A problem-oriented or a partner-oriented US Asia policy

The Asahi Shimbun has published an op-ed by Richard Danzig and Joseph Nye, who as foreign policy advisers to Senator Barack Obama outline how an Obama administration will approach relations with Japan.

Superificially, there are not too many points of divergence with the Yomiuri op-ed penned by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman last month.

Both Danzig-Nye and McCain-Lieberman argue that the alliance rests on both shared interests and shared values. Both see the alliance as central to US policy in Asia. (Danzig-Nye end their piece by saying, “Close cooperation with Japan is the starting point for US policy and interests in Asia.”) Both acknowledge the need for a broader bilateral agenda, although the Danzig-Nye piece is more explicit about what that agenda might contain.

Beyond the repetition of the standard mantras about the alliance, however, there are significant differences in the role they envision for the alliance in the region. The difference can be summarized thusly. Mr. Obama’s Asia policy would be problem oriented: he sees problems in the region that must be solved, and is not especially discriminatory as to how they’re solved. Mr. McCain’s Asia policy would be values oriented, or, more precisely, partner oriented: who the US works with matters more than what it works on. Accordingly, Mr. Obama recognizes the value of the US-Japan alliance and other standing alliances in the region, but it seems that he would proceed from problem to partner; Mr. McCain would start by consulting closely with partners, and then, in cooperation with democratic allies in the region, would proceed to address regional problems and work with other countries in the region (i.e. China).

The difference in these perspectives can be seen in how the candidates responded to the latest development in the six-party talks. Mr. Obama hailed the “progress” but suggested that the degree to which sanctions are lifted should depend on the degree to which North Korea cooperates (i.e., his concerns are problem oriented); Mr. McCain cited the fears of Japan and South Korea to question whether the time is right to lift sanctions (i.e., prioritizing relations with US allies over the problem-solving process).

One can also see this difference in the respective op-eds.

First, the “Obama” op-ed makes no mention of China as a issue area for the alliance. The McCain-Lieberman op-ed, however, argues that a stronger alliance is critical to working with a stronger China, noting, “It is precisely by strengthening our alliance and deepening our cooperation that Japan and the United States can lay the necessary groundwork for more durable, stable, and successful relations with China.” Note that in regard to China, a McCain administration would work with Japan first, and then proceed to build a new framework for relations with China.

Second, a McCain administration would revive the now-dormant effort to enhance cooperation among “the great Pacific democracies,” citing Japan, Australia, and India specifically (interesting how India, a country that is nowhere near the Pacific, is mentioned but South Korea, a burgeoning democracy actually on Asia’s Pacific littoral, is presumably included among “others”). A bulk of the McCain-Lieberman op-ed addresses the importance of democracy (and its promotion) in East Asia, meaning that “shared values” would inform a McCain administration’s Asia policy. For Mr. Obama, it seems, shared values serve as a basis for the US-Japan relationship but not necessarily as the center of the bilateral agenda.

Indeed, echoing Prime Minister Fukuda’s recent argument about the alliance’s role in the region, Mr. Obama sees the value of the alliance in terms of whether it promotes stability in the region, and seeks to embed the alliance in a broader regional organization that will help restore regional confidence in the US.

As Messrs. Danzig and Nye write, “It is essential that both countries cooperate closely to develop a new regional framework that will protect our essential interests and values. Mr. Obama, in a debate last autumn regarding the construction of an international framework for Asia, said, ‘America ought to be regarded as a partner with a high degree of credibility.’ Without reducing the US-Japan alliance’s central role as the ‘foundation for regional stability,’ it is possible to create new frameworks and dialogues.”

(Also absent from the Danzig-Nye piece is any of the protectionist rhetoric that Mr. Obama recently directed toward South Korea and Japan, an indication that it is awfully difficult to be both protectionist and a regional leader, a lesson that Japan ought to understand well.)

In short, there are differences in how an Obama administration and a McCain administration would approach Japan and Asia.

A McCain administration would have a number of points of continuity from the Bush administration in its Japan policy. While abjuring from explicit containment of China, it would emphasize shared values and seek to deepen ties among the region’s democracies. It seems, however, that Mr. McCain has at least learned that the alliance is weakened if the US leads and Japan follows: “If we are to ask more of each other, we must also pay greater attention to each other’s concerns and goals.” He cites greater cooperation on climate change as one way in which his government would listen more to Japan.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, seems to share the outlook of Mr. Fukuda and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, among others. Disinclined to divide the region into democracies and autocracies (or non-democracies), Mr. Obama would seek to work with any and all appropriate partners, not just formal allies, in addressing regional challenges — necessarily meaning more cooperation with China, because as the Bush administration has learned, few of the region’s most intractable problems can be solved without China’s involvement.

In practice, the difference between a problem-oriented and a partner-oriented Asia policy may not be all that great, provided that Mr. McCain does not go overboard in pursuing an Asian alliance of democracies and provided that Mr. Obama doesn’t take up Japan passing like the last Democratic president and remembers that formal allies are important tools too.

The challenge for Japan, meanwhile, is the same regardless of which candidate wins in November. It needs to articulate its goals and interests in Asia and learn to say no to the US when it disagrees with US policy.

2 thoughts on “A problem-oriented or a partner-oriented US Asia policy

  1. Ross

    What are examples of policies that one would associate with the notion of \”Japan passing like the last Democratic president\”? I have heard the term but don\’t understand it. As far not recognizing the value of \”formal allies\” I\’d say the last Democratic administration was remarkably good relative to the present Bush administration.


  2. I\’m very curious to know the extent to which either of the candidates are really being \”advised\” on Japan policy. It seems like a waste of energy given that there are so many other complicated domestic and foreign issues right now which have the public\’s attention.How many Americans really care about the Japan alliance? I\’m guessing the number can\’t be more than five figures, if that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s