Calling America, from Asia: A dispatch from Japan

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2014 - 7:18 PM

A serious U.S. presence is badly needed, experts told me during a visit to Japan, where debate over a proper global role is ongoing.

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The East China Sea: A Chinese coast guard vessel, top, sailed along a Japanese coast guard ship near the disputed islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. It has been reported that the U.S. Navy believes China is preparing for a “short, sharp war.”

Photo: Kyodo News via Associated Press,

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Last October, while staring down Congress over the federal government’s partial shutdown, President Obama scuttled a planned trip to Asia — a quickly forgotten footnote in America. But from Tokyo to Bangkok, Obama’s no-show was a front-page, newscast-leading disappointment. It’s a measure of how easily we Americans, for all our overweening pride, underestimate and misunderstand our nation’s importance in the world.

This week, Obama will at last move his diplomatic “pivot to Asia” from rhetoric to reality as he visits Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia. He will encounter a worried region, haunted by a tragic past and tense in the face of a troubled present, and much in need of reassurance.

That was the clear consensus from experts in and out of government whom I interviewed on a March trip to Tokyo and Hiroshima that was coordinated by the independent Foreign Press Center of Japan. In dozens of discussions, the consistent theme was that America’s pivot can’t come soon enough.

“The government of Japan very much welcomes the pivot policy of the Obama administration,” said Hirotaka Ishihara, parliamentary vice-minister for foreign affairs. Yasuhiro Kobe, director of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, added that “the security situation surrounding Asia has been becoming tougher, and in that sense we need more presence and more deterrence by U.S. forces in the region.”

The call for “more presence” may in part be a polite plea for something more. The West’s tepid response to Russian aggression in Crimea makes many wary in Japan. So does a perception that Obama was unserious about Syria’s chemical weapons attack.

“The Obama administration is not doing such a good job maintaining its credibility — it undermined it for no good reason,” said Dr. Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. Obama’s blurred “red line” was read in Asia as “a lack of commitment, determination, coherence and consistency. … If you are a superpower symbolism is very important.”

American credibility is crucial to a worried Asia, contending with the threat of a nuclear North Korea and the challenge of China’s emergence as a global power. Every signal matters.

“The rise of China and the relative decline of the U.S. and Japan and the regional power shift going on is causing a lot of trouble, and is the fundamental reason why this region is becoming quite tense,” said Michishita.

Tensions run particularly high around the East China Sea. In a November decision that stunned the region and the United States, China unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over disputed, uninhabited islands that both Japan and China claim. The ADIZ covers airspace claimed not just by Japan, but by South Korea and Taiwan as well.

While the United States hasn’t taken a stand on ownership, its stand with Japan via a defense pact might compel military involvement for U.S. forces if China miscalculates. In February, it was reported that the U.S. Navy believes China was preparing for a “short sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea.”

“China is increasing its power and sometimes they have tried to change the status quo with possible use of force,” said Kenko Sone, director of the First North America Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Rethinking the constitution

But China is hardly the only Asian power whose perceived muscle flexing unnerves its neighbors. Another is … Japan. Memories of World War II, which may be fading in America with the aging and passing of the G.I. generation, are painfully alive in Asia.

Many in China and across the continent who suffered under Japan’s brutal wartime occupation worry that Tokyo might also alter the regional status quo if Japan reinterprets its postwar constitution to allow for what’s called collective self-defense. It basically means that Japanese armed forces could act jointly with allies in the event war was forced upon it.

The United States imposed the pacifist provision of Japan’s constitution after the war. But today American officials support Japan’s public mulling of whether to reinterpret it, or even revise (amend) it. And Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government seems to believe that such a shift might be a stabilizing, not destabilizing, event for the region.

“Whatever we do will be an extension of our principle as a pacifist, peace-loving nation,” said Ishihara, the parliamentary vice-minister. “We will continue to provide transparent, elaborate explanations in order for [neighboring nations] to understand and support.” Describing a hypothetical situation in which Japanese peacekeeping troops, under the constitution as currently understood, could not come to the aid of U.S. forces under attack, he said such a limitation “runs counter to global common sense.”

Michishita agrees, but he favors formal revision, not reinterpretation, in order to preserve the constitution’s credibility. He believes Japan owes a new more self-reliant posture to its allies, under whose military umbrella the nation has lived for seven decades. “We have been living in this very comfortable and convenient situation,” he says. “Unless we do this, we will continue to get criticism that Japan is a free rider.”

That’s not the criticism coming from Japan’s Asian neighbors, however. Generations after the war, history — and in some cases, histrionics — have renewed anger at Japan. Chinese officials have ratcheted up the rhetoric, and in South Korea the emotional debate is over “comfort women” — South Korean women and girls who were forced into prostitution by occupying Japanese forces.

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  • Narushige Michishita: The director of an international studies program, he believes that the rise of China and relative decline of the U.S. and Japan contribute to tensions.

  • Sunao Tsuboi: A survivor on the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, he believes that “being nationalistic can be dangerous. Everyone has to think about borderless countries.”

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