In recent days, i attended an off the record discussion with several senior Obama administration officials involved in international “stuff” — some foreign policy, some commerce, some defense and intelligence sector deal-making.
One of the most interesting comments made to a question I posed probing the administration’s strategy in Asia, was “Steve, don’t watch the hand!”
What this person was saying was ‘don’t get lost in everything going on at the surface’ in US-China relations or US-Japan relations, but rather look at the other many bits and pieces of America’s engagement in the Asia Pacific that are enhancing US leverage and generating a greater sense among Pacific Rim countries that America is there, engaged, and preempting China from enjoying monopoly status.
This is interesting framing — but this also means that America is adopting more of a piecemeal strategy in Asia, driven more by deals like a US-South Korea free trade arrangement or arms sales to some countries than by reconstructing the U.S. as an unignorable, consequential heavyweight.
I recently spoke at a forum organized by the US Embassy in Japan and Department of State in cooperation with Aoyama Gakuin University and Sophia University in which some very capable international affairs students from Japanese universities all around the country participated in forums on the US-Japan security relationship, on immigration issues, climate change, terrorism, and other issues.
In my session, we polled the 27 students in our group on certain key questions — and their answers seem to underscore the broad doubts about America’s staying power and profile in the region.
Here were the questions and responses:
1. In order to assess how much confidence you have as Japanese citizens in Japan, do you think that Japan should be a permanent member of the UN Security Council?16 yes — 11 no
2. Can you, without any hesitation, proclaim that you are pro-United States?20 no — 7 yes
3. Even though you may not have thought former Prime Minister Hatoyama did his job effectively, do you sympathize with Hatoyama’s overall goals [particularly in adjusting US-Japan relations and moving Futenma out of Okinawa]?18 yes — 9 no
4. In Japan’s diplomacy, do you think that Japan should maintain an equal distance between the United States and China?8 yes — 19 no
5. In the current US-Japan alliance, do you think the relationship is lopsided and should be changed [with more empowerment of Japan in the alliance]?23 yes — 4 no
Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs, was my partner in this program and organized these excellent questions.
The candor of the students was refreshing. While clearly concerned about too much of a tilt toward China, they too felt heavily burdened on some fronts by Japan’s relationship with the U.S.
These questions are just a snapshot of a small group — but they indicate the importance of America reinventing its engagement in the region and demonstrating more flexibility than previously shown about what a partnership with Japan actually means.
So, while we may not want to be too distracted by “the hand”, it’s important that the moves the United States is making on other fronts in the region include renegotiating our social and security contract between Japanese citizens and the security architecture we are clinging to.
— Steve Clemons