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Will Obama’s promise of change include U.S.-Japan relations?

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The Jan. 20 inauguration of the U.S. administration of Barack H. Obama is not only of historic consequence for the United States in terms of his being the first black president as well as first chief executive from the post-Vietnam War generation, but it also has aroused extremely strong interest worldwide. This is because the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the global financial crisis that originated in the U.S. show that the time has come for the U.S., which led the world in the 20th century, to drastically review its role. Naturally, Japan has strong interest in the policies the Obama administration will pursue.

The reaction in Japan to the Obama administration is complex. On the one hand, as in other parts of the world, there is a strong affinity with and high expectations for Obama. According to an international poll taken before the presidential election, more than 60 percent of Japanese supported Obama while less than 20 percent supported John McCain. A post-election poll shows that 80 percent of Japanese welcomed the election of Obama as the 44th U.S. president.

On the other, there is unease in Japan about the Obama administration and dissatisfaction with Japan’s relations with the U.S. The unease mostly derives from the fact that Japan has worse memories of the Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton than of Republican administrations. The first Clinton administration was wary of Japan’s economic power and pushed for Japan to open its market by setting numerical targets, which resulted in Japan suffering a steep appreciation of the yen to a record high of ¥79 against the dollar.

While the second Clinton administration saw economic friction wane as the U.S. economy enjoyed a boom and the Japanese economy suffered from a bust, the administration pursued a policy of playing up China’s importance in East Asia. In 1998, President Clinton passed over Japan to visit China for more than a week. The experience of this “Japan bashing and passing” has given rise to fears, especially among Japanese political and business leaders, and high-ranking bureaucrats that the Obama administration will represent the reappearance of a Clinton administration — despite the fact that President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto issued a joint declaration on security cooperation in 1996, and that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President George W. Bush built a foundation for a strong alliance, realizing what was called the best U.S.-Japan relationship so far. The fact that Obama appointed many people who had served in the Clinton administration to his Cabinet has strengthened these fears to some extent.

Also noteworthy is the fact that in Japan, a friendly view of the Japan-U.S. relationship has been declining. According to a recent government survey, the percentage of Japanese people who think that the condition of Japan-U.S. relations is good has dropped to 68.9 percent, the lowest since the survey was started in 1998. The number of Japanese people who have warm feelings toward the U.S. also has fallen. This contrasts with the fact that Americans continue to think that bilateral relations are good.

It is believed that behind this gap is the fact that in and after 2007, the U.S. greatly changed its policy toward North Korea, making light of the issue of the abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents, which Japan is trying to resolve, and pushed the policy of giving priority to denuclearizing North Korea mainly through U.S.-North Korea dialogue. Since the Japanese government survey was conducted immediately after the U.S. removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, there is the possibility that the U.S. move affected the results of the survey.

In sum, Japanese disappointment with the Bush administration in its last days may have contributed to the high expectations for the incoming Obama administration.

With two ongoing wars in the Middle East and the global economic crisis, the Obama administration will obviously place greater priority on these immediate problems than East Asia. In particular, restructuring its trans-Atlantic relations would also be high on the agenda.

In April, the second Group of 20 summit will be held in London, following the first in Washington in November, and then a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is scheduled to take place to mark NATO’s 60th anniversary. By that time, the new administration is evidently hoping to have developed some economic measures and policies toward the Middle East and Russia so that it can lead the world in enhancing international cooperation.

Regarding East Asia, the incoming U.S. administration feels less urgency and therefore is likely to adopt the basic approaches of the Bush administration. Although Obama himself has said little about his policy toward Japan, messages have been percolating from people considered close to the president-elect that the new administration will attach importance to Japan as its most significant ally in Asia.

It is evident, on the other hand, that China’s importance has been growing, especially in the economic field, where it is the principal purchaser of U.S. Treasury bonds, increasing U.S.-China interdependency. The Japan-U.S. alliance in terms of political and security ties, and the U.S.-China economic cooperative relationship constitute the foundations of Washington’s policy toward East Asia, which the new administration is likely to change only moderately, rather than introduce radical shifts in the region’s status quo, at least for the time being.

Notwithstanding, it is important for Japan to build trusting relations with the new administration. With that in mind, it must avoid comparisons between the Clinton administration and the Obama administration, and forget the “bad memories” of the Clinton era. The context of the Japan-U.S. relationship has changed so much from the Clinton days that it is most unlikely to relapse into “Japan bashing or Japan passing” like that Japan suffered in the 1990s. Trade friction between the two countries has almost disappeared, except for Japanese imports of U.S. beef and some other issues. U.S. authorities presumably understand that by creating the impression that they are giving precedence to China does Japan a disservice.

