CFR-ASAHI SYMPOSIUM (4) / Speech by Sheila Smith, senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

December 16, 2011

'Japan-U.S. alliance in a regional context'

It's delightful to be back, at a moment where Japan does seem more calm and over the worst of the initial response to that crisis. But, I do think that it has proved an important moment for our two societies and for the relationship, and that is for all the political tensions of transitions, et cetera, that this is a profoundly strong relationship and one that's based not just on government action, but this deeper friendship between our two people.

I think the biggest point that I was asked to talk about, the U.S.-Japan alliance and regional relations, and of course this has been the year of regional diplomacy, so I sort of wondered how I can capsulate in 10 minutes everything that's been transpiring in the last several weeks, let alone this last year.

But I thought the key thing that I came away with and I thought I would talk to you a little bit about today, which our speakers previously have already noted, is the moment that we're in today and what it means for the U.S.-Japan alliance. It's not just about the region and about the specific policy adaptations or pivots, but it's really about our ability to adapt and to devise a bilateral relationship that can respond adequately.

And I think we all understand that the United States and Japan have gone through transitions before. We've gone through policy changes and shifts and adaptations before.

But, I think the U.S.-Japan relationship has had the luxury, if you will, of being able to do that incrementally, slowly, with a certain amount of deliberation. I think some of that luxury is gone, and I think we need to understand that our two societies, individually and together, now, are being asked to respond to events much, much more quickly, to understand each other much, much more thoroughly, and to devise policies, together, that are difficult to implement. And, much more so than in the past.

I think these last several years, in the region, in Northeast Asia in particular but more broadly, in the Asia-Pacific, has forced us to focus on rather abrupt, less predictable, kinds of changes than we've had to imagine in the past. Events of 2010, specifically on the Korean Peninsula, have woken us up, again, to the possibility of conflict there, but also woken us up to the need to be able to talk to each other more extensively about how to respond to these kinds of changes.

The issue last fall, with the Chinese fishing trawler in the waters around the Senkakus, also woke us up to some of the areas which the U.S. and Japan had sort of put aside, that we didn't really need to talk about too much, because they were slightly difficult to talk about. But, I think our two countries were forced, with last September, to really come to terms with where we needed clarity in our policy and how we communicated that to Beijing as well.

And I think even these political transitions that have happened here in Tokyo have been quicker than we're used to keeping up with, in Washington, and I think it's important that, again, we come, the people here in this group, but others as well, that we come to talk about these transitions and understand them better, and I think that's the effect of dealing with more abrupt and less predictable changes -- [it] offers us a significant opportunity to re-imagine the way the alliance works, and the way we talk to each other about policy choices.

Let me talk a little bit about some of the issues, and then come back to some of the larger changes that I think Dr. Haass and Dr. Funabashi began our conversation with this afternoon.

Those of us outside of Japan watched the events in the aftermath of March 11th from a distance, of course, but also understood that, if any society in the world was prepared for the immensity and the complexity of the triple disasters in March, it was Japan. And I know that there's been a long, strong, efforts -- and I think Dr. Funabashi's initiative is very well founded -- to investigate what went wrong, what needs to be corrected and revised and revamped in terms of crisis management here in Japan, but I think, for most of us outside the country, this is a society that had prepared for disaster, natural disaster, that had prepared well, and yet, even then nature presented the government and the society with a much, much more complex agenda than Japanese and Americans were prepared to cope with.

I think the U.S. and Japanese governments, together, acted very quickly. I think we watched both our civilian and military uniformed officials respond in ways that had been imagined, in ways that many of us hadn't. And I spoke to many of the uniformed officers, in both sides, who worked afterwards, and they said that they had planned and planned for contingencies over the years, that there were plans on paper, but the extent of operational jointness and operational cooperation that was required in the aftermath of March 11th was unprecedented.

So, this is a relationship that has been planning and preparing for emergencies for some time, and yet we have been tested this year, I think, in a very strong way. I think that test, as everybody notes, has been met with great courage, but also with a very dedicated commitment on the part of both governments.

So, I think we spent many years of thinking about the "what ifs" of crisis, crisis management and crisis implementation. I think we've recognized Japan's strength, as we come out of the events of March 11th, and I think we also worry, outside the country, about whether or not Japan is now facing a much more focused look inwards, at remedying some of the issues that were raised, both before March 11th and afterwards.

And I think most of us, outside the country, are hoping that you'll be able to have this revision, or review, or rethinking of some of your domestic challenges, but also still being able to partner effectively with the United States and others around the region, in the months and years to come.

The policy adaptations that we'll have to think about together I'll talk about in just a second, but let me talk a little bit about the conversation in Washington right now, about the region, and about the set of policy adaptations that our government is attempting to implement.

Most of this, of course, we've heard about in Secretary Clinton's article in Foreign Policy, in broader statements, of course, about the "pivot." That word is the new buzzword in Washington. But, it's a turning away from events in the Middle East and elsewhere, and to really put American energies in focus, on the Asia-Pacific region.

Building regional institutions or helping to build regional institutions, now, is of paramount concern to our government policymakers. You saw that at TPP, but you also see it in the broader APEC conversation as well.

The East Asia Summit, this was, of course, the first year for the United States to participate, to be a guest at the table at the East Asian Summit, and it was something that our President was very committed to attending, and also playing an active role at.

I think the second series of initiatives really focus on developing shared norms and rules for managing regional relations, not American rules, so I'm going to avoid using the word "Caesar" here. But, I think the U.S. intent here is to be a partner, to be a participant in, the development of norms and rules for managing the regional relationships in the Asia-Pacific. And that's important in trade and investment, of course, but it's also very important in maritime transit and security issues as well.

