Asia’s Rip Van Winkle

Georgetown’s Casimir Yost, director of Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, was in Tokyo last week giving a series of talks. I saw him at the US Embassy’s Tokyo American Center on Friday.

In the course of his talk, Yost made an interesting point about how the US has been distracted from Asia by Iraq, and now that the Bush administration’s attention is returning to the region, it finds that the region has been transformed in its “absence.”

While that might exaggerate matters somewhat, but there is a lot of truth in it. With the US not particularly focused on using its power to shape the region, the Asia-Pacific region became considerably more multipolar, and now the US has to play catch up to reassert its influence in a transformed region.

Whether this will happen during the waning years of the Bush administration is an open question, but there are signs that the US is adjusting to the new rules of the game. One sign is, of course, more constructive cooperation with China, on the part of both the US and Japan (sorry, FT subscription required). Another is that the US seems less willing to give a free pass to Japan on security.

This article from the Japan Times shows both changes at work. Both Washington and Beijing have asked Tokyo to clarify the meaning of “progress” on the abductions issue, which to date Japan has failed to do. (A point that I previously addressed here.) Given that the US and China are the major stakeholders in the six-party talks and have both invested considerable energy in seeing them to a successful conclusion, this step is long overdue. I expect that diplomatic pressure on this front will likely continue during Chinese Premier Wen’s visit this week, and, if necessary, during Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Washington later this month — albeit surreptitiously.

So what’s the lesson that Tokyo should learn from this? The US, increasingly interested in ensuring the right outcomes in Asia, will not tolerate obstructionism, not even from its ally Japan. Tokyo would do well to take that to heart.

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