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Obama’s Likely Policy Towards North East Asia

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • January 29, 2009

    Expectations are high in Japan, both in the general public and amongst the elite, after Democrat Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the American Presidency. Japan was clearly uncomfortable with Republican Bush administration’s pursuit of a unilateralist foreign policy as against Obama’s more pronounced multilateral approach. According to Professor Kenji Takita of Chuo University, multilateralism is closely associated with smart power and therefore Obama’s shift towards multilateralism is likely to undo some of the damage that the Bush administration’s unilateralism has done to American standing. Obama’s rise to the presidency is likely to assuage the hurt feelings of some US allies who are likely to reorient their foreign and security policies.

    And yet, contentious bilateral issues are likely to dominate Japan-US relations. This is not to say the security alliance that has remained the lynchpin of the bilateral relationship since the end of World War II will be undermined. On the contrary, the Japan-US strategic partnership will be reinforced under the Obama administration by weaving a web of larger and deeper institutional mechanisms lending greater robustness to the existing relationship.

    Japan would like to seek a resolution to the abduction issue as well as denuclearization of North Korea. Japan is concerned that Obama will come under intense pressure to introduce protectionist trade policies to “defend” the US economy in the face of the current economic downturn.

    It is unclear if Obama will downplay the US security relationship with Japan to mollify China, with which Obama might seek greater convergence of interests, mainly because of deepening economic ties and the need to engage China to keep it from projecting its great power ambitions. While the US-Japan security alliance is destined to remain in place, a robust Sino-US relationship under Obama will reinforce efforts towards creating a power equilibrium in the Asia-Pacific region. China is the largest holder of US national bonds, totaling $585 billion (as of September 2008), which means that it is China and not Japan that underwrites the US in financial terms.

    Expectations are high because China has become an engine of growth, with its economy having grown at an average of 9.6 per cent a year for the last 30 years. The country now holds the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, which stands at $1.9 trillion. Japan is in second place, with slightly more than half that amount. The US and China are deeply interdependent in economic terms, though they may be wary about each other militarily. China holds roughly $1 trillion of $2 trillion in US foreign reserves. Japan will clearly feel uneasy if Obama reorients US foreign policy towards a China centric East Asia.

    This is the concern that continues to lurk in the minds of the mandarins in Kasumigaseki. For the time being, Japan is upbeat in hearing that Joseph Nye is being sent by Obama as US ambassador to Japan. Nye has a huge reputation in Japan and is credited for his efforts to ‘redefine’ the US-Japan alliance after World War II and his contribution to adding teeth to the alliance relationship remains unparalleled. Also, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s observation on 13 January 2009 on the US-Japan alliance relationship will assuage any possible fear in the minds of the Japanese that Obama might drift US foreign policy priorities more towards China at the expense of Japan. Hillary Clinton said: “Our alliance with Japan is a cornerstone of American policy in Asia, essential to maintaining peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region, and based on shared values and mutual interests”. Thus, it transpires that the current Japanese mood about the Obama administration is overtly optimistic.

    Two issues might assume preponderance in the US-Japan relationship during the Obama presidency: First, the issue of sharing defence burden by Japan and Japan’s greater engagement with Obama’s multilateralism; and second, Japan’s contribution to resuscitate the global economy and how Japan can help salvage the US economy. As regards the first, Obama faces huge challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, tensions in India-Pakistan relations, and North Korea. Obama would need to mobilize its allies, such as Japan and South Korea, to resolve conflicts under the banner of multilateralism. Hillary Clinton would prefer to negotiate directly with North Korea and set her priorities to de-nuclearize North Korea, while Japan would want Clinton to take up the abduction issue. The Obama administration would be happy with Japan demonstrating greater self-reliance and autonomy in security affairs. Obama would expect greater contribution from Japan to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. This would involve greater burden-sharing and power-sharing. Second, economic difficulties emanating from the global economic meltdown might propel Obama to resort to greater protectionist policies, which might lead to other nations retaliating. The Bush administration, and more precisely the Federal Reserve Board, lowered the official interest rate to zero per cent, thereby weakening the US currency. The Big Three auto makers were also granted a huge amount of federal money just to resuscitate the US economy. If the Obama administration resorts to more extensive protectionist policies, including tariffs, Japan might drift closer to the Chinese market.

