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U.S.-Japan collaboration on high-speed rail

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PRINCETON, N.J. — Traveling at up to 300 kph and boasting an impeccable safety record, the Shinkansen exemplifies Japan’s technological prowess. It could also become a new frontier in the U.S-Japan partnership.

With the Obama administration committed to developing high-speed rail, and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) looking to achieve a more equal relationship with the United States, the time is ripe for bilateral cooperation on an American shinkansen.

Japan has unparalleled experience developing and operating bullet trains. The first Shinkansen began carrying passengers between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964. Since then, the Shinkansen has expanded to connect most of Japan’s major cities while maintaining an admirable record of zero fatal accidents.

By comparison, the U.S. lags far behind. It has yet to lay a single foot of track dedicated to high-speed rail. The Acela, the fastest American train, runs on shared tracks and averages less than 140 kph.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, the U.S. had little interest in bullet trains. In contrast, high-speed rail lies at the nexus of the Obama administration’s domestic and international priorities.

What spurs economic growth and creates jobs, reduces America’s carbon emissions, and decreases U.S. reliance on oil imports? High-speed rail.

Not surprisingly, then, the Obama administration in April unveiled a “Vision for High-Speed Rail in America.” This strategic plan identifies 10 regional corridors for potential high-speed rail projects, and allocates $8 billion of stimulus money over the next two years.

Japan can play a role in helping to realize the Obama administration’s transportation vision, but it must act soon, for other nations with expertise in bullet trains are keen to work with the U.S.

Business executives in Japan recognize this and have taken the lead in promoting collaboration on an American shinkansen. The DPJ government should take the cue from private-sector efforts and give the task of cooperating with U.S. officials on high-speed rail a more prominent place on the bilateral agenda.

How can this be accomplished? As a first step, during President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit, Japan could propose a recurring dialogue on high-speed rail. On the U.S. side, dialogue participants would include representatives from American corporations, transportation officials from federal and state governments, and politicians interested in high-speed rail. The Japanese side would encompass leaders of corporations that build and operate the Shinkansen and transportation officials responsible for overseeing the Shinkansen network.

Topics for the dialogue would run the gamut — from technical challenges to securing financing to managing the local politics of high-speed rail. The dialogue would serve as a clearinghouse for disseminating best practices relating to the construction and operation of bullet trains, and thereby enable the U.S. to tap Japan’s expertise before laying a single line of track.

The dialogue would also have a positive impact on U.S.-Japan relations. First, the dialogue would expand the scope of the bilateral partnership by linking together Americans and Japanese who share a commitment to high-speed rail. The involvement of new individuals in a relationship that up to now has often been dominated by security elites would reinvigorate U.S.-Japan ties.

Second, the dialogue would begin to rebalance the U.S.-Japan relationship toward one between equals. Whereas domestic politics preclude Japan from taking the initiative on most security issues, in a dialogue on high-speed rail, Japan can play a leading role.

Third, the dialogue would serve as a powerful tool for public diplomacy. Most Japanese would view collaboration on high-speed rail as a symbol of the bilateral partnership’s continued dynamism. Additionally, Japan’s position of leadership in an endeavor involving the U.S. would be a source of national pride. In the U.S., the dialogue would raise Japan’s public visibility, particularly if cooperation culminated in Japanese companies helping to build an American shinkansen.

Will Japanese companies ultimately receive the primary contracts for developing bullet trains in the U.S.?

In most cases, that decision will lie with state capitals like Sacramento and Tallahassee rather than Washington. The Japanese side should hold no illusions. Whether in Washington or elsewhere, contracts for high-speed rail will be determined by cost and technical considerations. Calls for allocating contracts based on diplomatic criteria — such as boosting the U.S.-Japan partnership — will go unheeded.

If Japan moves forward with a bilateral dialogue on high-speed rail, an American shinkansen is far more likely. Personal connections developed over the course of the dialogue, together with knowledge obtained about the requirements of individual American states, would put Japanese companies in a more competitive position when bidding for contracts.

From both a commercial and diplomatic perspective, a U.S.-Japan dialogue on high-speed rail is a win-win proposition. The DPJ government should pursue it.

Daniel Kliman, a Ph.D. candidate in Princeton’s Department of Politics and the author of “Japan’s Security Strategy in the Post-9/11 World,” is completing a book on how democracies cope with rising powers.