Japan can expect next U.S. president to press for Afghan help: expert

by Takashi Kitazume

The next U.S. administration — whether it’s Democratic or Republican — will expect Japan to play a larger role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan as well as “the war on terror” being waged there, a U.S. think tank expert told a recent seminar in Tokyo.

At the same time, U.S. policymakers will have to get used to the changing political circumstances in Japan as they try to manage the security alliance with Tokyo, said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank.

Smith spoke last Tuesday at a seminar organized by Keizai Koho Center under the theme “Challenges for U.S. Diplomacy in Asia” as the United States braces for the Nov. 5 presidential election and the launch of a new administration in January.

This year, the U.S. is going through a historic election not just because the Democratic primaries were fought by a woman and an African-American, but also because it is at a “fairly important turning point in American foreign policy,” she said.

“It’s a critical point, not just for Americans . . . but also for America’s relationship with the rest of the world,” Smith said.

She predicted that unless some emergency crops up, it is unlikely that Japan-U.S. relations will become a topic of debate by either Barack Obama or John McCain.

And this absence of Japan in the presidential campaign, she said, is a positive thing.

“I think on both sides, and I should say among the general public, you have an America that is fairly convinced of the value of the relationship with Japan . . . I don’t think there should be any worry about (Japan) being absent from this presidential election.”

So far, the McCain campaign has indicated that the presumptive Republican nominee would pursue an “alliances first” policy in Asia, Smith said.

Media articles penned by or on behalf of the Obama campaign, meanwhile, suggest that the Democrat would look toward Asia from the perspective of ending America’s unilateralism and view the Japan-U.S. partnership as a “problem-solving team,” she said. Obama and his team “believe that the U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of the U.S. policy in Asia,” she added.

Obama, who plans to shift the focus of the war on terrorism to Afghanistan, “will be looking to Japan for ways in which Japanese ideas, expertise and cooperation can be brought to bear in Afghanistan in a much more conspicuous way,” Smith said.

And although the current refueling mission by the Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Indian Ocean is greatly appreciated, an Obama presidency will likely discuss with Japan how the two countries can deal with problems on the ground in Afghanistan, she said.

The same can be said of McCain if he becomes president, according to Smith. And while the cooperation sought will not solely be of military terms but will include reconstruction and aid, “I think Afghanistan is going to come to the forefront of the alliance conversation next year and the year after,” she said.

A broader task for both the U.S. and Japan, she said, is to “create new networks of confidence in the relationship” — given the reality that Japan “sits in a very different strategic context than it did for most of the 56 years of this alliance.”

The Japanese government and public need to be reassured that the alliance “still works in Japan’s interests,” although what specifically needs to be done is not clear, Smith said.

A critical challenge for the bilateral relationship, she said, is that both Japan and the U.S. — but especially Washington — will have to get accustomed to the new political conditions in Tokyo, where the Liberal Democratic Party-led government faces a divided Diet.

This means both countries “will have to make policy arguments regarding the alliance that make sense to the public, that can be defended politically, and that cross partisan lines in Japan,” she said.

A general election that has to be held by next year, Smith said, may be the beginning of a “structurally rather different dynamic for policymaking in Japan.” And this “is clearly going to affect how we manage the alliance and in Washington we are going to have to get more comfortable with that.”