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[East Asia Forum] Obama visits a troubled East Asia

23 April 2014

Author: Tobias Harris, Teneo Intelligence

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President Barack Obama’s state visit to Japan on 23–25 April comes at a fraught moment for the US–Japan relationship.

US President Barack Obama waves as he gets off Air Force One upon his arrival at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on 23 April 2014.  (Photo: AAP)

The cautious US response first to China’s declaration of an air defence identification zone in November and then to Russia’s annexation of Crimea have Japanese elites concerned about what the US would do if China were to seize the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The US government’s expression of ‘disappointment’ in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine has similarly led some Japanese elites to question the Obama administration’s commitment to Japan. As Seiichi Eto, a conservative Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and special adviser to Abe, said in a YouTube video he was later forced to take down, ‘The US said it was disappointed … I must say it was we who were disappointed’.

It is too early to say that irreversible harm has been done to the alliance. However, the two nations seem to fundamentally misunderstand each other’s goals and concerns. If this is not addressed, the tension seen over the past several months could become a ‘new normal’ for the relationship.

Essentially, Washington’s top priority in East Asia is ensuring peace and stability in the region, which means minimising the probability of armed conflict and maximising the opportunities for shared prosperity. The challenge for US policymakers is how to use relationships in the region to achieve this goal. That includes the US relationship with China, which at times may require taking a tough stand against Chinese provocation in the East China and South China Seas, but at other times may require patient diplomacy to ensure that Washington–Beijing relations remain constructive.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has not abandoned the long-time US goal of seeing Japan play a more active role in the alliance and in regional security more generally. But Washington plainly believes that if Japan does take on a greater burden for regional security it must do so legitimately — and  in a way that minimises the potential for conflict. Hence Washington’s concerns about not only Abe’s visit to Yasukuni but also the broader issue of redeeming Imperial Japan’s legacy. These two issues stoke fears — rightly or wrongly — about the intentions guiding Japan’s reasonable and relatively modest steps to improve its defence capabilities and play a more active role in the security alliance.

Undoubtedly, US officials would prefer not to have to referee the Japan–South Korea history debate, which hinders cooperation on more pressing concerns. It is important for Japanese policymakers to appreciate that their counterparts in the US do not want to engage in another round of ‘Japan bashing’ or ‘Japan passing’. Rather, they want Japan to be the best possible partner it can be. This means finding a way to cooperate with South Korea, but also with China.

Of course, US policymakers must appreciate the extent to which the Japanese public and Japanese elites are focussed on China as a national security threat. By proximity alone, the Chinese challenge is far more real to Japan’s leaders and public than to Americans. As Pew Research found, in 2013 40 per cent of Japanese said they thought of China as an enemy, compared with only 18 per cent of Americans. Similarly, while 93 per cent of Japanese said they viewed China unfavourably, only 52 per cent of Americans said the same. While the gap between elite perceptions of China may be less pronounced than that between public perceptions, Japanese policymakers have become increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for cooperation with Beijing.

Accordingly, it is understandable that officials in Tokyo wonder how ironclad the US commitment to its ally is, and whether Washington would truly be willing to use force to defend Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands. There is no way to know how reliable a commitment is until it is tested by events. Statements by US officials to reinforce that the US–Japan security treaty applies to the Senkakus have deterrent value, but they cannot close the gap in perceptions of China.

Perhaps the only way to truly ease both fears of China and doubts about the US security guarantee is for Japan to take more responsibility for its national defence. However, if Japan is to bolster its defensive capabilities to make the population feel more secure, its leaders must reassure Washington that it will not unnecessarily embroil the US in a conflict. And they will have to convince China, South Korea and other countries in the region that Japan’s intentions are defensive and peaceful.

Tobias Harris is an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, the political risk arm of strategic consultancy Teneo. He worked for a DPJ member of the upper house of the Diet in 2006–07 and as a Japanese politics specialist. 

This article was first publishedhere in Nikkei Asian Review.

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