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Obama’s New Engagement Policy Towards Japan

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • March 09, 2009

    US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent four-stop swing through Asia – Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China – in her first tour as Secretary of State represented a strong new beginning for America’s Asia diplomacy. Relations between the US and China and the US and Japan at the moment are free of any acrimony and generally good. However, the recent global economic meltdown has affected the major Asian economies such as Japan and China to some extent given their heavy dependence for exports on the American market.

    Though the Obama administration is likely to focus a great deal of attention on fighting terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, its Asia policy will remain unaffected since securing economic progress, peace and prosperity in the Asia Pacific region will continue to be a main US interest. As a member of the Asia-Pacific region, America’s overall strategy will be to bring about global stability and economic growth in partnership with Asia. That is why Clinton chose the four nations of Asia on her first overseas trip.

    Clinton first went to Japan for an obvious symbolic reason: going there first would mean a lot more to the Japanese than to anyone else on her tour. The Japanese understand this symbolism completely. Probably, Hillary Clinton remembered her husband who, as President in 1998, spent more than a week in China in 1998 without once stopping in Japan, which is US’ No. 1 ally in Asia. That time, the omission was read widely as a slight. Hillary Clinton gracefully offered a corrective and it was well received in Japan.

    After arriving in Tokyo on the evening of February 16, Clinton met in quick succession with Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone, Minister of Defence Yasukazu Hamada, Prime Minister Taro Aso and the President of the Democratic Party of Japan Ichiro Ozawa. According to a Japan Brief released by the Foreign Press Centre, Japan, dated 20 February 2009 and made available by the Embassy of Japan, Hillary also met with relatives of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, and held a dialogue with University of Tokyo students, before leaving Japan on February 18 morning for her next port of call, Indonesia.

    In her talks with Foreign Minister Nakasone, the date of Prime Minister Aso’s visit to Washington and meeting with President Obama was fixed. In fact, when Aso landed in Washington on February 24 for the meeting, he became the first foreign leader that President Obama received at the White House. The symbolism of this also cannot be missed. That Obama received Aso as the first foreign leader and that Clinton chose Japan as her first port of call as Secretary of State underscored the importance that the US attaches to Japan and Japan-US relations. Clinton said at the press conference: “The alliance between the United States and Japan is a cornerstone of our foreign policy, and working together to deal with the multitude of issues that affect not only Asia, but the entire world, is a high priority of the Obama Administration.”

    According to Yomiuri Shimbun dated February 18, the following items emerged as the most significant outcome of the talks between Clinton and Nakasone.

    • Support for Pakistan: Japan proposed the holding of an international conference in Tokyo to which the US side agreed.
    • Japan-US Treaty: It was agreed that the United States would continue to play a role in the defense of Japan, including extending its nuclear deterrence, and that the realignment of US troops in Japan would continue.
    • North Korea: The importance of the six-party talks and Japan-US collaboration were reaffirmed.
    • Abduction issue: The US side stated that this issue should be part of the six-party talks.
    • China: It was agreed that China should play a “constructive role” on various international issues.
    • Climate Change: It was agreed to accelerate working level talks.
    • Economy: Japan-US collaboration was reconfirmed and it was agreed that the issue of protectionism needed to be addressed.
    • Measures against piracy: The Japanese side explained that the Maritime Self-Defence Force would be dispatching forces and the US side welcomed this offer.

    In her meeting with DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa, Clinton noted that next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the revised US-Japan Security Treaty of 1960, and she called for cooperation in line with the established Japan-US security arrangement for further strengthening of the Japan-US alliance. Ozawa is said to have responded that an alliance must not be a relationship of subservience and that only when there is an equal partnership can there be a true alliance.

    Major national dailies carried editorials on Clinton’s visit and most editorials covered much the same points, welcoming the visit as a sign of importance that the Obama administration places on Japan and calling for strengthening their bilateral ties of cooperation. The Yomiuri Shimbun, the Asahi Shimbun and the Japan Times emphasized the importance of enhancing the bilateral dialogue and deploying strategic diplomacy of which North Korea was identified as the immediate litmus test. In an interview with Yoichi Funabashi, the chief editor of the Asahi Shimbun on February 18 2009, Clinton stressed that both the US and Japan must advance their efforts to “secure a complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea” through the six-party talks. She also emphasized the Obama administration’s policy of breaking away from the Bush administration’s unilateralism and pursuing a diplomatic policy of international cooperation that emphasizes multilateral dialogue. In this respect, she expressed her wish to work closely with the other partners, particularly Japan and South Korea, and engage with China and Russia to bring pressure to bear on North Korea, to convince Pyongyang that its pursuit of nuclear weapons is not acceptable and carries costs that are going to be quite high. In fact, the Obama administration is likely to soon appoint a successor envoy to Christopher Hill to the six-party talks and engage Pyongyang as broadly as it possibly can while trying to speak directly to the North Korean people and to others in the government who are jockeying for a position that there are benefits that they would obtain if they began to cooperate.

    The agenda for the six-party talks will be a comprehensive one – denuclearization in a verifiable and complete manner, dealing with North Korean missiles, and the human rights agenda, which includes the issue of abductees. Besides North Korea’s nuclear programme and missile development, Japan-US collaboration demands stabilizing the security situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, China’s military and nuclear build-up and, global warming.

    At the bilateral level, the top diplomats of Japan and the US signed a new pact under which the Japanese government will make direct contributions of up to US $2.8 billion for relocating some 8,000 US marines and their dependants from Okinawa to Guam. This agreement is an initiative taken under the Japan-US Security Consultative Committee (SCC; two-plus-two) roadmap for realignment implementation which was mapped out in May 2006 by the foreign and defense ministers. The Japanese government will be presenting the agreement in the current Diet session for legislative approval. However, there may be problems in implementing the proposed realignment of US forces because it is dependent upon the completion of the replacement facility for the Futenma Air Station from Ginowan to Nago.

    Soon after becoming Secretary of State, Clinton had characterized the three main pillars of US foreign policy as the “three D’s” – defence, diplomacy and development. At a speech in New York at the Asia Society prior to her visit to Japan, Clinton had emphasized development as a major foreign policy goal of the Obama administration and a means to counter terrorism. One indication of the expectations placed on Japan in terms of development was Clinton’s meeting with Sadako Ogata, president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), during her stay in Tokyo and her praise for Ogata’s efforts on the development front.

    The Bush administration had tried to improve relations with both Japan and China simultaneously. Clinton is likely to explore the possibility of a trilateral dialogue among Japan, the US and China through which the three countries would discuss policies on global issues of common concern, particularly with regard to environmental problems. It seems likely, therefore, that the Obama administration’s emphasis will be on “smart power”, thereby marking the beginning of a new era of diplomacy and development, in which issues are resolved as much as possible through consultation with other nations and the ability to implement policies, regardless of whether they are allies or not. This will be a real test for Japan’s diplomacy, especially at a time when there is possibility of change of government in Japan and the likelihood of the DPJ taking the reins of the new government when elections take place later this year. Hillary Clinton’s choice of Japan as her first port of call underscored the importance the US attaches to Japan and Japan-US relations.