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Obama already passing Japan?

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In Brief

The US State Department has told the Yomiuri Shimbun that it intends to initiate a high-level "comprehensive strategic dialogue" that will address political, economic, and security issues and will include an exchange of visits by Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Naturally, Yomiuri's report is quick to note that many Obama administration officials worked in the former Clinton administration, conjuring up memories of "Japan passing." Yomiuri also includes the requisite quote from Michael Green, who warns that "it gives the impression of bipolar rule in Asia, causing a great disturbance among Japan, South Korea, India, and Australia, US allies."

The problem with this view is that it only tells one side of the story. Of course, governments in the region worry about a US-China condominium that might lead to their interests being slighted. But do they really worry more about the US and China talking than they worry about war between the US and China? This is the reality of life for the region's middle powers, Asian countries with close and important ties with both China and the US (in many cases security relationships with the US of one form or another): they want China and the US to be cordial, but not too cordial; the US should be involved in the region as a force for stability, but should not try to encircle China.


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Japanese officials should welcome efforts by the US to open new channels of communication with China, just as the US should welcome Japanese efforts to do the same. This idea that Japan loses just by the US government talking with China is a relic of the cold war that needs to be retired.

Tokyo has no reason to be dissatisfied with the Obama administration, despite Komori Yoshihisa’s fears about President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton “being in agreement” about putting China first. (His analysis reads more like American conservative talking points than genuine analysis that considers what’s happened during the transition and the early weeks of the new administration.) The Obama administration — apparently after months of hearing reports about Tokyo’s fears regarding the incoming administration’s ideas regarding Japan — has done more than enough to reassure Japan’s leaders that the new administration will not deviate from the Washington establishment’s Japan consensus. Most recently, Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, told her Japanese counterpart that the president and secretary of state are in agreement about the need to strengthen the US-Japan alliance, and indicated that the Obama administration will basically continue the Bush administration’s Japan agenda: requesting help in Afghanistan and in regard to other international crises, while promising US support on North Korea and UN security council permanent membership. Even more than that, the State Department has announced that Secretary Clinton’s first foreign trip will be to Japan, in mid-February.

All of this is on top of a host of appointments favorable to Japan. The national security adviser, the director of national intelligence, and the secretary of the treasury are all familiar with one aspect of the bilateral relationship or another. Most of the major Asia-related jobs have gone to Japan specialists. And now Secretary Clinton is taking every opportunity to reassure Japanese officials that she does not intend to “pass” Japan.

If anything, the Obama administration is doing too much to reassure Japan.

The US needs the aforementioned dialogue with China; there is too much to discuss to wait or to defer to the fears of select members of the Japanese establishment and their allies in Washington.

I hope on her visit to Japan Mrs. Clinton emphasizes the importance of direct talks among the US, China, and Japan. I hope she makes clear that smoother Sino-US relations are actually in Japan’s interests, even if some Japanese think otherwise. I hope fears of angering a portion of the Japanese establishment do not lead the Obama administration to back away from reorienting US Asia policy from being overly focused on the US-Japan security relationship.

This administration needs to exorcise the ghost of Richard Nixon from the US-Japan alliance: it needs to make clear to Japan (and China) that the US-Japan and the US-China relationships are not zero sum.

One response to “Obama already passing Japan?”

  1. Perhaps the problem is that the Obama administration has too many Japan specialists for Tokyo’s liking. They “get” it about Japan–simple-minded arguments from Japanese bureaucrats won’t work with them. Conservative Japanese politicians used to making ideological excuses to their fairly uninformed counterparts in Republican administrations are going to have to try something new. In any event, fears about problems with Washington are a perennial issue with Tokyo when Democrats come to town. I’m not sure that history bears out those fears.

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