese Foreign Ministry thought about not telling Washington of its ambitious plans to curb emissions, “because the ministry did not expect Washington to approve of such a goal, based on the U.S. reaction to climate change issues so far,” according to the WikiLeaks document.

In the end, Japanese officials decided that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would “clearly state” the climate goal. “Japan anticipates no major harm to the Japanese-U.S. relationship as a result,” the summary reads.

The documents purport to be NSA summaries, the text of which are cut and pasted onto WikiLeaks letterhead. Neither the NSA nor Japan’s embassy in Washington responded to requests for comment Friday on the summaries’ content or legitimacy. But the revelations that the U.S. spied on a longtime ally are hardly surprising: In 2013, Washington was deeply embarrassed by the disclosures of former contractor NSA Edward Snowden, who leaked information about a series of U.S. surveillance programs, including spying on world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

When it comes to international commerce, where potentially hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake through trade accords, import-export restrictions, or climate treaties, countries around the world have in recent years sought to know exactly where their friends — and not-so friends — stand.

Earlier documents released by WikiLeaks revealed that China used a “phishing” attack to lure U.S. State Department officials into giving away information about the U.S. stance on climate talks ahead of the big 2009 summit in Copenhagen. Even U.S. spying on Japanese trade delegations is old news, it turns out: The administration of then-President Bill Clinton was roiled in 1995 when U.S. trade officials bragged that the CIA had eavesdropped on Japanese auto negotiators, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In the latest batch of documents, a 2009 NSA summary portrayed Japan planning to pointedly pressure the U.S. amid major trade negotiations. The cable cited talking points being discussed for then-Agriculture Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who was expected to ask how the U.S. trade representative planned to “counter developing countries’ opposition to holding consultations on special products.” The U.S., European Union, and Japan have led the negotiations on behalf of developed countries.

And in 2008, U.S. spies again eavesdropped on Japanese officials as they prepared for a big meeting of the Group of 8 countries (G-8). At issue: Japan’s continued advocacy of an approach to fighting climate change that had run afoul of some energy experts and European governments. The NSA summary notes that, despite international criticism, Japanese officials planned to forge ahead with their so-called “sectoral approach” to slashing emissions, which they in fact did later that year at a large, global climate conference in Bali, Indonesia.

Pentagon correspondent Paul McLeary contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Kyodo via AP Images

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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