Commentary / Japan

Obama's costly legacy-building

Recently, the “Susan Rice problem” has become a constant topic of discussion among Japanese diplomats. But what exactly is so problematic about Rice, who serves as U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security adviser?

As one Japanese official said to me, with a sigh: “Right now, Rice is completely preoccupied with the question of the eight-year Obama administration’s legacy. The administration is eager to ensure that its foreign policy achievements are not forgotten by history. They don’t have much interest in a longer-term strategy, or in the role of the Japan-U.S. alliance within that strategy. This is a real problem for us.”

The Obama administration seems to be backing away from the issue of China’s reclamation of reefs and construction of bases in the South China Sea, which effectively signifies the militarization of the area, and its refusal to acknowledge the rule of law in the region. This is a perception felt not only in Japan but other Southeast Asian countries.

It is possible that China has signaled to the United States its willingness to refrain from further land reclamation activities on the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal and unilaterally declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea — at least for the remainder of the Obama administration. In response, the U.S. may have decided to avoid further confrontation with China, as long as Beijing respects the “freedom of navigation” through the disputed waters.

The White House hopes that the Obama administration’s historical legacy will include U.S.-China cooperation on climate change policies and cybersecurity. However, this means it must avoid a harsh confrontation with China on other issues.

These are the concerns of a Japanese diplomat who has handled diplomatic relations with the U.S. for many years, who went on to add: “The only time the Obama administration praises us is when Japan demonstrates restraint in its response to the intrusion of Chinese ships into the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands.”

To be sure, the U.S. is hardly standing by with its arms folded: It has deployed two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea. Meanwhile, China’s deployment of 16 government vessels to enter the waters around the Senkakus in early August prompted the State Department’s spokeswoman to announce (albeit belatedly) that the U.S. was closely monitoring the situation in the East China Sea.

However, the Japan-U.S. alliance, long seen as rock solid, is now approaching a critical juncture. China’s emergence as a global strategic rival has compelled the U.S. to focus on building a relationship with China that is predicated on this new development. Doing so involves considerable give and take between the two countries. The U.S. may well make compromises that go against the interests of its allies.

The maintenance and management of the U.S.-China relationship will have a decisive influence on the world, and particularly on peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region. This makes policy negotiations between the U.S. and its allies all the more important. In Japan’s view, the U.S. has made insufficient efforts in this regard.

Of course, there is another possibility: that the U.S. no longer considers its allies — or alliances themselves — to be all that important.

Given the improvement of China’s missile and submarine capabilities, Washington may sense that it can no longer protect maritime security the same way it did in the past. The U.S. now lacks the deterrent power that it had when it deployed two aircraft carriers to put an end to the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, following Chinese missile tests in the area. If the U.S. begins to view its military bases in Japan as more likely to increase the risk of conflict with China than serve as a deterrent against Chinese aggression, then Japan may become a strategic liability to the U.S., rather than a strategic asset.

Furthermore, since national security risks have now spread to the spheres of cyberspace, space and the economy, it is increasingly difficult to clearly distinguish between peacetime and emergency responses. If the “gray zone” between military and nonmilitary conflict grows larger, the primarily military nature of alliance mechanisms may no longer prove sufficient, potentially causing the utility of alliances to diminish.

There are a few final factors to consider: American weariness with involvement with the rest of the world, and the increased opposition to free trade — and the related skepticism regarding “credibility.”

According to the credibility theory, U.S. security commitments will become less credible if it does not demonstrate its resolve to intervene militarily. Obama seems to believe that the U.S. government’s credibility addiction lay at the root of the most misguided undertakings in American foreign policy: the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.

However, Japan is beginning to wonder whether the wavering credibility of the American pledge of protection through the U.S.-Japan security alliance, and the possible failure of the U.S. to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, actually symbolizes the end of the U.S. as a global power.

The growing risk posed by the results of “legacy-building” foreign policy in the final months of the Obama administration is nothing but the crest of a wave that will continue to rock the depths of the Japan-U.S. alliance in the 21st century.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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