The U.S., however, will probably reassess its alliance from a new perspective — how far Japan can be counted on as a partner or a friend when the U.S. is in need. The first test of this reliability is whether Japan and the U.S. can make progress on what has been left unfulfilled in the military realignment agreement from the Koizumi-Bush days — particularly the issue of the financial burden to be borne by Japan for relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Okinawa and transferring the Marines to Guam.

The Defense Ministry, which played a key role in formulating the realignment plan, had been taking the initiative in the consensus-building groundwork for the Japanese financial burden, but the scandal involving Vice Defense Minister Takemasa Moriya as well as political instability following the defeat of the ruling coalition in the July 2007 Upper House election, confused matters. A shortage of spadework on Japan’s part is considered mainly responsible for the failure to fully translate the agreement into action. Settling problems of this kind and establishing a system of Japan-U.S. working consultations is a prerequisite to confirm the relationship of trust between the two countries as allies.

America’s North Korean policy also has a great bearing on Japan-U.S. relations. The North’s abduction of Japanese citizens is such a serious and delicate issue in terms of national sovereignty and public opinion that no Japanese administration can afford to disregard it, but Japan’s diplomatic options are limited. Unless the U.S. continues dialogue with North Korea on the basis of a “promise-for-promise and action-for-action” principle, Pyongyang will likely again engage in brinkmanship by provocatively launching another missile test or resuming nuclear tests.

While continuing, at least for the time being, the six-party talks framework, initiated during the Bush days, which is intended to make North Korea incapacitate its nuclear facilities in return for economic assistance from the five other countries, Japan can provide no more than logistic support to the four other countries because of the abduction issue. Japan must consult with the U.S. over North Korea. They should also exchange intelligence about North Korea’s future regime in view of Kim Jong Il’s health problems.

Moreover, it is crucial that Japan and the U.S. concur on a basic stance toward China, South Korea and Russia in East Asia. The dollar and its purchasing power make the U.S. the leading economy in the world; China has massive manufacturing muscle and almost limitless manpower resources; and Japan is replete with industrial technology and financial assets. The tripartite collaboration is conducive to the basic national interests of the U.S. and Japan, in regional and global terms.

The Washington-Tokyo-Seoul tripartite relationship constitutes the U.S. alliance network of its democracy drive in this part of the world and serves as the foundation for the future shape of East Asia. Russia’s constructive engagement in the Pacific region is an important factor for the U.S., Japan, China, South Korea, Canada and others in this region, in security and economic terms, including development of the Arctic Ocean.

Getting these multilateral relations moving would help a multinational security setup in East Asia to emerge. Any attempt to transform such a framework as the six-party talks into an institutionalized regional collective security system may cause confusion and produce negative repercussions. Instead, strenuous efforts to develop the existing bilateral and tripartite relations are expected to produce greater fruit.

On the economic front, it is desirable for Japan to contribute to the resolution of the global financial uneasiness by providing public funds on the strength of its massive financial assets. Yet what is required of Japan today is different from the 1980s, when such newly coined words as “Amerippon” and “big money” were on the agenda for serious discussions to promote the co-management of the world economy by integrating the powerful economic might of the U.S. and Japan. Rather, Japan is required to implement measures to dramatically expand domestic demand by utilizing its purchasing power in a way to sustain the growth of the world economy, free from the fluctuations of yen-dollar exchange rates.

At the same time, such reflationary measures must be mobilized in a manner to ensure sustainable growth and political stability as the country enters an era of an aging population and dwindling birthrate, not in the form of conventional infrastructure investment, which tends to be associated with political corruption and is unsustainable.

The policy direction is concurrent with the incoming Obama administration’s reported new policy line that will attach importance to proactive policies to address global warming, with the focus on the development of energy-saving technologies and alternative energy sources to take the place of fossil fuels.

It is expected that a fundamental post-Kyoto Protocol framework on global warming will be worked out under the auspices of the United Nations in 2009. What is important in this context is to break away from the fossil fuel society by using new technologies, and implementing the process to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the world’s largest and second-largest emitters — the U.S. and China — as well as developing countries, including India.

As a matter of course, Japan must cut its emissions. More important, Japan should fulfill its obligations to the world by providing its technologies to help other Asian countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It is imperative for Japan to consult closely with the U.S. and Europe on the fight against global warming.

In addition to global warming, the challenge for Japan in terms of its relations with the U.S. is whether it is ready to take the lead in addressing the pressing political and economic issues in the Asia-Pacific region and globally, on the basis of the universal values Japan shares with the U.S.

And it is no exaggeration to say that the biggest challenge for Japanese diplomacy is a prompt realization of domestic political stability with the leadership to spearhead the nation’s international activities from a broader perspective.

Hiroshi Nakanishi is a professor of political science at Kyoto University Graduate School. He won the 2003 Yomiuri-Yoshino Sakuzo Prize for his book, “What is international politics? — Man and order in global society.”