President Obama’s April Trip: With a Focus on US-Japan-ROK Relations

Chris Nelson, the editor and publisher of the influential Nelson Report on Washington’s foreign policy, particularly toward Asia, was a featured speaker at the Tokyo Foundation Forum held on March 19, 2014. He discussed President Obama’s upcoming trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines and the administration’s views of Japanese domestic and foreign policy with Akio Takahara, Tokyo Foundation senior fellow and University of Tokyo professor, and Tsuneo Watanabe, the Foundation’s director for foreign and security policy research. The Forum was moderated by Research Fellow Takaaki Asano. The following are notes prepared by Nelson prior to the presentation, reprinted here with the permission of the speaker.

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When I started to draft these remarks, the initial working subtitle was “The Crisis in US-Japan and Japan-Korea Relations.” Indeed, through almost lunchtime last Friday, that’s what most of us thought we’d be dealing with, following the apparently unsatisfactory event of Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki’s visit to Seoul earlier in the week.

Frankly, most of us in DC thought we were really in for trouble between Tokyo and Washington and between Seoul and Tokyo, and there were increasingly public calls for US “shuttle diplomacy” (former Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell) and “mediation” (former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon).

But then, almost like a form of divine intervention, considering the enormous anxiety generated by the December 26 visit to Yasukuni Shrine by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and more recently the announcement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga of what sounded like a reexamination of the entire basis of the Kono and Murayama apologies, suddenly we saw the prime minister stand in the Upper House and, speaking as prime minister, and not in some personal, informal remarks, for the first time give a very firmly, plainly worded pledge that he and his cabinet would not revoke either Murayama or Kono.

As you know—or should know by now—our friends in Seoul monitor every word from senior officials in Japan. Indeed, they parse every syllable, much as sometimes the Japanese media and officials scrutinize every utterance by President Barack Obama or, say, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy.

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Let me risk a mixed metaphor by saying, when you get a gift from heaven, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth! Translation: I was inundated, literally, with very informed messages from scholars, journalists and political activists in Japan, Korea, and the US explaining in excruciating detail all the possible nuances that could end up destroying the meaning and effectiveness of Abe’s pledge.

So I say to them and ask you: Does anyone think for one minute President Park Geun-hye doesn’t know all those possible reasons for doubt, even cynicism? For us, the bottom line now is very clear:

President Park welcomed what she heard from the prime minister, because after months of saying she would never meet with Abe-san until there was a full acceptance of the truth about history as seen by the ROK (and, indeed, most of the world), hours after the prime minister’s speech to the Upper House was conveyed to Seoul, we see her express a willingness to meet and to try to find a common ground to work for the future, rather than battle over the past.

In fairness to the second Abe administration, the malaise in US-Japan relations—in terms of confidence in each other—predates the difficulties between Tokyo and Seoul. Years of US frustration with weak prime ministers culminated in the near disaster of the first couple of years of Democratic Party of Japan government.

It started with what seemed like half the Diet traipsing off to Beijing with Ichiro Ozawa to kiss Hu Jintao you-know-where, and you remember the media speculation about Japan “tilting” to China. Hard to recall how anyone could have been that naïve, isn’t it!

But despite the continued stalemate over Futenma, US-DPJ relations got better during the course of the Yoshihiko Noda administration, and officials like then-Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara helped restore Japan’s reputation as a serious partner and player.

But if I launch into all this now I’ll never get to the Malaysia and Philippines parts of the Obama mission, which I want to do as the Philippines serves as a “might have been” or, indeed, as an emerging “worst case” for what Japan-China could become if we don’t all handle things correctly.

So let’s start down south and work our way up, and I should start by saying my original “crisis” title also was based on my full agreement with Abe-san’s remarks at Davos that so upset the Europeans. Asia is increasingly at risk of a “1914”-style mishap leading to a catastrophe that, of course, no one wants.

Malaysia

The “good news” part of my original speech was going to start with Malaysia and Southeast Asia because Prime Minister Abe and his team are universally seen in DC as doing a great job of reaching out and solidifying Japan’s relations throughout the region, so this is a good place to begin now.

