A feeling in the air

David Shambaugh, a China expert at George Washington University, has a straightforward op-ed in today’s IHT that should serve as a wake-up call to Kasumigaseki.

Shambaugh writes:

Going forward, Washington must build on its successes, but it must also recalibrate its strategy to manage regional complexities.

An effective American policy in such a complex region requires closer ties with Beijing and New Delhi, deeper engagement with Asean and Central Asia, a recalibrated Japan policy, an appreciation of the increased regional role of China, adjusting to changing security dynamics and a new institutional architecture, and a more proactive and engaged regional diplomacy at the official and nonofficial levels.

This is something about which I have written before (namely here and here): as Washington’s attention returns to Asia, it will find that American interests will best be served by flexibility in the region. And who will bear the cost of flexibility in the US Asia policy? That would be Japan. As Shambaugh writes, “Washington needs to move beyond its Japan-first policy and its orientation towards alliances. Both are outdated and need to be adjusted. Asia’s future lies with China and India, not with Japan.” In other words, US maneuvering in the six-party talks is a less fluke than the shape of things to come. Having learned that if it wants to secure its interests in Asia it will have to lean on China, the US will no doubt continue to do so in other areas.

Is Japan ready to shift too, or will the government’s lack of foresight result once again in a “shock” that leads to a crisis of confidence in Japanese foreign policy and a sudden, unexpected policy shift, rather than one considered in advance?

That, I think, is the real significance of the abductions issue. Abe seems to have grasped on to US assurances of support like a safety blanket, a means of pretending that whatever rumblings can be heard on the horizon — the rumblings of change noted by Shambaugh — the alliance will be fine. But, as I’ve asked before, is that the case? I expect that will start to see more cracks in the facade, like this one.

Significant change is afoot, and it may be only a matter of time before the US stops cosseting Japan — which, for all its concerns about entrapment, has been happy to be cosseted. The question is whether it will be the history issue, as Shambaugh suggests, or differing strategic interests that lead the US to retire its “Japan-first” Asia policy.

And as for what follows, it must be an Asia policy: not a China-, India-, or ASEAN-first policy, but an Asia policy that considers the region as a whole, and sees every country in the region as a possible partner to further American interests.

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