The policy issues that are most critical for the Barack Obama administration are (A) handling the financial crisis and economic recession, (B) the “war against terrorism,” including the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and a troop surge in Afghanistan, and (C) building peace and stability in the Middle East.
President Obama places lower priority on U.S. policy toward East Asia. And in East Asia, it is not Japan, but China that preoccupies the U.S. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted in the journal Foreign Affairs in December 2007, while she was still a presidential candidate, “Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.”
In light of this, in order to allay Japan’s concerns that the Obama administration thinks the country is relatively insignificant, the U.S. Department of State announced that Clinton would visit Japan from Feb 16 to 18, on her first official trip abroad as secretary of state. U.S. secretaries of state normally make their first visits to Europe or the Middle East, but Clinton’s choice of Asia, "is a tremendous signal of the importance of Asia to (the U.S.) foreign policy agenda," said Robert Wood, State Department spokesman.
Japanese officials and the media were all thrilled about the decision. The Japanese tend to regard Clinton’s statement at a senate confirmation hearing on Jan 13 that “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” as clear evidence that Washington will assign substantial importance to the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Clinton is surely paying Japan a certain amount of respect, but what she did not say is also pertinent. Clinton did not say that Japan was the most important country in East Asia, nor did she say that the U.S.-Japan relationship was the most important bilateral relationship. As for China, Clinton said in the same confirmation hearing, “China is a critically important actor in a changing global landscape.” In comparison with her words in Foreign Affairs, Clinton downplays her emphasis on the importance of China; nevertheless, she seems to indicate that China is as important as, if not more important than, Japan.
Despite Clinton’s forthcoming trip, and the importance of the bilateral relationship with China, the Obama administration is busy addressing many other critical issues. It lacks the political will and the resources to dedicate to East Asia. President Obama is probably seeking to maintain the status quo and to expend as little energy as possible in this region.
In such circumstances, there is an excellent opportunity for Japan to change the nature and orientation of the U.S.-Japan alliance from a military-centered alliance to a “total alliance.”
Japan has been emphasizing the military aspect of the U.S.-Japan alliance: principally of strengthening the U.S.-Japan security treaty system under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. As long as Japan maintains this kind of mindset, it cannot break away from its heavy dependence on the United States. Emphasizing the non-military aspects that are inherently included in such a total alliance ― issues concerning the environment, renewable energy, education, culture etc ― will certainly provide a great opportunity to create a framework within which Japan can cooperate and coexist with the United States on a more equal basis.
It is quite fortunate that both the United States and Japan are willing to engage in shaping a post-Kyoto Protocol framework within which they seek to include China and India. Both the United States and Japan are actively looking for ways to reduce their dependence on oil from the Middle East, and to develop renewable energies. President Obama understands the importance of education. He also has a deep knowledge and experience of citizens’ movements and grass-roots activities.
The Japanese government should expand the horizons of the U.S.-Japan relationship focusing on citizen-level public diplomacy, which enjoys a very broad base in Japan. It is up to Japan to take the initiative and adopt a new approach to the United States and to the evolution of the U.S.-Japan relationship.
The writer is associate professor of American history at Osaka University.© Japan Today