To be frank, the US needs to do a better job with “KL,” as us Asia-types like to call Kuala Lumpur, and it really goes back to the Bill Clinton era, specifically to a visit by then-Vice President Al Gore. Horrified White House staff told us at the time that Gore basically made an ass of himself, bullying, hectoring, and playing the Ugly American role as though following a bad script.

It wasn’t that he was wrong to be focusing on the environment, human rights, democracy, and so forth, but there are ways to do it and then there are stupid ways to do it, and Gore managed to do it so badly, the government to government level relationship was thrown into a pit from which, in many ways, it’s never quite recovered.

Obama took office in early 2009 and came to announce the “pivot” to Asia, which was then and is still today largely misunderstood and not entirely satisfactorily explained by the administration, although its “messaging” has improved over the last year or so.

The fact is the pivot was always more about a re-focus on Southeast Asia, ASEAN especially, since then, as now, there was never any drop-off in US focus on Japan, China, Korea and, especially, North Korea. The vast majority of US forward-based armed forces of every branch then and now remain in Northeast Asia (as, indeed, our friends down on Okinawa always remind us!)

But for years under George W. Bush, Southeast Asia was an afterthought, with nearly no significant summit visits to the region, despite the increasingly vocal pleas of the US business community then, as now, largely good Republicans, I’d note. All that changed under Obama and, stimulated by his personal participation in APEC and the ARF, TPP has helped achieve much of the “re-focus” that was the original intent of the Pivot, pending, of course, successful results.

So back to Malaysia and the Gore visit; when you throw last week’s depressing recurrence of the Anwar persecution—not prosecution—into the pot, or pit, maybe, here we are again, and this time it’s not our fault. Even so, we’re hoping that Obama, a far more sophisticated analyst than most, will speak and act in ways which reflect the importance of Malaysia and the ASEAN region per se.

That, of course, is why Obama has rescheduled and persevered with his longstanding plans to visit, but which the budget wars with Congress made initially impossible. This time let’s hope that Ukraine and who knows what won’t intervene!

A special focus is expected to be on improving chances for Malaysia to work out its remaining issues on TPP, and Malaysian friends say they badly need to hear from Obama himself how important that is to the US. That includes giving the local business community a boost and offering the example of US companies as best practices on health, education, clean energy, entrepreneurial spirit, and so forth.

As you know, reform is never easy, and Prime Minister Najib Razak is under serious domestic pressure to quit TPP (alas the downside of Anwar’s domestic opposition).

Still, like Abe-san, Najib knows he needs TPP to help push domestic economic reform and growth. Unlike US-Japan, America’s trade with Malaysia can be diverted elsewhere, and the postponement of an FTA back in 2008 puts even more emphasis on TPP this time. So the White House knows all this, and we’ll see how Obama handles it.

The Philippines

The Philippines is a former US colony, most Americans conveniently forget, since our people are not taught much about our own Imperial Age, preferring a national myth that grants pure motives and positive outcomes to a great deal of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

(Conservatives in Japan and China aren’t the only ones who prefer to use “history” as a form of psychological identity therapy, if that’s any consolation to those working to overcome the current tensions with Seoul, in particular. But we’ll get to that shortly.)

We suspect that no matter what may be on the official agenda, what Obama and President Benigno Aquino are going to most seriously focus on will be China. And while the situation of the Philippines “versus” China in superficial ways resembles that of China-Japan, the differences are what have helped create the on-going, largely depressing situation Manila now faces.

While the US-Philippines mutual defense alliance is in many ways similar to the US-Japan arrangement, the determining fact is the fundamental weakness of the Philippines in virtually every area that counts for strategic strength, starting of course with air and naval forces.

Manila basically had nothing with which to resist the Chinese use of paramilitary “civilian” ships and aircraft to carve out areas of dominance in traditional fishing grounds, and lately the overt use of PLA Navy and Air Force assets to enforce the takeover. One old Coast Guard cutter, barely armed, and one more on the way from the US, present no deterrent, and the reality of the situation remains that the 7th Fleet is not about to steam around defending anyone’s fishermen from China except under pretty dire circumstances that we all hope we’ll never see.

