Obama’s Rebalancing Policy and the Future of Japan-US Relations

Japan must decide for itself what course of action would best serve its interests in the face of China’s increasing assertiveness and Washington’s “rebalance to Asia” policy. Foreign and security policy experts who are members of the Tokyo Foundation’s Contemporary American Studies project noted that this will mean proactively playing a bigger role to help its alliance partner maintain primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

The comments were made during the 59th Tokyo Foundation Forum on April 23, 2013, held a week following John Kerry’s East Asia visit, his first since replacing Hilary Clinton as US secretary of state. The forum focused on the implications of Kerry’s appointment for Japan, one conclusion being that rather than fretting over his reported lack of expertise in East Asian affairs, Japanese leaders should indicate their readiness to work closely with the new secretary of state to forge an even stronger bilateral relationship and to advance mutual interests.

No Newcomer

Kerry is no newcomer when it comes to foreign policy, having been chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years, pointed out Fumiaki Kubo, Tokyo Foundation senior fellow and leader of the Tokyo Foundation’s Contemporary American Studies project, who moderated the forum. “If you recall, Hilary Clinton had never been involved in foreign policy on a full-time basis before she become secretary of state,” said Kubo, who is also professor at the University of Tokyo. “And when she was competing with Obama for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, she emphasized the importance of engaging China while making no reference to Japan.” Yet she emerged as the principal advocate of the Obama administration’s rebalancing strategy to maintain American leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.

One important factor to keep in mind when thinking about Washington’s East Asia policy is the severely constrained state of public finances, said Tsuneo Watanabe, the Tokyo Foundation’s director of foreign and security policy research and senior fellow. “This is clear when you look at the situation in Syria,” he said. “Washington is doing everything it can to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict, despite reports of flagrant human rights violations. Not only are Americans tired of war after a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, there just aren’t any funds available.”

Forum participants (left to right) Tsuneo Watanabe, Akio Takahata, Yoichi Kato, and Fumiaki Kubo.
Forum participants (left to right) Tsuneo Watanabe, Akio Takahata, Yoichi Kato, and Fumiaki Kubo.

Prospects of going over the “fiscal cliff” were sidestepped at the beginning of the year, but this simply postponed the deadline, and no fundamental accord has yet been reached. “When the Senkaku issue flared up, the Obama administration naturally wanted to do everything possible to avoid becoming militarily involved,” Watanabe said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the White House in February 2013 provided an excellent opportunity for Obama to not only encourage Japanese participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations but also to caution the prime minister over unnecessarily provoking Beijing, added Watanabe. “And Abe promised to do just that, saying he’ll deal with the issue in a level-headed manner.”

Washington is sending the same message to Beijing, dispatching Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to China and actively communicating with the Chinese military to prevent a military conflict. “This is something that Japanese leaders would be wise to keep in mind,” despite assurances from State and Defense Department officials that the Senkakus fall under Article 5 of the Japan-Us Security Treaty obliging the United States to intervene in the event of a military conflict.

Following his meeting with Foreign Minister Kishida, Kerry commented that the United States opposes “any unilateral or coercive action” aimed at changing the status quo over the Senkaku Islands. “This is a very strong statement toward China that echoes the remarks made by Hilary Clinton in her meeting with Kishida,” Watanabe noted. “But it can also be interpreted as meaning that Washington also opposes any drastic moves by Tokyo. We should recognize how nervous Washington is about the possibility of being dragged into a war.”

While Japan shares Washington’s engagement paradigm, Japan needs to advance its own interests—without disrupting the regional balance, Watanabe said. “From a geopolitical point of view, Japan’s participation in the TPP negotiations was a good idea. This ensures America’s continued engagement in the Asia-Pacific and induces China to move into desirable directions. It doesn’t matter if Kerry knows very little about East Asia,” he went on. “The question we should be asking isn’t ‘Is Kerry good for Japan?’ but ‘How can we get Kerry on our side?’ We should work together in directions that are desirable for both countries. If the cuckoo won’t sing, then we should think of a way to make it sing.” [1]

“Foreign Policy Is Economic Policy”

The four principles of an Asia-Pacific policy that Kerry outlined in his April 15 speech at the Tokyo Institute of Technology—“strong growth,” “fair growth,” “smart growth,” and “just growth”—seemed out of synch with what the Japanese public hoped to hear, commented Akio Takahata, leader of the Contemporary American Studies project’s working group on foreign and security issues and professor at Hakuoh University. “I was left with the impression that he simply relied on the briefing notes handed to him by staff members at the US embassy,” he said.

China has become one of America’s biggest creditors through purchases of Treasury bonds; the $800 billion China owned in 2009 rose to nearly $1.2 trillion by the end of 2010. “Given such economic interdependence, it would be unthinkable for the two countries to go to war,” Takahata said. “One worrisome statement Kerry made, though, during his Senate confirmation hearings in March was, ‘More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy.’ He also said that the United States should give thought to the impression that it’s trying to circle China. If these notions are going to define Kerry’s diplomacy, then I think Japan would be right in being a bit concerned.”

That said, the issue of Pyongyang’s threatening behavior cannot be resolved without China’s involvement. “There’s a need to gain China’s cooperation,” Takahata admitted, “but if the rebalancing is rebalanced too much, you wind up in the same place, and that would be meaningless.”

