Asian rivals elbow Japan aside in Washington

by Takashi Kitazume

Staff Writer

In the year of a U.S. presidential election, Japan is increasingly being overshadowed by its Asian neighbors in Washington just as the capital is increasingly functioning as a forum on global issues, according to a leading American expert.

This is a far cry from the early 1990s, when Japan was the only Asian country actively engaged in semigovernmental activities in Washington, to address severe bilateral trade friction, Kent Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said at a recent seminar in Tokyo.

But while Japan has scaled back its activities, countries such as China and South Korea have ramped up promotion of their agendas and become far more effective at getting their ideas heard in the capital, said Calder.

He was speaking at a seminar organized by the Keizai Koho Center on March 29 about the November presidential election and its policy implications.

Calder said it’s not only Japan’s presence in Washington that has changed — the U.S. capital itself is very different from what it was in the 1990s.

“But I think many of the perceptions and many of the institutions for dealing with Washington here in Japan — and also the American side interacting with Japan — date from an earlier period and maybe have not totally adjusted to these changes,” he cautioned.

Washington’s state machinery used to be restricted to the District of Columbia, but over the last two decades consulting firms based in Maryland and Virginia have rapidly expanded as a number of government functions, including security-related analysis, were privatized, Calder said.

And in the Internet age, new ways of broadcasting, such as podcasting and live-streaming videos, enable various parties outside the government — including media commentators, think tanks, universities and former government officials — to rapidly disseminate their ideas across the U.S. and abroad, Calder noted.

This, he said, has led to the global agenda increasingly being set in Washington.

“Washington is becoming a center not just for deciding American policy, but for making judgments on very large issues that have nothing to do with America or that are global,” he said.

The capital has become a key hub for expressing ideas on issues such as human rights “to convince the American Congress, but it also has global effects,” he said. “It affects relations with China. It affects relations with North Korea, or even Japan’s relationship with North Korea.

“This phenomenon is another reason to watch Washington, to be close to Washington and to interact with Washington or have some presence (there) to keep track of these very rapid developments” that have global implications beyond Japan-U.S. relations, he said.

The Internet and new digital broadcasting technologies “are leveraging the role of institutions that know how to use them, and there are big differences between the ones that know how to use these and those who don’t,” he said.

“Most of the think tanks in Washington have their own broadcasting studios where they can do their own podcasting or stream live video, and some country-specific institutes such as the Korea Economic Institute have these kinds of things.”

In a globalized world, he said, “major countries are becoming much more active in Washington than they used to.”

About two months ago, China’s national broadcast network, CCTV, announced a plan to set up a global broadcasting bureau in the capital.

With its active English-language network, CCTV will be broadcasting not only to China but to the global community, and reporting on issues “that are of mainstream importance to the U.S. but from the perspective of China, subtly including the Chinese view of these matters up front to convince the American people and the world audience,” Calder said.

“The point is that it’s not only the government — it’s the semigovernmental or nominally private companies trying to convince the world audience through China’s soft power,” he said.

Around the time Tokyo closed its Japan Economic Institute in Washington in 2001, South Korea established the Korea Economic Institute to organize and promote speeches and news conferences by visiting Korean officials, and to stream live video, Calder said.

The Indian and Singaporean institutions in the U.S. capital are equally active, he added.

These efforts, Calder said, affect Japan-U.S. relations because the way Washington perceives the value of its alliance with Tokyo is no longer guaranteed.

“Of course, the alliance is a matter of strategic interest and I think Japan and the U.S. have natural common interests in many ways, and such interests will no doubt become stronger as China rises,” he said. “But America’s consciousness of the importance of the alliance is not automatic.”

The bilateral alliance is not just a matter of treaties or meetings between top-level officials, he stressed. It requires active interaction of the two countries and the continued presence of their institutions in their respective capitals.

“From that point of view, China is becoming very active in Washington and I think this can have a negative effect on how the (Japan-U.S.) alliance is interpreted” in the U.S., he said.