Japan’s Obama Opportunity

July 2nd, 2009  Wall Street Journal Asia
With the appointment of Kurt Campbell this week to the State Department’s most important Asia position, the Obama administration has once again demonstrated its strong friendship with Japan.

Mr. Campbell was a deputy assistant secretary in the Defense Department in the last years of Clinton Administration and one of the rare strong supporters of the U.S.-Japan alliance in that administration. In his confirmation hearings for Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs last month, he said: “The best way to engage China is with the strongest possible partnership with Japan and for Japanese friends to know that we are behind them. . . So I think it’s non-negotiable, a strong partnership with Japan. . . And if we don’t have that foundation, then virtually nothing else is possible in Asia.”

His remarks are important, because the U.S. often delegates policy decisions on Asia to area specialists, particularly to either China or Japan hands. The classic example is Stanley Hornbeck, who ran “Far Eastern affairs” through the critical years of 1928-1944. He is still derided by historians for having wagered that the Japanese would not resort to a war, a view that had disastrous consequences.

Mr. Campbell isn’t alone in his support for Japan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already demonstrated her commitment to the alliance by making Tokyo her first foreign destination earlier this year. Assistant Secretary Wallace Gregson is charged with the Far Eastern affairs at the Pentagon. As a former commander of the Marine Division in Okinawa, he knows Japan well.

This is a remarkable turnaround for U.S. Democrats given the legacy of the Clinton years, when Japan bashing reached its peak. Almost all of Far Eastern affairs posts in the White House, State Department and the Pentagon were occupied by China experts. The Japanese tried desperately to find sympathizers for Japan, but to no avail.

Now the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance rests not on the Washington but on Tokyo. This is not a new problem. In the early years of the Bush administration, most of the East Asia-related posts were dominated by friends of Japan. But that didn’t matter: although then-Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage proposed a strategic dialogue with his Japanese counterparts, he was soon frustrated by the tepid response from Tokyo. In contrast, Mr. Armitage’s successor, Robert Zoellick, started a strategic dialogue with China and won an immediate and resounding response.

It’s hard to understand why efforts to reach out to Tokyo failed where olive branches to Beijing succeeded. China has an autocratic system capable of producing charismatic leaders and making quick and authoritative decisions. Japan’s democratically elected politicians tend to make decisions by consensus. It may be the lingering influence of leftist anti-American propaganda of the Cold War time, taking advantage of the postwar Japanese pacifist tendencies. Cooler relations may also simply be a product of personal characteristics of the individuals involved at the time.

Whatever the reason, Japan’s response to America’s outreach has usually been excruciatingly slow. This trend looks likely to continue. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is trailing in election polls, and the most likely outcome that can be expected for the country is political paralysis.

Despite this circumstance, the Obama administration and Americans should be patient. Every poll has shown that the Japanese are the world’s strongest supporters of the United States. No major political parties in either country are opposed to the U.S.-Japan alliance. There have always been quite a few people, within the bureaucracy and among intellectuals, advocating a stronger alliance. The military-to-military relations are excellent.

This backdrop will not change in the foreseeable future. The U.S.-Japan alliance is sanguine, if immobile. Time will not hurt our cause. Rather, in the face of Chinese military build-up, the alliance will naturally be strengthened in the long run, even if that happens at a glacial speed.