But that reminds us—you saw last week the Chinese block a food shipment to the brave Philippine Marines holding out on a ship wrecked on a reef within territory now taken-over by the PLA Navy. Our good friend Ralph Cossa of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Hawaii has a great idea about how to make a point and do something at the same time:

The US Navy should respond to an SOS call from that Philippine crew as required by international maritime law on a humanitarian basis and airdrop food and medical supplies to those guys before they are starved out. What do you think of that idea? I like it.

To short-hand what we could spend an hour on, there is only one upside to the very sad downside now facing Manila: a Chinese “fait accompli” of forcing access to and basically assuming control over traditionally international and/or Philippine maritime resources.

And that upside is frankly pretty scary:

There is now general acceptance in the US that Beijing is trying the same set of tactics, the same strategy against Japan in the Senkakus. Only unlike poor Manila, Japan has perhaps the largest, most modern, up-to-date and effective air and sea military of anyone in North Asia save the US, although of course China is rapidly building up assets and capabilities across the board.

(And we don’t want to slight our South Korean allies, and let’s remind ourselves—both Americans and Japanese—the Koreans are our allies!)

Our Chinese friends, as Kurt Campbell always calls them, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, for most of the 2000’s seemed on a roll: Beijing’s “soft power” campaigns seemed to be making friends all over, China’s always-growing economy seemed to promise a new model for everyone in Asia, and the 2008 financial collapse, coming after the catastrophe in Iraq, seemed to presage the rapid decline of the United States, with all that implies.

But, perhaps like Mr. Putin in Ukraine with his takeover of Crimea, China got overconfident and arrogant. It began pushing around neighbors like Vietnam, the Philippines, and, finally Japan, in ways so overtly military, and using arguments that sounded like a return to nineteenth century national state imperialism, that frankly, the US now finds itself more in demand as a strategic partner than at any time in recent memory.

ASEAN for nearly 10 years has been in on and off again efforts to seriously negotiate a Code of Conduct for maritime exploration, rights of passage, and how to handle confrontations, and for the past couple of years it’s been Beijing, using its proxies to block a real agreement.

Clearly we all have to keep trying. No doubt this will come up throughout Obama’s trip.

Now having said all that...let’s step back a bit and try to see if we can encourage a less emotional reaction to China. It is not the first rising power to start behaving like one, it is not the first rising power to demand that the existing power or powers—call it the “hegemon,” if you want—move over a bit and cede rule-making and interpretation power, share them, at least.

And it is not the first rising power to spend a hell of a lot of money on armaments and the physical tools of both offense and defense, and likely it won’t be the last. Indeed, Japan—pacifist by experience and Constitution—after all spends a lot of money on arms, equipment, and a very fine military.

The point, as Don Rumsfeld so memorably asked many years ago, is what China plans to do “with all this military”!

So what does worry a lot of us—scare a lot of us, to be frank—is an increasing sense that for all its “lecturing” of Japan about “history,” the Xi Jinping administration seems to be following an almost nineteenth century model of imperial domination: if you want and need resources, you have to physically control the resources.

Why anyone would want to repeat the worst aspects of the twentieth century is hard to understand. (And I have to say, to be put in the position where China feels justified in lecturing about “history” is like being called ugly by a frog. The day that Chinese authorities allow an honest discussion of Mao, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square is the day China can lecture Japan about anything, but we’ll get into that more below.)

To sum up quickly on the China risk: We in DC may be kidding ourselves, but the sense is that for all its bullying, the leadership has a good bottom line sense of its real interests, and there will remain another generation of regional peace and stability and economic growth. So in reality, what we fear most isn’t “1914” by design, but by accident.

On balance, there’s evidence that the PLA Navy is getting more sophisticated in risk management. We understand from good sources that the recent USS Cowpens incident had one bit of important good news: At some point, the two directly involved ships’ captains talked directly, something the PLAN has not allowed before.

