Japan and the United States should try to move their alliance forward by stepping up cooperation on regional and global issues such as climate change, experts told a recent symposium in Tokyo.

While the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama has made sure not to sidestep Japan in the initial phase of its diplomatic activity, China will inevitably take up much of American policymakers’ attention vis-a-vis East Asia, and it is worrying that Tokyo and Washington do not appear to be engaged in substantial policy dialogue despite an abundance of regional issues, they said.

Three experts from U.S. think tanks spoke on the Obama administration’s diplomatic agenda and implications for the Japan-U.S. relationship during the Feb. 6 symposium organized by the Keizai Koho Center. Doshisha University professor Koji Murata served as moderator of the discussions.

Charles Freeman, chair of China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the absence of East Asian issues during the U.S. presidential election campaign last year suggests that there was little difference between Obama and Republican candidate John McCain on policy toward the region — or even between Obama and then President George W. Bush.

The Obama administration has “very solid East Asia hands” who have experience in relations with Japan and China, Freeman said. And it seems to be “getting off on the right foot” with respect to Japan, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visiting Tokyo as the first destination of her Asian tour that also included a trip to Beijing, he noted. Obama has also invited Prime Minister Taro Aso for talks in Washington this week.

But although there is recognition within the Obama team that the alliance with Japan will be the central basis for U.S. policy in Asia, “there will increasingly be an almost obsessive quality to the Obama administration’s relationship with China,” he said.

“So much so that it will appear that China has replaced Japan as the center of U.S. strategy in Asia, which I am not sure is the case,” Freeman told the audience.

China, for its part, is “very nervous” about how Obama will deal with Beijing on some sensitive issues, he said.

China — perhaps like Japan — “is more comfortable with Republicans in power than Democrats,” he said. “The Chinese leadership is quite concerned that President Obama, because he is a Democrat, would naturally be more protectionist, that his administration would emphasize human rights over realism and that they otherwise come into conflict even if there is greater desire on both sides to maintain good relations.”

Freeman pointed to the growing signs of protectionism in the U.S. and China amid the global recession, one recent indication being the “Buy American” provision in the U.S. economic stimulus package.

“China tends to respond to aggressive actions with aggressive actions of its own, and so there is the potential for these issues to become more of a trade war than anybody would like” even though both governments have issued rhetorical appeals against protectionism, he said.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s remark calling China a currency manipulator “signaled that the issue would be a major theme in economic discussions between the U.S. and China,” Freeman said.

North Korea will also be an area “of intense focus” for the Obama administration, given that Pyongyang in recent months appears to have reset its negotiating position in the six-party talks dealing with its nuclear program, Freeman said. It is not clear, however, whether Obama at this point truly understands what his objectives will be in North Korea because some people linked to his administration have said the goal in the six-party talks “is to have the talks,” and that the presence of North Korea at the negotiating table puts the nuclear weapons program on hold, he said.

Freeman also said it was “unfortunate” that Secretary Clinton, prior to her visit to Tokyo last week, raised the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s. During the visit, Clinton said the abduction issue is “a part of the six-party talks.”

“The abduction issue will not be central to U.S. policy” toward North Korea and Clinton may have sent an “unfortunate message” to Japan by raising the expectations that it will be, he said.

Freeman noted that even though there are these sensitive and many other issues in East Asia, there appears to be “relatively little discussion” between the U.S. and Japan, and that it “would seem that the U.S. has — if not abandoned Japan — reduced its emphasis on the U.S.-Japan alliance.”

“I think it’s very dangerous for all of us,” he said. “It is incumbent not only on Japan but also on the U.S. to find substantive areas of cooperation” where the two countries can work together in the region “that help define our relationship for the coming years,” he added.

Freeman said climate change will be a “big part of that equation” with Obama emphasizing the importance of climate change negotiations.

But he noted that in the politics of climate change in Washington, “a lot of emphasis again in terms of U.S. negotiating time will be spent dealing with China.” Skeptics in Washington also doubt the ability of Japan “to be a truly constructive partner in these kinds of regional discussions and activity,” he said.

That has to change, Freeman said, because in a multipolar world where U.S. supremacy is in doubt following the financial crisis, Japan is “certainly in a place where it can play” key roles working with Washington on various issues.

Professor Murata of Doshisha University concurred that Japan does not appear to be taking advantage of the potential for cooperation with the U.S. on a wide range of issues. Rather, Murata said there seems to be a “psychological distance” dividing the two countries that may be increasingly hollowing out the bilateral relationship.

While President Obama claims a very strong interest among the Japanese public, many of the influential people here still appear to be haunted by concerns that the Democratic administration may become more protectionist and lean more toward China compared to the Republican emphasis on the alliance with Japan, he said.

“The future strength of the Japan-U.S. relationship will depend a great deal on whether we can overcome such dichotomous ways of thinking — such as ‘either Japan or China,’ or ‘free trade or protectionism’ — and cooperate on global issues,” Murata said.

Speaking on the U.S. policy toward South Asia, Xenia Dormandy, a senior associate of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said that while the Obama administration’s priority in the region will be on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. will also need India’s involvement in much of the president’s global agenda.

All of Obama’s broader policy goals — global growth and financial stability, climate change, energy security, nonproliferation, counterterrorism and so on — require a multilateral response if progress is to be made, and on many of those issues the multilateral response will require India’s participation, she said.

It does not follow that U.S.-India cooperation on these issues will be easy. On climate change, India says it will not step up to the plate until the U.S. and other developed countries have made commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while the U.S. has equally made it clear it cannot make commitments until emerging powers like China and India step up to the plate, Dormandy said.

Dormandy said the Obama administration may look to Japan to work with the U.S. on how to bring India into the debate on climate change.

Obama has made it clear that the war in Afghanistan will be his top overseas military priority, and the president “knows that in four years when the election comes around again . . . he will be judged on Afghanistan,” Dormandy said.

The U.S. objectives in Afghanistan have three parts — that it will not be a safe haven for al-Qaida, that the people in Afghanistan would reject the rule of the Taliban and that the people in Afghanistan would support a legitimate government, she noted. “And all of these are goals where allies can help,” she said.

“The Obama administration will not be looking to allies to necessarily provide troops on the ground” in Afghanistan, Dormandy said. “The administration will be looking for allies to provide what they can,” she said, adding that it may include more financial assistance to Afghanistan or continuation of the refueling operation by Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels.

Whether Japan would dispatch ground troops, provide airlift support for the U.S. or NATO troops, or increase financial support for Afghanistan will eventually depend on the Japanese government, Doshisha University’s Murata said. However, this may be an issue that concerns Japan’s method of international cooperation as a whole, he said.

Murata noted the number of SDF members engaged in United Nations-led peacekeeping operations around the world today stands at about 40. The number has steadily declined from the early 1990s, when Japan first took part in the operation in Cambodia, he said.

While overseas dispatch of troops is not the only way for Japan to contribute to global security, the nation has also dropped in the rankings of donors of overseas development aid — falling from No. 1 in the early 1990s to fifth position and is poised to fall further, he added.