Bolstering Japan-U.S. Ties

July 8th, 2009


The Obama administration has shown great good will toward Japan. This was evidenced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony at her Senate confirmation hearing, her choice of Japan as the first country she visited after taking office and the fact that Prime Minister Taro Aso was the first foreign leader President Barack Obama met with after his inauguration.

This is an epoch-making development in Japan-U.S. relations attesting to the success of diplomacy on both sides. As a matter of fact, both Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell have both made remarks emphasizing that these are proof of the importance the Obama administration attaches to Japan.

However, the Japanese media at that time mostly focused on reporting on then Minister of Finance Shoichi Nakagawa’s embarrassing behavior at the Group of 20 meeting in Rome and failed to convey the United States’ gesture of good will adequately to the public. In my opinion, the Japanese media have also demeaned themselves in this incident.

The Obama administration’s favorable consideration given to Japan is not only demonstrated in its gestures, but also expressed clearly in the lineup of senior officials in charge of East Asian affairs. While there are many Americans who know Europe and the Americas well, few are knowledgeable about Asia. Policymaking related to Asia tends to rely very much on the knowledge of officials in charge of East Asia.

During the first half of the Clinton era, when frictions between Japan and the U.S. were serious, officials in charge of East Asia in the White House and the State and Defense Departments were all China experts. With no one knowledgeable about Japan, Japan was basically helpless.

However, the present chief policymaker on East Asia at the Department of Defense is Assistant Secretary Wallace Gregson, who used to be the Marine Corps commander in Okinawa and knows Japan well. Moreover, Kurt Campbell, who places high priority on the Japan-U.S. alliance, became the new assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific.

This is good news for Japan. On the other hand, what can Japan do in this situation? Actually, the Pacific Forum and three other groups held four seminars attended by more than 50 Asia experts last year. The result of the discussions was published in February as new proposals on Asian policy for the Obama administration. It is said that Campbell exercised strong leadership in the drafting of the report.

In one passage, the word “enough!” was used. What it meant was that since the U.S. is committed to the alliance, Japan should not be talking about such things as “Japan passing,” and be so wishy-washy. The report demands that Japan, instead, should think of ways to contribute to the alliance on its own.

Campbell is one of the few experts on Japan from the Democratic Party camp. During the last days of the Clinton administration, he reportedly was fed up with the stream of Japanese politicians and business leaders calling on him.

However, in his recent hearings in the Senate, he did not seem to have been nonplussed by this tedious experience. He stated in no uncertain terms that the Japan-U.S. alliance is at the center of U.S. policy in Asia and that the U.S. should clearly convey its commitment to the alliance to its Japanese friends.

Shortly after the inauguration of the Bush administration, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage proposed a vice ministerial dialogue to strengthen the bilateral alliance. At that time, the Japanese Foreign Ministry was unable to respond to this effectively. So Armitage left office in disappointment. In contrast, his successor Robert Zoellick started the U.S.-China vice ministerial dialogue, which was hugely successful from the first round. China immediately obtained the status of a “stakeholder.”

This time, the U.S. side is again hopeful that moves to help propel the Japan-U.S. relationship forward will be made under Campbell and Gregson’s watch.

The political situation in Japan is such that the state of affairs after Prime Minister Taro Aso dissolves the Lower House remains completely uncertain. But at least, the Aso administration should still be in power when Campbell visits Japan. Even during the little time left, we hope that meaningful exchange of views with the new Obama administration will take place, and the path for the strengthening of the alliance in the future, even just portion of it, will be laid down for future administrations. Otherwise, the opportunity presented by the Campbell-Gregson team, as well as the team made up of James Jones, Hillary Clinton, and Robert Gates may be wasted, and they may become frustrated with Japan at an early stage.

It is also becoming evident what Japan needs to do. Recent statements by Japan experts in the U.S. show that although they had been coy in the past about their expectations about Japan exercising the right of collective self-defense, they are now speaking up on this subject. Next will come the issue of Japan boosting its defense capabilities in order to maintain the deterrence of the bilateral alliance.

The immediate issue for the two countries is the realignment of military bases, but this is a complicated issue linked to local circumstances in Okinawa. Certain aspects of the issue cannot be resolved by the central government’s policies. So prospects remain unclear.

While it goes without saying that Japan needs to make efforts to resolve this problem, this does not mean that the more fundamental questions of the right of collective self-defense and Japan’s need to increase defense spending can be deferred.