Commentary / Japan

From Shimoda Conferences to Mount Fuji Dialogue

by Kuni Miyake

Have you ever heard of the Mount Fuji Dialogue? It is a series of annual meetings for business and policy dialogue among prominent policymakers as well as political, economic and military experts from both Japan and the United States. The dialogue has been organized in Japan since 2014 and this year marks its fifth meeting.

Last week I was lucky to be able to join the dialogue because my old friend was running the secretariat of the program. The discussions were much more lively and fruitful than I had expected. However, I cannot refer to specific participants’ views because the dialogue was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, which states, “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

Arguably, the Mount Fuji Dialogue, with roughly 140 participants this year (70 Americans and 70 Japanese), is the only annual bilateral platform for policy discussions among influential business and policy leaders. For those who have been involved in Japan-U.S. relations, however, the Mount Fuji Dialogue is not the only program of this kind. The first forum for Japanese and American political and economic leaders to have high-level but unofficial discussions of critical issues in U.S.-Japan relations in postwar Japan was the Shimoda Conference of 1967. It was named after one of the two Japanese ports that were opened under the Convention of Kanagawa, signed in 1854.

According to the then-Japanese co-organizer, the Japan Center for International Exchange(JCIE), among the attendees were then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, U.S. Rep. Thomas Foley and U.S. Rep. Donald Rumsfeld! Wow, can you believe this?

The Japanese participants included Yasuhiro Nakasone, who went on to serve as prime minister, and Eiichi Nagasue, who later became chairman of the Democratic Socialist Party. Thus, the Shimoda Conferences, which were held altogether nine times until 1994, became a symbol of private policy dialogue between the two countries.

Unfortunately, since 1995 the enthusiasm for such bilateral dialogue has declined. Although the New Shimoda Conference and its follow-up roundtable were held in Tokyo and Washington in 2011, no large-scale and high-level bilateral dialogue followed that were attended by Diet members and members of the U.S. Congress or policy experts.

This makes the Mount Fuji Dialogue even more important. Of course, there are other annual meetings or conferences that academics, think tank researchers, former and current government officials or politicians may attend. However, Mount Fuji is becoming the only big annual reunion of the prominent U.S.-Japan policy gang.

As I mentioned earlier, I cannot quote the remarks of specific speakers in the dialogue. What I can do instead is to share what I stated or mentioned to my friends in the conference room as well as some takeaways that I found intriguing and significant.

1. Deepest condolences were expressed to the victims in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. I was personally shocked to hear the tragedy of the anti-Semitic massacre of Oct. 28. I hope my fellow Japanese citizens fully comprehend that this heinous crime is not only about Jewish-Americans but also about all the minorities in the U.S., and their families and friends in the world.

2. It’s always great to see long-term friends, whether young or old. Having been involved in Japan-U.S. relations for almost 40 years, I found this time that the senior officials I used to look up to are becoming real senior citizens and that those former apprentices are becoming big shots. Time flies and this simply means I am getting older.

3. Participating Republicans are the best, the brightest and, therefore, out of the loop. Most of them are great people with superb policymaking and administrative skills and, therefore, either did not wish to or could not join the Trump administration. In the foreign policy and national security arena, there are only two Asia hands, I was told, who have enough expertise in East Asian affairs.

4. Participating Democrats are completely out of the loop. The good news is that what they suggest is reasonable and really makes sense to me. The bad news is that those ideas will never be realized for at least the next two years and possibly for the next six.

5. The U.S. and China are not in a “cold war” but … the Trump administration does not seem to believe the U.S. and China are in a cold war like they were in the 1950s. However, they may not hold fire until China fulfills all U.S. demands, ranging from the trade deficit, technology theft, the Senkaku Islands, Taiwan and the South China Sea, to human rights. This sounds like an ultimatum to Beijing, doesn’t it?

6. Opinion was unanimous regarding the unfairness of China, but modalities may vary. A great majority of Americans inside and outside the U.S. government seem to agree that something is wrong with China and that they don’t want China to defeat the U.S. When it comes to the means to solve the China problems, however, Americans seem to continue to be divided.

7. Japan-China summit meetings are always successful. The summit meetings involving Beijing’s top leaders never fail because they cancel any meeting whenever China considers the other side may not comply with its demands. In the latest Japan-China summit meeting, China’s deteriorated relations with the U.S. forced Beijing to reduce the requirement levels for Tokyo.

8. The relationship between the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and Japan’s defense posture. Behind the seemingly abrupt withdrawal by the U.S. from the 1987 INF treaty, there lies a strategic requirement for Washington to deter Chinese medium-range nuclear missiles, which can easily target and destroy American aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific. Deploying land-based U.S. medium-range nuclear cruise missiles in Japan may become a possibility in the future.

9. The gap between Japan and the U.S. on defense posture continues. What has not changed in the Japan-U.S. security relationship for the past few decades is the gap between what Japan must do and what can really be done. Many of those legal and financial restraints, which the Shimoda Conferences and the Mount Fuji Dialogue have revealed for decades, remain intact and may not be resolved in a foreseeable future.

All in all, it’s high time for the people and the government of Japan to change the postwar approach, because endless discussions will never make a difference.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.