"We are supposed to be the problem solvers"

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at the Asia Society in New York on Friday on the eve of her departure for a trip to East Asia that will include stops in Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China.

Her speech is worth a look, because I do think she succeeds at indicating how the Obama administration will differ from the Bush administration in its approach to Asia.

During the presidential campaign, I suggested that the difference between an Obama administration’s and McCain administration’s Asia policies would be the difference between problem-oriented and partner-oriented approaches.

At that time I wrote, “Mr. Obama…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.”

It bears recalling because the theme of “solving problems” ran throughout Mrs. Clinton’s speech Friday.

The United States, she said, “is committed to a new era of diplomacy and development in which we will use smart power to work with historic allies and emerging nations to find regional and global solutions to common global problems.”

This is a marked shift away from the “values diplomacy” used by the Bush administration to bind democratic US allies closer together, which in practice appeared to be a means of isolating China, banishing it to the rogues’ gallery with Burma and North Korea. Mrs. Clinton did speak of shared values, but it was in the limited context of Southeast Asia, the values that bind the countries of ASEAN. She did not use the word democracy, and while she did speak of religious freedom for Tibetans and Chinese and political freedom for North Koreans, it is clear that Japan’s leaders are not wrong to anticipate greater engagement with China by the Obama administration.

“As members of the Asia Society, you know very well,” she said, “how important China is and how essential it is that we have a positive, cooperative relationship. It is vital to peace and prosperity, not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but worldwide. Our mutual economic engagement with China was evident during the economic growth of the past two decades. It is even clearer now in economic hard times and in the array – excuse me – in the array of global challenges we face, from nuclear security to climate change to pandemic disease and so much else.”

In short, despite the lack of shared values — at least by the previous administration’s assessment — the Obama administration sees in China an indispensable partner in solving the problems facing the region.

That does not mean that Japan will be ignored.

If anything, the Obama administration will challenge Japan. Mrs. Clinton signalled that the administration will shift the focus away from security; aside from mentioning a new accord regarding the relocation of US forces to Guam, she mentioned Japan’s civilian contributions abroad, and said, “We anticipate an even stronger partnership with Japan that helps preserve the peace and stability of Asia and increasingly focuses on global challenges, from disaster relief to advancing education for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan to alleviating poverty in Africa.” In other words, it seems that the new administration will accept the political difficulties Japan has in sending its armed forces to contribute abroad, but it will ask for other, perhaps more meaningful contributions instead. The Japanese government may find that dealing with the Bush administration was easier, in that the previous administration set a fairly low bar for Japanese contributions, being more content that Japan was “showing the flag” and “putting boots on the ground” than in the gains from Japan’s contributions. The Obama administration appears less interested in how Japan contributes than in the fact of Japanese involvement in solving regional and global problems.

While Mrs. Clinton will be meeting with the families of the abductees (an unfortunate legacy of the Bush administration), with this speech it does appear that the Obama administration is making a clear break with a Japan-centered Asia policy. Japan’s value will not be valued intrinsically, as a bastion of democracy in East Asia, but for the role it plays in solving problems.

The LDP may have a problem with this, accustomed as the LDP’s conservatives have become in recent years to using the alliance as a means to promote the long-standing revisionist agenda of remilitarization, constitution revision, and a hawkish foreign policy towards China and North Korea. They may find the idea of contributing abroad for the sake of solving global problems hard to swallow.

One thought on “"We are supposed to be the problem solvers"

  1. Anonymous

    An encouraging if not optimistic prognosis for what is otherwise a still hazy outline of Obama-Clinton shift of emphasis in the US-Japan alliance. Although the relationship with China is due for greater prominence, it can hardly be characterized as a partnership much less an alliance at this early stage in the new administration. Since Obama said he wants to pursue more multilateral relations with allies and adversaries alike, the tensions with Japan are unlikely to be allowed to reach disruptive proportions in the future though this will depend on how bad economic conditions become in the coming years.


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