The greatest risk of accident leading to escalation therefore remains the PLA Air Force, whose pilots remain less a known factor than a senior ship’s commander. This has been true since well before the 2001 Hainan Island confrontation between a PLAAF pilot and an EP3 US surveillance aircraft.

South Korea

We’re going to keep this section brief, as a great deal of the Obama/Park discussion we can be pretty sure will be about “Japan” and Abe specifically. So let’s hope that nothing untoward happens between now and then to change the conversation in directions no one wants.

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The Korea-US FTA has had its second anniversary, and you’ve likely seen the criticisms of US auto interests, led not just by the usual folks on Capitol Hill but also NGOs, who have increasingly lined-up against TPP for a variety of reasons. We can talk more about that in the Q&A if you want. Seoul of course is in a “watch and learn” mode on TPP, as it’s already got its FTA with the US, and it’s doing RCEP with you and our Chinese friends.

Whether that’s ever going to see the light of day I’d love to know, but perhaps my visit this week will help shed some light.

Always a major focus of any US-ROK meeting is what’s up with North Korea and, basically, what the hell are we going to do! I’d prefer to leave the Pyongyang analysis to the Q&A’s for fear I’ll talk for another hour and we’ll all be late for dinner.

Quickly for now: Kim Jong-un is increasingly seen as a potentially unstable source of risky decision-making. His late father, for all his personal brutality and aggressive actions, always seemed to have a sense of limits: just how far he could go with “provocations” short of a real risk of war. The “Norks” as we call the North Koreans in DC have, for example, never publicly admitted sinking the Cheonan .

But the young Boy Marshall’s recent decision to execute his uncle—and intelligence sources generally agree that Kim also ordered the deaths of the entire family and many top supporters down to distant cousins—this isn’t “just” brutal by any standard, its unprecedented by DPRK standards as well.

Not since 1955 has a “Kim killed a Kim,” we are told by experts. And their conclusion from this is that the young man may be dealing with internal instability he himself has created—with unforeseen consequences.

Last but not least on North Korea—for US policy, it always comes back to China—what can we get Beijing to really do about their unfortunate client. Increasingly over the past couple of years, most China experts agree that the leadership is coming closer and closer to some possible break point with the DPRK, but it never quite happens.

Beijing’s fundamental calculus remains to preserve stability at almost any cost, although the past two years have seen China willing to vote for and to enforce, to some extent, various UN sanctions.

Last week, senior Chinese officials actually talked about a “red line” on the Korean Peninsula in ways which seemed definitely aimed at warning Kim Jong-un not to start something really dangerous.

For now, it seems that Obama's policy will remain letting President Park take the initiative in developing Kim’s intentions and then to see if any return to negotiations are possible.

Japan

So let’s move to the Tokyo stop. My old editor at UPI first taught me about the “news”: He said, “Chris, when the airplane lands safely that’s not news.” So much of the US-Japan relationship, indeed, probably most everything about it, has so long been in the “no news” category that I think this causes us to do two dangerous things: First, to take the good stuff for granted and only focus on the “difficult”; second, to forget that the “difficult” stuff is largely a government-to-government thing and not a problem with “Japan” or the “United States,” and especially not people to people.

Our two countries are now so intertwined socially, economically, and intellectually, that we take for granted that my cousins in rural Ohio can buy sushi in Buehler’s Market in Wooster, in the center of the Amish farm belt. Granted it’s terrible sushi, but it’s there, and probably half the farmers are driving Toyota and Nissan trucks and using Yamaha farm equipment to grow the locally produced vegetables and meat.

The Japanese-American community is now so fully integrated into the American community that no one thinks twice about it, although there’s a downside for the GOJ sometimes in that the old community has lost any sense of political cohesion. One obvious, over-due “remedy” is to vastly increase—or actually to work and spend to refurbish—the enormous educational and cultural exchange programs which have been allowed to lapse so that very few major universities now have serious Japan study programs on anything but art.

