Lawless departs: an opportunity for change?

In this post from yesterday about Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Washington at the end of the month, I mentioned that one factor in the Bush administration’s inability to focus on advancing the process of redefining the US-Japan alliance is the lack of experienced Japan hands in senior positions.

Now, according to OneFreeKorea, Richard Lawless, deputy under secretary of defense for Asia-Pacific security affairs, is stepping down. OneFreeKorea focuses on his role in the US realignment in Korea, but Lawless played as significant a role in the realignment of US forces in Japan, working tirelessly to conclude the agreement approved by the Security Consultative Committee last May — ostensibly resolving an issue on which both sides had been actively seeking an agreement since 1995. (The transcript of the press conference announcing the agreement is available here.)

I have heard, however, that Lawless has been ill for some time, explaining in part the relative lack of progress since the May 2006 2 + 2 meeting confirming the agreement.

The question now is who will replace him. I wonder if Lawless’s retirement will clear the way for Michael Green’s return to the administration. Whatever the case may be, this is an opportunity for the Bush administration to right itself on Japan policy. Handing the Asia-Pacific portfolio to a Japan hand (as opposed to a Korea or China hand) would send a clear signal to Japan that while the US is seeking an agreement with North Korea and deepening its ties with China, the alliance with Japan remains the single most important element of US Asia policy.

I also wonder if discussion of Lawless’s replacement will make it on the agenda for this month’s summit.

UPDATE: Robert Koehler of The Marmot’s Hole suggests that Lawless will likely be replaced by James Shinn, onetime National Intelligence Officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council, former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and current principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia-Pacific security affairs. Shinn, perhaps unusually for someone in his line of work, had a long career in business after a stint at the State Department (see the biography provided here by the National Bureau of Asian Research [about halfway down the page]). Based on his publication record from his time at CFR, Shinn does not fall into one camp in the region, which might make him a suitable compromise candidate.

UPDATE, the second: The Yomiuri Shimbun’s article on Lawless’s departure is here. Yomiuri views it primarily as the departure of yet another North Korea hawk from the administration, and mentions Shinn as a possible successor, although it quotes “someone connected to the US government” as saying that Shinn is a “bureaucratic type whose negotiating skills are unknown.” Don’t think that the Japanese government isn’t paying close attention. It is very much interested in who will fill the post responsible for the US realignment in Japan and represent the Pentagon in the six-party talks (and, as the Japanese government surely hopes, balance the waxing influence of Christopher Hill in US Asia policy).

2 thoughts on “Lawless departs: an opportunity for change?

  1. I cannot see Michael Green departing from CSIS at this juncture. Kurt Campbell, the only other significant East Asia hand, has just left. Green himself has only just taken over for longtime Japan Chair Bill Breer. Leaving his current position after only a few months in office in order to rejoin a wounded Administration in its last 21 months of life would be nonsensical, at least from a career-building standpoint.


  2. Possibly, but who knows the next time there will be a Republican administration for him to serve under.And as for career-building, his position as a leading Japan hand seems pretty secure.Given this administration\’s current shortage of Japan experts — and lengthy list of issues to resolve with Japan — I do not think his return to the administration can be discounted so easily.I\’m sure the Abe Cabinet would be happy to see him there.


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