And then finally, and I think you see this most obviously recently, is in the Burma visit by Secretary Clinton, but that is in trying to support the positive transitions that are under way in the region, the rise of new economic powers, and the democratization impulses that you see throughout the region, and especially today, in a very exciting way I think, in Burma.

So, the U.S. government, today, is looking at ways the United States can be a participant in the transformations on-going and can be a partner in the growing need for a multilateral management of the region.

I think, for Japan and the United States, it's important that we think not just passively about the transitions that are going on, but also about shaping the kinds of institutions, the kinds of norms, the kinds of relationships that we want to be a part of. This is an on-going process, and I think the United States and Japan can cooperate here effectively, if we continue to have this conversation about where our goals are and what our priorities ought to be.

I think the bilateral focus of the relationship is something, perhaps, that we need to leave in the past, and we need to think about our relationship much more in this evolving regional context.

Japan, I think, ought to and could play a central role in capacity building for maritime security, for the development of regional institutions on nuclear safety, and to support the rule of law and democracy. I feel a little bit that Japan needs to be more of the active advocate than the bridge builder, so I may have a different language for thinking about Japan's role, not only in our relationship but also regionally.

But, I think most of us, outside the country, are looking for Japan in that role of being an active advocate for the kind of region, the kind of environment, the kind of neighborhood, that Japan wants to create.

I think Japan also has always played a critical role in demonstrating the advantages of taking alternative paths. A non-nuclear Japan has been and will continue to be, I think, a model for many nations around the globe, and I think it's in that capacity that Japan's future engagement and leadership in the discussion, both regionally and globally, on nuclear safety is so important.

But I think Japan also, for countries like Burma, for other countries who are also moving, and perhaps even for activists in China, Japan can also demonstrate to the rest of the region the advantages of a democratic society, and I don't think Japan should shy away from those values.

Japan has partners around the region, and I think in the wake of the Senkaku, the Chinese fishing trawler, incident, it was very clear to most of us the commonalities that we shared with Japan in trying to navigate these very difficult transitions with China. But, Japan has partners not specific to the China issue, but Japan has partners within ASEAN, has strong partnerships within ASEAN, and has had, for its postwar diplomacy.

India -- I was just in New Delhi about 10 days or so ago -- and I was amazed at the intensity of the interest in Delhi in a Japan-India, heightened, strategic dialogue, and perhaps even a trilateral conversation with the United States as well.

But, hopefully, China will also be the kind of partner that Japan needs it to be, and I think that's the one place where Japan ought to be very careful, as it begins to navigate these rather difficult moments with China, in the same way that the United States has to as well, but very careful to understand that China ought to be a partner, and in continuing to work on the circumstances in which China can be an effective partner is going to be a large part of Japan's diplomatic challenges ahead.

So, in conclusion, let me say one last thing about the longer-term transformations and, again, both Dr. Haass and Dr. Funabashi touched on these.

So, my sense is that sensitivities in China are very, very high, and that those sensitivities -- that Japan can be confident and patient with those sensitivities, as it's trying to forge this partnership with China.

I think the cancellation of the summit meeting yesterday was a surprise to many, but clearly the domestic conditions within China are, perhaps, the right explanation for why this happened. But, the "benefit of the doubt" here, I think, is a very important part of Japan's diplomacy with China, recognizing that the next 18 months, in particular, will be a very difficult transition.

I think there are shorter-term transitions too, in Northeast Asia, that we should all be prepared for, in 2012. We all know that there are leadership changes across the region, in Taiwan, in Russia, the United States, South Korea, as well as the Chinese transition. And nationalistic impulses, reactive nationalisms, tend to come to the fore, most obviously in political campaigns and moments of contested leadership.

We have the economic challenges that others have mentioned, but what I hear an awful lot about when people come to talk to me in Washington these days, is about budgetary constraints in the United States, and whether or not that will constrain the American ability to be a full partner to Japan and to others as well.

There's a very specific worry, I think, about American military capabilities in the region, and that gets expressed to us a lot. I think Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta have both tried to reassure the region. But, I think we should wait and see how the budgetary conversation unfolds before we make any assumptions about changes in the American force posture, or in the American alliance commitment.

So, in conclusion, what does this all mean for the United States and Japan as we look forward? I think we need to understand what we've learned, especially from March 11 cooperation, from the events of 2010 as well, but I think we have a good, solid, foundation to build upon, a lessons learned approach, to improving alliance coordination.

I think we need to move forward with our steady process of updating our strategic review of the alliance. I think we need to have not a burden sharing interpretation of what this moment might be, but rather look at the relationship, the strategic relationship, more as a chance for us to think about our complementarities, what Japan can do, what the United States can do, and to eliminate some of the redundancies, not just in expenditures but in ways in which, perhaps, we can more offer a partnership that's more complementary in our regional goals.

And finally, I think others have said it but I think it bears saying one more time again, I think here in Japan we've watched, all of us who've watched Japan from the outside, have watched the historic political transition with great anticipation, with high expectations, but have also watched the frustrations that have attended this transition.

And I think, for many of the goal that we've outlined here today and continue to talk about in terms of foreign policy, a stable, consistent, and determined effort at reaching across political boundaries is going to be necessary, here in Tokyo. Otherwise, the Japanese government, I think, will be very handicapped in its ability to think about its foreign policy goals and to act strategically in the region and beyond.

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Sheila Smith (Photo by Hikaru Uchida)

Sheila Smith (Photo by Hikaru Uchida)

  • Sheila Smith (Photo by Hikaru Uchida)

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