A really important point: in many ways, this integration is fully operational at the international cooperation level, at the UN, in the international financial institutions, and at the professional level between Gaimusho and State, or DOD and MOD. Maybe not so much at the Agriculture Department, come to think of it. Oh well, let’s see if TPP can help at least a little bit!

Before getting to the “crisis” issue, there is of course much “good news.” There’s no question of many successes over the past year or so, and the current security guidelines review really does offer a historic opportunity to expand our alliance capabilities in ways that we never dreamed of previously.

Talk to any administration player and once you get through the Abe/Park issues, the prime minister’s new National Security Council, the Secrets Protection Act, and the possibility that Japan might exercise the right to collective self-defense and relax self-imposed limitations on defense industry cooperation with US companies, all are seen by US officials to offer important new opportunities for cooperation on regional and global security.

TPP of course is the very definition of opportunity and crisis, since failure to accomplish the deal, whether this year or not, will be a huge setback for the US “rebalance” strategy, and, we’ve been assured by economists as well as Abe himself, a blow to Abe’s “third arrow” and the reforms needed for economic growth.

I’ll be glad to talk about the DC part of the TPP conundrum during the Q&A’s if you want.

Checking with the USTR just before I left on how things went last week between Wendy Cutler and her Japanese counterparts, we heard the same as you here in Tokyo: Negotiations on the TPP have come to a crucial crossroads, and from the DC perspective, from Obama on down, the administration is looking to Japan’s leadership to carry the negotiations across the finish line. Conclusion of this process will support new jobs, foster new business opportunities, and promote economic growth.

Overall, speaking privately and informally, a senior Administration official stressed this to us in language we want to underscore:

“Strengthening our alliances, and particularly our trilateral cooperation with Japan and the ROK, remains one of our most important policy priorities for the Asia-Pacific. Improving ties between the two countries is in our strategic interest, and we have encouraged both countries to work together to take steps that would contribute to reconciliation. We were encouraged by Abe’s March 14 remarks to the Diet, which were a positive step for the relationship. We don’t want to mediate between our two friends, but remain closely engaged with both in making progress.”

Americans don’t do “nuance” all that well, and compared to Japanese, we don’t do nuance at all. So note please that our administration friend isn’t declaring victory and scheduling a parade. Strengthening alliances and “particularly trilateral cooperation with Japan and the ROK remains” is followed by words that show the administration’s appreciation of this as a work in progress, work still to be done, and so far something to be “encouraged” so long as “both countries” work to take steps that “would contribute to reconciliation.”

“Would,” not “have.” All these action verbs and adverbs are conditional, aren’t they! What we’re being told is that the Obama Administration is just as worried now as it has been for the past two or three years that the senior leadership levels of both Tokyo and Seoul have taken turns doing and saying things which they knew could not possibly contribute to “strengthening trilateral cooperation” and the alliances.

From left to right, Tsuneo Watanabe, Akio Takahara, Chris Nelson, and Takaaki Asano.
From left to right, Tsuneo Watanabe, Akio Takahara, Chris Nelson, and Takaaki Asano.

Speaking personally, what truly mystifies me is why the Abe administration until last Friday seemed indifferent to the negative effect in Seoul, especially, of provocative remarks and actions. Either the alliances are important or they aren’t. Why do something that just gives a free club to hit you with, especially to China? I don’t get it.

I have to note that administration officials are being just a tiny bit disingenuous when they say “we don’t want to mediate between our two friends.” Well that’s certainly true in the sense that the person who jumps into a family fight rarely gets thanked, and sometimes gets punched in the nose.

But the fact is that the Obama administration has been “closely engaged” since the Noda/Lee administrations and deeply since President Park and Prime Minister Abe took power, and we can tell you that everyone involved at State, DOD, the NSC, and in each embassy, has been worried as hell, and often equally frustrated.

So it’s no exaggeration to say there was a palpable feeling of relief in DC when word came, first, of Abe-san’s remarks in the Upper House and then, the long-hoped for positive response from Seoul. Washington didn’t “mediate” all that, but it sure was in the middle of it.