    Thus, even while Obama will remain engaged in sorting out the mess in the domestic economy, East Asia is likely to receive lesser attention as compared to Obama’s current preoccupation with Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. As noted, Obama will seek active cooperation with China, while maintaining existing bilateral alliances with Japan and South Korea. Therefore, in pursuance of his policy of multilateralism, the Obama administration is likely to seek a new regional security architecture that combines a bilateral alliance system with a multilateral security cooperation regime. Prof. Chung-in Moon of Yonsei University, Seoul, observes: “We can expect the US will shift its emphasis from the logic of balance of power to that of the power of balance.”

    Though Obama may get bogged down for some time in reviving the domestic economy, the nuclear issue in North Korea is unlikely to be left idle. It needs to be remembered that Obama has defined the prevention of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and defeating global terrorism as the twin pillars of his national security agenda. Hillary has already reiterated the same after assuming office. One possible way to engage North Korea is by promising diplomatic normalization of relations with North Korea for a cessation of its nuclear proliferation activities. Should Obama consider a basic treaty on normalization with North Korea in return for an acceptable verification protocol involving sampling, forensic activities, and access to suspected nuclear sites as well as the transfer of a sizable amount of nuclear materials, Obama would leave a mark of statesmanship for the world to take notice of. But then Bush too tried the option of ‘dismantle first, then we will normalize ties with you’ but failed. Obama might just be lucky?

    In dealing with North Korea, Seoul might be flexible in cooperating with Obama if the latter opts for expediting the rapprochement with Pyongyang provided North Korea agrees to major concessions in verifiably dismantling its nuclear programs and weapons. The proposed trilateral US-China-Japan commission matches well with Obama’s preference towards multilateralism in dealing with the North Korean issue. If these three countries cooperate, it will be vital to peace and stability in Northeast Asia. It could mitigate a tense rivalry between China and Japan, as well as a potential conflict between China and the US that will emanate from power transition.

    Thus, Obama’s Asia policy will mark perceptible change in its contour and focus. Obama is lucky to have many eminent experts whose advice would play critical role in shaping Obama’s Asia policy. Jeffrey Bader, who worked at the State Department and National Security Council, headed Obama’s Asia team during the campaign. Other experts who are advisors to Obama are Gerald Curtis, Kurt Campbell (a nominee for the Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs and strong advocate of the trilateral summit approach between the US, China and Japan), and Rust Deming, whose collective wisdom will come handy for Obama.

    But things may not be as rosy as it appears. Institutionalization of a trilateral summit could cause serious security concerns in South Korea because of its potential exclusion. Most Koreans still remember how Korea was arbitrarily divided by the calculations of the major powers after World War II. North Korea and Russia will surely oppose the trilateral formula. South Korea would be more comfortable with a six-party summit among China, Japan, Russia, the US and both the Koreas. The complexities of the issues in the East and North East Asian region do not guarantee Obama the reciprocal cooperation from its allies and countries in the region. The nuclear issue in North Korea and the threat it poses is unlikely to go away so soon. Obama cannot take cooperation from US allies for granted. For example, more than 10 years have passed since an agreement to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa was reached, but the move is no where near happening. On North Korea, Japan’s tough stance and strict focus on the abductee problem, is a stark difference with other nations in the Six-Party de-nuclearisation talks. Obama would expect Japan to publicly cooperate rather than only stress the abductee issue.

    Countries in the region have to do away with obsession with short-term gains, tactical and impromptu maneuvering, excessive value orientation, and the politicization of security and foreign policy issues. It is in the interest of both Japan and South Korea to strengthen the alliance relationship with the US by adopting flexible policy options. Such an approach would help maintain peace and stability in the North East Asian region.