Saturday, November 7, 2009

Cornerstone, Lynchpin, Band-Aid

President Barack Obama is expected in Tokyo shortly (November 12-13). By any analysis, the American and Japanese leaders will not have much to discuss. The best they can try for is to make some sort of personal connection.

The military/security relationship is on hold. Uncomfortable agreements between the LDP and the U.S. Governments are exposed nearly daily. Washington takes for granted that Tokyo will pay grandly for reconstruction aid in Afghanistan and is thus unimpressed. Surprised by the disagreement over the Futenma relocation, the Obama Administration is unlikely to expend any political capital to press on the social, historical, and economic issues (child abduction, American POWs of Japan, yen manipulation, trade barriers) that now gnaw prominently at the U.S.-Japan relationship.

Since the second term of the Clinton Administration, the U.S. has largely confined its interactions with Japan to the management of a security relationship. Tamped down were issues of Japanese economic manipulation, trade dumping, industrial espionage, tax evasion, and failure to abide by international standards. These were all unimportant in an effort to create a reliable, economically stable military partner in East Asia that can counter China and its satellites.

Now, the cork is out the bottle, so to speak. Everything is up for discussion. Both the Americans and Japanese might be surprised as to what constitutes an "equal" relationship to the other. If Japan defines "equal" as pursuing issues of human as opposed to military security, it will find itself viewed as wanting as it did when it only the issue of collective security was a problem. And for the Americans, the broad range of difficulties between the U.S. and Japan will extend far beyond the abilities of any small group of managers who move effortlessly between parties and administrations.

Thus, it may be welcome by all if President Obama had to cut to one day his Tokyo visit in order to attend the memorial service for the slain soldiers at Ft. Hood. As you can see from the White House Press Briefing on Friday, November 6th, not much is expected of the President's trip to Asia and honoring sharing the country's grief with the Ft Hood families is a greater priority.

Q One other question on the Asia trip. He's making several stops. But when the President comes back, is there anything at all that he wants to come back with? Is there an issue --

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that the President is going to have an opportunity over the course of this trip to meet with important -- important leaders. Obviously, we start in Japan. We will go to APEC. We will visit China before going to South Korea and home. You can understand what I think the President will be discussing -- I should mention, at APEC, there will likely be some important bilateral meetings. I think what will be on the docket will obviously be the health of the world economy. We will discuss, obviously, North Korea. I anticipate Iran will come up in meetings. Nonproliferation obviously will be something that is discussed, certainly as it relates to those two previous countries that I mentioned. And, finally, energy and climate change will also be part of what's discussed. I know we delayed a briefing call on this. It was originally supposed to be today. We'll probably do that likely some time early on Monday.

Q But are you looking to get anything at all, reassurance from one of these leaders about any one of these issues? Anything in particular that you're looking --

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I'll wait for the call to go through exactly what we see as part of each day on this. Again, I think you've got a very important part of the world to our economy and to the economies that we're going to see. I think obviously economic health and well-being and jobs will be a significant part of this. Yes, sir.

Q On Fort Hood, you said that when a service is scheduled, he will attend?


Q Did I understand that -- you mean, before or after the Asia trip?

MR. GIBBS: I anticipate -- we will attend a memorial service at Fort Hood when it is scheduled. I anticipate that that will likely happen prior to Asia. But again, this is, again, somewhat in flux based on the scheduling of this -- there are families that would have to come in from all over the United States, and our schedule is -- will be formed around that.

Q And they're not building the schedule around his schedule, I take it, for memorial services, as far as you know.

MR. GIBBS: We have communicated with the Department of Defense that our schedule is built around the families that suffered tragic losses yesterday.

Q Well, if they were to delay it until Tuesday or Wednesday or something like that, he could end up changing his schedule on the Asia trip.

MR. GIBBS: We anticipate going to Asia, and we anticipate -- we will got to a memorial service. I hate to get into hypotheticals --

Q Right, but you're not ruling out the possibility of changing the departure.

MR. GIBBS: I'm not ruling -- I'd prefer to talk about the schedule when we have a better sense of its formation.

Earlier in the day, National Security Council Asia Director Jeffrey Bader gave a speech at Brookings. He was not much more hopeful for any great progress. He emphasized the personal and focused still on the security alliance:

With new governments in place the time is ripe for our resilient alliance to be reaffirmed. The foreign policy platform of the Democratic Party of Japan called for a more equal partnership with the U.S. It raised questions about the Futenma replacement facility on Okinawa, about the future of refueling provided to allies fighting in Afghanistan, and about other aspects of the security relationship. Six or seven weeks into its debut in governance, the new Japanese leadership is assessing all these questions. At the same time, Prime Minister Hatoyama has said repeatedly that he considers the alliance with the U.S. as the key relationship in Japanese foreign policy.

President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama had a warm meeting in New York and spoke on the phone, getting their relationship off to a good start. In their meeting last month in the U.N., and in subsequent high level meetings, we demonstrated that we can listen to a critically important ally, understand its political needs, and articulate our thinking in ways that we hope will be persuasive to Tokyo.

Our approach is meant to ensure that the alliance is not reduced to a series of difficult negotiations and transactions when in fact it is a bond understood as critical to both our nations requiring sacrifices of narrow self interest. We will need to be persistent and clear as we deal with some of the complex alliance issues in the months ahead. As we do so, we both need to keep our eye on the larger picture, that is how much the U.S.- Japan Alliance means for both of us, both regionally and globally. American’s should not forget what Japan does on global issues is often critically important to us. Besides the U.S. there has been no larger contributor, for example, in foreign assistance to Pakistan and Afghanistan than Japan. Japan is a model of energy efficiency and is playing an important role in the climate change negotiations.

Fortunately, the President will return from Asia with his decision on Afghanistan and a new news cycle will begin.

Later: The U.S. government has asked Japan if the President's visit can be pushed to one day, Friday to allow the President to attend the memorial at Ft. Hood.

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