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Our Anxiety as the President Heads to Asia

by Sheila A. Smith
April 18, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama walks among Cherry Blossoms in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington March 20, 2012. (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters) U.S. President Barack Obama walks among cherry blossoms in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington March 20, 2012. (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)


Anxiety is everywhere these days in the debate over U.S. policy toward Asia. Here in Washington, there seems to be deep anxiety about the Obama administration’s ability to fulfill its promise to rebalance to Asia. In Asia itself, the anxiety is more about the staying power of the United States in a region undergoing a challenging geostrategic shift, and often that anxiety is manifest not in what the United States does on a daily basis but in what the president will or will not say out loud when he goes there next week.

There is reason for anxiety, to be sure. But let’s make sure we are anxious about what matters. Let’s have a conversation about policy goals instead of atmospherics and personalities. And, rather than declare Obama’s visit to Asia doomed before it even begins, it might be wise to consider on balance the positive accomplishments as well as the limitations of current U.S. policy initiatives in Asia.

President Obama will make four stops in Asia. He will start in Northeast Asia, visiting with allies in Japan and South Korea. He will then visit Malaysia and the Philippines, visits that ought to have happened last fall but didn’t because of our domestic tug-of-war over the budget. All of these stops will highlight ongoing efforts to strengthen our relationships in Asia. All will include economic as well as security consultations. All will highlight ongoing bilateral and regional cooperation and, if successful, will set out a vision for the future. This is the stuff of presidential visits, and we should expect no less.

Let me focus in on the president’s time in Tokyo and the U.S.-Japan relationship. Many in Tokyo worry about the U.S. commitment to the relationship. Reaffirming our security ties is always a high priority, but today Japan’s security planners have a complex balancing act, one that they have not had to grapple with for much of the half century since our 1960 security treaty was ratified. North Korea’s proliferation of missiles, both those that can reach Tokyo and those that can now reach to the periphery of the United States, poses a significant risk for Japan. Our alliance effort to build and improve ballistic missile defenses in the Pacific has been largely developed to consider this risk of the unpredictability of Pyongyang and its increasing capability to affect Japanese security. Our ability to sustain regional political cooperation, especially trilateral policy coordination with Japan and South Korea, to put pressure on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions remains critical.

Few today underestimate the impact on Japanese perceptions of risk that accompanied the 2012 flare-up of tensions with China over the Senkaku Islands. For the first time, Japan must now consider the prospect that it—and not the United States—could be on the frontline of an armed conflict. The U.S.-Japan alliance too must adapt to that reality, and be prepared to de-escalate any tensions that might arise from accidents or miscalculation. But the alliance must balance our desire to reduce risk with our desire to deter aggression, a difficult skill that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel adroitly demonstrated in his latest visit to Tokyo and Beijing. Beyond the island dispute, there is the larger strategic task of looking ahead to a time when the Chinese military capability could be much greater, and organized in such a way as to challenge our current approach to ensuring Japanese defenses and deterring regional aggression. Secretary Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry in their 2+2 consultations with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo last October reached the conclusion that the time has come to revise the U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines to reflect the changing strategic landscape in Northeast Asia.

The strength of our relationship, however, does not rely solely on our close military cooperation. It also depends on our ability to ensure the economic vitality of our societies. Prime Minister Abe has undertaken an ambitious program of revitalizing the Japanese economy, and although he has demonstrated some initial progress, this year he faces considerable hurdles as consumers feel the pain of a new consumption tax and as household income has yet to keep pace with corporate and investor gains. Japan’s energy needs are costing it more as Tokyo seeks more imported sources as a result of the post-3.11 cutback in nuclear power generation. Japan must also address its longer-term fiscal health and restructure its economy to better cope with the demands of its aging society.

The prime minister chose last year to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deliberations, and in doing so opened the prospect for the most significant transformation of our bilateral relationship in half a century. Estimates vary but the most cited assessment is that a successful conclusion of TPP would yield $77.5 billion for the United States and $119.4 billion for Japan in annual income gains. Equally important it would create immense synergies between the first and third largest global economies for generations to come, and would set higher standards for trade liberalization than any other existing free trade initiative. Both the Abe cabinet and the Obama administration confront challenges at home, as all serious efforts at trade liberalization must. But there is no doubt that if TPP is to succeed, then Japan and the United States must demonstrate their ability to lead. The president and the prime minister will need to make creative but sustainable compromises. Now is the time to show that Tokyo and Washington can look outward beyond their own self-interests, to lay the groundwork for a new framework for   economic partnership.

