An economic and cultural 'pivot'
Two concurrent efforts reflect the Obama administration's strategic turn toward the Asia-Pacific region. One, the so-called "pivot" (rebranded as "rebalancing" by the State Department) from the Mideast to East Asia, has been diplomatically difficult because of the chronic crises afflicting the Mideast. The other, the planned pact to expand and ease trade between 12 Pacific nations that comprise an estimated 40 percent of the global economy, shows more promise. It still won't be easy to ink the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), given the intense individual interests unique to industries in each country. But the potential economic and employment benefits of freer trade many trump parochial interests.
Walter Mondale, the former vice president who also served as U.S. ambassador to Japan, hopes that's the case. "We like to think relationships between nations are diplomatic. But if you have healthy trade, commerce and all that goes with it, you have a strong underpinning of a relationship," he said in an interview.
That strong underpinning was underscored last Saturday at the Mondale Award and Scholarship Dinner, held by the Japan America Society. At a pre-event luncheon, Mondale and Masaharu Yoshida, the Consul General of Japan at Chicago, commented on the international initiatives.
"From our point-of-view, putting some emphasis on Asia-Pacific is quite welcome, together with the TPP, strategically, economically and for trade," Yoshida said.
The dual diplomatic and economic efforts are partly in response to China's rise, which has changed and challenged the status quo within the region, as well as with Washington.
Beyond diplomacy and trade, culture connects people, too — especially in Minnesota, said Ben van Lierop, executive director of the Japan America Society of Minnesota. Indeed, many Minnesotans never pivoted away from Japan: The sister-city partnership between St. Paul and Nagasaki is the oldest such relationship in America, van Lierop said.
Saturday's dinner had record attendance, partly due to culture. The Mondale Award winner, Yoshie Suzuki Babcock, teaches the timeless art of flower arrangement.
The recent rise in Japan's economy, the renewed emphasis on its geopolitical importance and its continual cultural pull suggest that after pivoting, the United States is unlikely to turn away again anytime soon.