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Presidential Inbox: U.S. Policy in Northeast Asia

by Sheila A. Smith
January 25, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama attends the East Asia Summit plenary session in Phnom Penh alongside then Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao U.S. President Barack Obama attends the East Asia Summit plenary session in Phnom Penh alongside then Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao November 20, 2012 (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).

President Obama,

As you consider America’s foreign policy challenges, I would urge you to pay particular attention to Northeast Asia. I believe U.S. policy will be tested in this part of Asia, and that our maritime commitments in particular will require clear and committed action. There are leadership transitions there too that deserve some of your personal engagement in building trust.

Let me suggest three areas where I think significant policy attention is warranted.

First, your new foreign policy team will need to embrace your Asia strategy as fully as their predecessors. Asia demands our full and long-term strategic attention and articulating the future direction of the Asia pivot will be essential to maintaining regional confidence in the United States. For those of us who care deeply about U.S. policy towards Asia, your first term Asia team could not have been better. Your second term Asia team will need to be given far deeper resources if they too are to successfully execute your Asia strategy. Strong leadership and deep Asia experience and expertise will continue to be the prerequisites for success, especially in relations with Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing. In Northeast Asia, where tensions have risen considerably over the past year, our ability to lend our allies a steadying hand will be most needed and most appreciated.

Second, Northeast Asia has undergone a broad leadership transition. New leaders in Beijing, Tokyo, Pyongyang, and soon in Seoul will mean that we will need to take time to build new relationships. I’m least optimistic about Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un seems to be committed to less cooperation rather than more, and his actions suggest little reason for optimism about change in North Korea’s military ambitions. December’s successful missile test, as well as his recent response to the enhanced UN sanctions, suggest we are in for a bumpy ride in 2013. On the positive side, leadership changes in Seoul and Tokyo bring in two leaders committed to their relationship with Washington, and ready to work closely with the United States on a whole range of issues, including how to cope with North Korea. Yet relations between these two close allies are strained and will take time to heal. We should do all that we can to support that process, and sustain the energy of our trilateral policy cooperation.

It is the new generation of leaders in China that will deserve your most careful consideration. It is too early to tell if Xi Jinping will prove to be a good partner for the United States in Asia and beyond. But the most immediate test of his new government may be whether he proves to be a good neighbor. For many on the periphery of a rising China, these are uncertain times. Our interests on the Korean peninsula, and more recently on the territorial dispute with Japan, differ considerably from China’s. On both of these issues, we must persuade Beijing that maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia is our common cause. If needed, Beijing must be reminded that we will defend our treaty allies from coercion and provocation, and we should be unambiguous in our commitment to the defense of Japan should Beijing escalate its island dispute with Tokyo to the level of armed conflict.

Yet we must also lead the effort to develop mechanisms and institutions that will facilitate dispute resolution and confidence building in Asia. Continuing to energize the ASEAN-based institutions for multilateral problem-solving will be important. An annual meeting of defense ministers would be particularly helpful at this time. The East China Sea deserves American attention also, and we should reach out to Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo to consider crisis management practices and a regime for maritime confidence-building. There is far too much at stake for all of us not to try to de-escalate and regularize maritime interactions there.

Finally, President Obama, let me turn to a relationship that anchors our Asia strategy and without which we cannot implement the rebalancing that you envision. The U.S.-Japan alliance has for half a century demonstrated the power of postwar reconciliation, and the relationship today between the American and Japanese people is strong and our shared interests abiding. We saw that in the Japanese response to 9/11 and Katrina, and you reciprocated when the need was greatest in Japan in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit on March 11.

Japan today faces a rising China, a nuclear North Korea, and difficult political relations with its neighbors in South Korea and even Russia. In the face of these challenges, there are many in Japan who think it is time to change course; to reconsider Japan’s postwar diplomacy and strategic choice of military self-restraint. There is, I believe, a growing perception within Japan that their postwar commitments have not been rewarded with friendship and respect, and that they continue to be punished for events that cannot today be undone.

I believe the Japanese people will wisely reaffirm their postwar convictions, but U.S. policy will play a large role in shaping both the substance and the tenor of that Japanese debate. If our alliance with Japan is strong, then the concerns about today’s challenges in Northeast Asia will be met carefully and calmly. Your leadership will be needed to set higher sights for this vital partnership. We must fulfill our promise to close Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, and rid our relationship of this debilitating squabble. We must encourage Japan to stand with us on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But neither of these issues should define our relationship with Tokyo.

Historical reconciliation is a tremendous challenge for the peoples of Northeast Asia, and in today’s changing strategic environment, nationalism can easily become corrosive. Our role cannot simply be one of strategic partner; we must also consider our own role in shaping the destiny of Northeast Asia. Your ambassador, John V. Roos, began our process of healing the wounds of World War II by commemorating the tremendous loss of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in doing so, he earned the profound admiration of the Japanese people. When so many in the region today are having difficulty in finding an adequate expression of forgiveness for that terrible chapter of history, you have the opportunity to lead the way—to illuminate the path toward acknowledging the terrible costs of war.

Northeast Asia continues to require your close attention, Mr. President. The last several years have demonstrated that some of our most important alliance commitments are coming under strain as a dynamic shift in the regional balance of power is fostering anxious nationalisms. Your Asia policy team will need to be steady and creative; will need to be bold and subtle; and, most of all will need to know how to work comfortably within this new and emerging Asia

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