Finally, another important announcement expected during the president’s visit to Tokyo will focus on the future, and a new U.S.-Japan educational initiative. Last year, the United States-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON) argued the need for significant investment in the infrastructure supporting study abroad for young Japanese and Americans. Japan wants to double the number of Japanese studying in the United States, aiming for up to 40,000 students annually, and will develop new programs and a public-private partnership in funding. The United States too promises to double the number of American students heading to Japan. While much has been done, there is plenty more for the Obama administration to consider. As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report released this week points out, the rebalance needs resources.

The president’s visit provides opportunity for easing anxiety and reminding the Japanese people of the importance he places on the relationship with Japan. This can be done in two ways. The first will be to address the perception there that the Obama administration and the Abe cabinet are ill-suited to working together to manage the alliance. Concern over China policy remains at the heart of much of the anxiety in Tokyo, and the willingness of U.S. officials to use the Chinese conception of a “new model of great power relations” to describe their relationship with Beijing rankles. Also, ever since the prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine prompted a U.S. government statement of “disappointment,” there has been a stream of commentary about the disconnect between the two governments. For many in Japan, the U.S. statement was a shock, and for some it was even seen as inappropriate for an ally. Some media commentators even went so far as to suggest that the problem was the Democrats in the United States, arguing that only Republicans were good for Japan. Everyone is entitled to their political preferences, to be sure, but the reality is that the comment was less about political affiliation and more about the moment in Northeast Asia. My hope is that the president and the prime minister (along with their staffs) will have some private discussions that will allow each to speak frankly to their visions for the alliance, and to the complex dynamics afoot in Northeast Asia.

Second, Obama and Abe will need to present a strong joint statement that speaks to the aspirations of this relationship rather than to the litany of “issues” that need attention. In my mind, this would ideally reflect two messages. The first message would be that the U.S.-Japan alliance is an enduring and constructive force in a transforming Asia. It is not a relationship of convenience nor is it solely based on a particular configuration of power. In short, it is not something that others can change. Looking forward, the two leaders should speak to the strategic task at hand—building an adaptive alliance that has the resilience and the creativity to shape the region’s future rather than to react to its past. The second message of the joint statement would be to articulate the principles that Japan and the United States rely on to guide their global behavior. Instead of worrying about the phrases used by other powers, the president and the prime minister should take the time to restate their own conception of what it means to be a global power. Japan and the United States share a common sense of how problems should be addressed and differences resolved. This should not be a reactive statement, but rather an affirmative message that conveys the norms and principles the United States and Japan are willing to act upon together.

Finally, I would hope that the president and the prime minister find a moment to discuss the shared legacy of historical reconciliation that is at the core of our postwar relationship. Today as so many in Asia (and even in now in Europe) look back at the unresolved tensions of the last century, the United States and Japan should take the time to acknowledge our success in building a new relationship out of our history of war, a postwar relationship of deep friendship and respect between our two peoples. Both leaders must make the case to the next generation of Japanese and Americans the need to continue to build that relationship. We cannot and should not ignore the debates underway in the region, and we should not forget that it took leadership and courage to build the partnership that the United States and Japan have today. Our leaders must continue to draw on that courage if we are to navigate the complex sentiments that shape attitudes across the region today.

Here in Washington it is far too easy to see our foreign policy goals narrowly through the lens of our inside-the-Beltway battles. It is this preoccupation with our own politics that often gets in the way of our ability to understand the dynamics in the world that will shape our policy choices. The president during his visit will hear first-hand from his hosts about their concerns and goals, and will undoubtedly return with a bigger and more pressing agenda for his Asia policy team. As he makes his way across the region, we should raise our sights, and judge him not on his ability to fend off domestic critics, but on his ability to speak to the real strategic anxiety in the region and to the larger purpose of embedding the United States in a peaceful and prosperous Asia.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Shawn McHale

    At the exact time that the Administration talks of rebalancing, the funds allocated to promote student and faculty exchange with Asia, and capacity building in Asian languages, are shrinking at the Dept of State and the Dept of Education. Fulbright-Hays has been cut sharply in the last few years. National Resource Center funding has been cut. Washington often seems to like to cut low-cost but effective programs in capacity building in education on Asia. What gives?

  • Posted by Andrew Killin

    You talk about looking at foreign policy goals through a wider lens and yet in your discussion of the proposed TPP here and in your recent PBS Newshour contribution, there was no mention of the recently announced Japan/Australia FTA, Japan’s first such agreement with a major agricultural exporter.
    During the PBS discussion, mention was made of American beef exports as a major sticking point and yet the reductions negotiated by Australia, the US producers biggest competitor in Japan, didn’t come up. Surely this is relevant to the TPP discussion when looking through a wider lens.

    Best regards,


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