After months of speculation, U.S. President Barack Obama recently nominated John V. Roos to represent the United States in Tokyo. Roos, like several American ambassadors, earned his position as a top Democratic fundraiser during the U.S. presidential campaign. As the head of a major Silicon Valley law firm, and with a long history of involvement in politics, Roos has an impressive resume of accomplishments.
Yet, many in the Japanese establishment regret that Roos is not a “heavyweight ambassador.” They point to his lack of experience in government and relative anonymity in Asia policy circles — particularly compared to Joseph Nye, the renowned Harvard University professor who was also under consideration for the ambassadorship. Further, they view Jon M. Huntsman, the dynamic governor of Utah who has been nominated to be the top diplomat in Beijing, as a sign of greater U.S. emphasis on China over Japan.
These concerns overlook the realities of diplomatic appointments in the U.S. government system, and reflect a deficit in Japanese self-confidence as well as misplaced concern about the evolving relationship between Beijing and Washington.
It is important not to overestimate the influence of U.S. ambassadors to major countries like Japan. The American ambassador in Tokyo is not mandated to shape U.S. policy toward Japan; he is there to explain U.S. actions to Japanese officials and the public, and report their views to Washington. The key policy decisions that affect Japan are made at much higher levels — by the president, his chief advisers and Cabinet officials, and the Congress.
For some small countries, by contrast, the American embassy is often their only point of entry into the U.S. policy process. Their own representatives in Washington find it hard to meet even mid-level bureaucrats. It is nearly impossible for their own leaders to secure meetings with the president, his top aides or the secretary of state.
For a nation such as Japan, however, things are different. The Japanese ambassador has fairly easy access to official Washington. The Japanese prime minister can, more often than not, meet with the U.S. president upon request (as happened this February, when Prime Minister Taro Aso flew to Washington for a hastily arranged meeting with Obama). Japanese ministers, the governor of the Bank of Japan, and senior officials, can contact their American counterparts for the simple reason that the U.S. cannot ignore a $5 trillion economy, which also provides vital bases for the U.S. strategic presence in Asia.
Moreover, U.S.-Japan ties are not limited to the government. Due to the wide commercial, intellectual, and personal ties between both nations, Japanese business leaders, journalists, academics, and others can easily connect with influential Americans regardless of who occupies the U.S. ambassadorial residence in Tokyo.
Then why are Japanese elites so disturbed by Roos’ nomination? One explanation is a palpable fear in Tokyo that the Obama administration is ignoring Japan’s interests as it formulates its Asia policy. Though the most visible signs of anxiety often relate to U.S. actions toward North Korea, the deeper anxiety comes from a pervasive concern that Washington is focusing too much attention on China.
In fact, unlike Middle East policy, Washington’s strategy toward China has been largely consistent since the end of the Cold War. Starting with President George H.W. Bush, subsequent U.S. administrations have sought a dual approach toward China: on one hand, engaging China economically in order to integrate it into the international system while, on the other hand, hedging against potential Chinese aggression through a bolstered alliance with Japan and other partners.
Such a course of action arguably demands greater day-to-day attention to China than to Japan. While U.S. relations with Japan also require due attention, they are nonetheless governed by an alliance framework that has been stable for decades. Moreover, the mechanisms to handle this relationship are long established and generally require occasional adjustments to maintain.
The China question, however, is vastly more complex. China is not an ally, but neither is it an enemy. Its economy and society are still changing rapidly. Though it is clear that in 10 years Japan will be what it is now (a rich, liberal democracy), China a decade from now could be radically different, for better or worse, than it is today.
It is as much in Japan’s interest as America’s that the Sino-U.S. relationship be as productive as possible. Japanese policymakers should thus welcome America’s interest in China rather than see it as a detriment to their country. They should also recognize that the nomination of one of Silicon Valley’s top lawyers as ambassador to Japan is not a sign of disrespect but rather part of a tradition of posting the president’s personal friends to America’s closest allies.
Robert Dujarric heads the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus (firstname.lastname@example.org). Weston S. Konishi is an adjunct fellow at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington. (email@example.com).