Back to “nuance” for a minute: We understand that Ambassador Kennedy has come under quite a bit of quite personal criticism for her very nuanced expression of “disappointment” over the prime minister’s Yasukuni visit. I can tell you that the reaction in DC across the board from every friend Japan cares about there was “that is one hell of a Christmas present.”

In my Report and since then, I characterized Kennedy’s “disappointment” as “anodyne,” which is a fancy $2-dollar word meaning, among other things, emotionally flat—colorless even. So I was as surprised as the Obama folks when we began to hear that Japanese of all political persuasions seemed to be stunned at how rude and kind of scary and frankly inappropriate was that word “disappointment.”

“How could you say that to us, you know the Chinese are kicking us around, you know the North Koreans are still holding our people, you know our South Korean friends are mad at us.” This serial lament came in from all sides in Japan and we all were frankly a bit stunned.

To be frank, the real reaction of senior US players, and, we suspect but do not know, the president, was forcefully expressed in a vernacular not appropriate for public events. Knowing this as we all did, when State decided to issue the very bland “disappointment” remarks through Ambassador Kennedy, most of us were surprised something far, far stronger wasn’t said.

The reaction to Kennedy dramatized a private conversation we’d been having ever since last year and the first glimmer of statements in the Diet and in local political campaigns surfaced which featured what are called “denier” views on the Nanjing catastrophe, the invasion and occupation of much of China itself, and of course, the increasingly personal attacks on the veracity of surviving comfort women.

That debate, which continues to this day, is: granted we are Japan’s best friend internationally, that we are each other’s partners in so many things, but how do we achieve a balance between cooperation and constructive commentary and, when necessary, constructive criticism when we see Japanese leaders doing things that we think affect our legitimate interests.

More succinctly, what do friends of Japan say in private versus what do they say in public, with the goal of being effective, and not just sounding like Al Gore in Malaysia in 1999?

Believe me, we’ve seen the polls showing that while the majority of Japanese don’t believe the version of history preached by the most conservative elements of the Abe coalition, by far a majority of Japanese resent being “lectured” on morality by not just the Chinese, the Koreans, and other Asians, but especially by their most important ally, us Americans.

And until last Friday, there was no consensus on what “method” is intellectually honest, and, most especially, what method “works.” There was until Friday great concern that based on the evidence, unless the American critics approached actual rudeness in public, there would be senior Japanese officials who concluded that private remonstrations were not serious and therefore there was no real penalty for visiting Yasukuni despite the crystal clear US opposition because of our concerns over the ROK alliance and our conviction that the visit handed Beijing a club to beat us both over the head with and was stupid! Sorry, no “nuance” there.

Well I didn’t mean to go on at such length on this, but given the past few weeks, I thought it might be useful for you to hear how the dilemma is being analyzed back in DC.

And it helps lead to my final point—the frequent expressions of doubt we hear about how many Japanese are worried that despite the Mutual Defense Treaty, you won’t be able to count on us if there really is a military crisis with China. The gist of the doubter’s school seems to be that because China trade is so important and because China has nuclear weapons, the US won’t actually fight for Japan if we’re asked to.

We could spend the next hour on this, but for now, let me say that ever since then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said very clearly that if China used military force against Japan to try to take control of the Senkakus, Article 5 of the MDT would apply.

Before they cut off the mike, let’s conclude by saying of course President Obama is going to be dealing with all of the above, and more, during his visit here and in Seoul, and further south. He will likely have the traditional joint press appearances in each stop. And he will have to be prepared to say things in public things about topics which likely the professionals would far prefer remain in private.

I will take the liberty of predicting a private remark from Obama to Abe: “Mr. Prime Minister, the United States welcomes your pledge made to the Diet that you will not take back the Kono and Murayama apologies which are so vital to the functioning of our alliances and our mutual goal of good relations throughout Asia. And Mr. Prime Minister, I will hold you to them, with my thanks.”

For the first time in many months, the events of last Friday offer all concerned that the current positive tone will be borne out by events. Fingers crossed.

Christopher Nelson

  • Senior Vice President, Samuels International Associates