The election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president offers opportunities for broader cooperation between Japan and the United States, which focused on the military aspects of the alliance during the eight years of the Bush administration, experts told a recent symposium in Tokyo.
Kent Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, warned against what he perceives as “structural problems” in the Japan-U.S. relationship amid the changing dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region.
Rust Deming, an adjunct professor of Japan studies at the SAIS, also said Japanese media reactions to Obama’s victory suggest that Japan may be greeting the next administration with caution and may not be fully aware of the opportunities presented by a “globalist” leader the United States has not had for a long time.
Calder and Deming were speaking at the Nov. 28 symposium jointly organized by the Keizai Koho Center and the SAIS under the theme, “Next U.S. administration’s policies and Japan-U.S. relations.” Yoshihide Soeya, a political science professor at Keio University and director of the Keio Institute of East Asian Studies, served as commentator.
“The U.S.-Japan relationship is changing in some very important structural ways” that make the bilateral ties “more difficult, more challenging but create new opportunities that are different from the past,” Calder said. These changes, he added, affect the bilateral ties either under a Democratic or Republic administration.
Calder noted that the world today is “very different” from the one in the early 1950s, when the Japan-U.S. security alliance was created.
The most notable change in Asia has been the political and economic role of China, he said. In 2003, China-U.S. trade for the first time exceeded U.S.-Japan trade in volume terms while Japan’s trade with China topped its trade with the U.S. in 2006, he added.
It would be an overstatement to say Japan and the U.S. are economically drifting apart, given their strong ties in technology and other fields that are not seen in their respective ties with the rest of Asia, Calder said.
However, Calder pointed out that bilateral dialogue on economic and cultural dimensions has declined as the two countries focused on military cooperation in the post-9/11 years.
Japan’s dispatch of troops to Iraq and the refueling mission by Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels in the Indian Ocean are widely said to have solidified the bilateral security ties since 2001.
But Calder said an alliance is “something much broader” than narrow military cooperation, adding that the heavy focus on the security dimension has created an “imbalance” in the bilateral relationship.
“An alliance that does not have important economic and cultural dimensions really can’t stand in the long run, and there are many areas for cooperation and strengthening,” Calder told the audience.
“I think there are a few danger signs if we look at what has happened in the last eight years” as emphasis was laid on security cooperation, he said. “There are many areas where we were once cooperative (but) it’s been more difficult,” including the environment and energy issues, he noted.
There has been much less attention paid than in the past to Japan-U.S. cooperation and coordination on economic issues, and private-sector business dialogue has not been as active as it should be, he said.
As one worrying trend in cultural exchanges, Calder said the number of Japanese students studying in the U.S. has declined by 17 percent in the last five years while the share of Americans in overseas travelers visiting Japan has also been falling.
Often cited as a key factor in Tokyo-Washington ties in recent years was the close personal relationship between President George W. Bush and former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. However, the two countries may have depended too much on the Bush-Koizumi ties — as well as the presence of former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage as the trusted Japan expert — while other channels of bilateral communication were not often used, Calder said.
“We certainly have had some deepening in the security relationship . . . and all of us who value the U.S.-Japan relationship feel that the security alliance needs to be strong,” he said. “But in the years going forward, we have a range of other important challenges that we’re confronting.”
Calder cited energy as one area of potential cooperation for Japan and the U.S., given that energy and environment issues are becoming serious problems for many Asian economies.
Indonesia, for example, has shifted from an oil exporter to an oil importer in the last five years, as local demand grew rapidly and energy-efficiency remained low, he said. Japan can support Indonesia — a country also of major security interest for the U.S. — with its energy-saving technologies and such trilateral ties can be a “win-win proposition” for all, he added.
Deming, a former U.S. charge d’affaires to Tokyo who was involved as a member of an outside advisory group to the Obama campaign, said he was “struck” by the negative and cautious tone in some Japanese media reactions to Obama’s election victory.
Suggestions made in some media analysis here that the first Democratic administration in eight years would lean more toward China and pay less attention to Japan — based on memories of the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s — take a “very simplistic look at the world that assumes a purely zero-sum approach” to U.S.-Japan-China relations, Deming said.
Such a concern, he said, “ignores the fact that the U.S.-Japan alliance is fundamental to U.S. interests and that there’s a much thicker relationship (between Japan and the U.S.) than either U.S.-China or Japan-China ties.”
He also brushed aside other concerns voiced in the Japanese media that include that Obama may be softer on North Korea and the abduction issue than Bush, and that his campaign remarks on NAFTA indicate he may take protectionist measures.
While there is a tendency in Japan to look at U.S. policy toward Japan as “fundamentally affected by the nature of the administration in place,” Deming stressed that there’s been “a long continuity and bipartisan approach” to Japan that date back decades.
“People here remember the Clinton administration and the first two years’ emphasis on trade in 1993-95 and the 1998 trip to China,” when he did not stop over in Tokyo, and “they forget the middle period of 1996-97, (when) we had the security declaration and the revised guidelines for defense cooperation, which really created the foundation for the alliance that the Bush administration built on,” Deming told the audience.
Deming said he is “more concerned that people here don’t see the opportunities presented by the Obama administration.”
“For the first time in a long time, we’ve elected a president with very strong domestic support and indeed with broad international support as a signal of the very important transformation of American policy,” he said.
“It represents a return to the basic values of American foreign policy that I think were somewhat distorted during the eight years of the Bush administration — the emphasis on working with our friends, bilaterally or multilaterally,” instead of taking unilateral actions, Deming said.
The incoming administration also “belatedly represents an administration that recognizes the challenges of climate change and energy, and is ready to move forward on these issues,” he added.
All of these things are “compatible with Japan’s interests and Japan’s world view in the postwar period,” Deming said, adding that he hopes to see “a better recognition in Japan that your interests would be better served” by the election of Obama.
He said there is a tremendous opportunity for Japan to put forward its ideas. “You have a (new) administration coming in for the first time in eight years” and members of the new team will welcome new ideas on bilateral, regional or multinational issues because they “understand the issues we face are so complex that no one country or group has all the answers,” he said.
Soeya of Keio University also said members of the Obama administration will be waiting to hear what Japan has to say. Many Japan experts in the Bush administration were more patient toward Japan because they knew what Tokyo can and cannot do under its own constraints, but that may not be the case with the Obama team, he said.