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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:02 03/09/2007
January 2001

US Taking "Long Position" on Japan -- For Now

Tomohiko TANIGUCHI (Fellow, GLOCOM)

It was back in 1993, as I recall, that Bruce Stokes, a seasoned American journalist, told me he had heard Charlene Barshefsky (who later became the US Trade Representative) calling Japan "an outlier". "Bear in mind", Bruce said, "the fact that an official like her uses such a derogatory word is telling. She is the kind of person who is faithful to whatever her boss says. So this suggests that President Clinton himself might see Japan as an outlier".

If one who does not dance at a party is a wallflower, then an outlier is someone who is not even in the room but stands outside -- much worse indeed. Hence came the oft-cited phenomena: Japan-passing (or Japan-nothing).

This being a thumbnail characterisation of the ill-fated bilateral relationship between Clintonites' America and Japan, what is about to take over is a completely opposing one. With familiar faces and names such as Richard Armitage filling the top slots of the Bush administration, the chemistry on both sides of the Pacific is improving rapidly. On Japan's side they say Japan-passing is passe. On the other side they pledge that they will never bypass Japan when making a trip to Beijing, or when this becomes inevitable, they will at least apologise for being unable to stop over in Tokyo to say hello.

So what? I should dare ask. The reason why the US expects much from Japan needs no complicated explanation. They look at the Asia Pacific region in a strategic way, whereby ordinary trade relations become subservient to overall US foreign policy and its national interest in a greater sense. This is why they expect Japan to become much like Great Britain, to quote Rich Armitage, whose Washington DC-based diplomats by the way look at "the making of American foreign policy", if I quote Ray Seitz here, "the way a professional musician might look at the cacophonous tribulations of a high school orchestra" (Over Here by Raymond Seitz - former US Ambassador to the Court of St. James's).

It may well be that Armitage knows Japan well but Britain little, as it is "beyond anyone's dreams", Kunihiko Saito, former Japanese Ambassador to the US, told me recently "that Japanese diplomats in Washington can influence US foreign policy making the way the Britons do".

This being so, one can be certain that it is NOT bilateral trade relations that are crucially at stake in coming years. It is whether Japan is finally able to collaborate with the US in a much enhanced strategic sense that is most at stake. Is Japan willing to articulate what the regional order ought to be? Is Japan prepared to engage in constructive dialogue with the US to think about many of the unsolved problems of the region -- China's economic transition and its regional strategic aspirations to start with? These are the questions the likes of Armitage are asking at present. If, to cite the sarcasm of The Economist, Japan once again amazed the US with its ability to disappoint, the end result may well also be the end of the US-Japan strategic alliance, which could otherwise well evolve into the new century as a lynchpin that provides the region with a solid basis upon which market economies flourish.

This is a serious matter indeed, and I am not making an alarmist argument. For I cannot forget what I heard from Bob Manning, who participated in Armitage's discussion group that brought about the now much cited policy paper last autumn. He posed the rhetorical question: if Japan does not want to become like Great Britain (relative to the US), what does it want to be?

Japan is yet to live up to their expectations so long as we in Japan somehow subliminally assume that it is always the US that is nominative while Japan remains objective. This being so it is always the passive voice that we use when describing US-Japan relations: Japan is going to BE FORCED to do such and such... In fact it goes beyond this. Japan is pushed to accept the international accounting standard. Japan will be urged to play a greater role in UN peacekeeping operations... Unless we come to think of ourselves in much more proactive terms, be it about Japan's ties with the US or about its roles in Asia, Japan cannot become a mature responsible partner to anyone.

If one looks hard for silver linings in Japan's clouds, one can point to the fact that there are fresh ideas being put in place during the course of statewide administrative reforms. Japan's Cabinet Information Research Office, to take an example, is interested in setting up a think tank that is physically minimal yet operates on a large scale by making the best use of network technologies. By pulling together top scholars and strategists, they aim amongst many things to make the think tank a formidable force that can engage in policy debates with its counterparts elsewhere, so as to formulate the right advice at the right time for its prime client, i.e., Japan's Prime Minister. This must materialise soon. The US is for now taking a long position on Japan. It will be quicker than we expect otherwise to write off the losses.

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