Kerry made “remarkable progress,” though, during the month between his confirmation hearings and his East Asia visit, commented Yoichi Kato, senior staff writer of the daily Asahi Shimbun . “When you go through the transcripts of his confirmation hearing, you realize he said very little about Asia,” Kato said. “In fact, he used the word ‘Far East’ instead ‘Asia-Pacific,’ suggesting he prescribed to a Euro-centric view of the world.”

While Kerry referred to “rebalancing” only once during his Tokyo speech, he talked at length about values, Kato noted, which seemed to be a message aimed at China. “His reference to ‘just growth’ suggests that Kerry will pursue ‘value-based diplomacy.’ At the same time, he also hinted at a certain level of flexibility, referring to the ‘opportunities’ in the bilateral relationship with Beijing.”

Evolving Engagement Policy

The panelists also commented on the articles they contributed to a just-published book on America’s Rebalancing to Asia , edited by members of the Contemporary American Studies project. [2] Tsuneo Watanabe, who authored the book’s first chapter, described the historical evolution of America’s policy toward China, beginning with the 1972 visit to China by President Richard Nixon that triggered a paradigm shift from an ideologically driven policy of containment to a realist doctrine of engagement.

“While each new administration since Nixon appears to have adopted a different policy toward China, all have remained within the engagement paradigm,” Watanabe pointed out. “And it was this engagement policy that enabled China to register remarkable growth and emerge as a major power.”

There are distinct groups within the engagement camp, though, and successive administrations have embraced one group over another. “The first seeks harmonization through stronger economic interdependence. The second promotes a balance of power. And the third, using national security logic, calls for hedges against potential risks.”

At the outset of the Obama administration, there were expectations that China would become a more cooperative player, working with the United States for global governance under a “Group of Two” framework, said Watanabe. “These expectations were betrayed following a series of provocative and assertive actions by China in 2010, resulting in Hilary Clinton’s speech at the ASEAN Regional Forum, where she noted that the peaceful resolution of competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea was a US ‘national interest.’”

Another factor that has affected America’s China policy is the budget deficit, particularly the prospect of going over the fiscal cliff. “Defense spending will have to be severely curtailed over the next decade, and there’s a need to make strategic choices about the use of limited fiscal resources. The Defense Strategic Guidance, issued by the Obama administration in January 2012, clearly stated that the United States would continue to maintain a military presence in the Asia-Pacific despite budgetary constraints, so this will have major implications for the role Japan plays as Washington’s key alliance partner in the region.”

Does the tougher stance toward China signal a major policy shift? “Obama began his first term hoping to forge a more cooperative relationship, but he has since been incorporating more balancing and hedging elements,” Watanabe noted.

“China may contend that the balancing and hedging steps like those to strengthen ties with India or advance the TPP represent Cold War, containment tactics, but inasmuch as these options do not, as a matter of principle, exclude China, they are neither meant to contain China nor based on Cold War thinking. They do assert a level of pressure on China, though, and hopefully China can be induced into making positive choices.”

Shared Regional Leadership?

With the exception of China, the consensus among Asia-Pacific countries is that they welcome a stronger US regional presence, said Kato, drawing on the comments made at an October 2012 workshop for security experts from 14 Asia-Pacific countries hosted by the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. Kato was among the 25 participants at the workshop and based his chapter in America’s Rebalancing on the discussions conducted there.

Kato pointed out, though, that some countries were somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that the rebalance appears to be not so much a reaction to the changes in regional security conditions as a product of domestic political needs in the United States, namely, the question of where to focus the country’s resources following a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“There was no perceived strategic need for US forces to be redeployed from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific,” Kato noted, “and participants also expressed considerable skepticism over whether the rebalance was feasible, given that the situation in the Middle East was far from stable and that fiscal restraints would prevent a significant increase in the number of ships deployed in the Asia-Pacific.”

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In a recent interview with former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Kato was told that the biggest shortcoming of the rebalancing policy was the lack of confidence-building efforts with the Chinese leadership. “Rudd told me that without such measures, the policy was unlikely to contribute to regional stability.” Rudd and others like Hugh White of Australian National University believe that China and the United States should share regional leadership, instead of competing for primacy. “This power-sharing idea is extremely unpopular in Washington, though,” Kato said, “both among Democrats and Republicans. Neither party has any intention of giving up leadership in the Asia-Pacific, in spite of the scarce fiscal resources. As long as this thinking prevails in Washington, it will continue to look to Japan for support. So the real question we in Japan should be asking is what we can do to meet such expectations and what response would be in our best national interests.”

The Japan-US alliance is quite unusual in that it does not require Japan to fight on America’s side in case the latter is attacked, added Fumiaki Kubo. “So what does America gain from the alliance? It gets to use bases on Japanese soil designed to protect not only Japan but also US interest in East Asia. It also uses the bases to deploy forces that are used in military operations around the world, which is very much in line with US interests.” From the American perspective, therefore, Kubo said, Japan will continue to be an important ally, regardless of who becomes secretary of state of president.


[1] Reference to the famous anecdote about the leadership styles of three sixteenth century warlords—Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Confronted with a cuckoo that wouldn’t sing, Nobunaga said that he would kill it, Hideyoshi that he would make it sing, and Ieyasu that he would wait until it sang. Ieyasu founded the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled Japan for four centuries until the Meiji Restoration.

[2] Fumiaki Kubo, Akio Takahata, and the Tokyo Foundation Contemporary American Studies Project, eds., Ajia kaiki suru Amerika: Gaiko anzen hosho seisaku no kensho (America’s Rebalancing to Asia: Evaluating the Foreign and National Security Policy of the Obama Administration) (Tokyo: NTT Publishing, 2013).

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