Benign neglect at work?

After President Barack Obama met with Prime Minister Aso Taro at the White House in February, I suggested that " the administration may be prepared to follow through on an unstated policy of benign neglect: having given Japan its assignments (civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan, progress on realignment, etc.), the administration will now turn its attention elsewhere."

In recent weeks there have been several more indications that this is the Obama administration's preferred course of action on Japan policy. It is increasingly clear that the new administration will place less emphasis on the prevailing agenda of alliance transformation that pressures Japan to revise its constitution and play a more assertive security role regionally and globally, an approach to the alliance that requires more effort than the Obama administration will be capable of mustering for the foreseeable future — effort that would be wasted on a Japan in the midst of political transition and uncertain about what role it will play as a security actor, if any.

The first sign comes from Asahi, which reported last week that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Japan in February, Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu suggested that the US and Japan should issue a new joint security declaration like the declaration signed by Hashimoto Ryutaro and Bill Clinton in 1996. Hamada argued that a new declaration would be "a good opportunity to reconsider the alliance's ultimate significance and the way the alliance ought to be," particularly in light of new security challenges and the alliance's fiftieth anniversary in 2010. Clinton, Asahi reports, avoided saying anything in response to Hamada's proposal. Hamada plans to raise this idea in a forthcoming meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates while visiting Washington during Golden Week.

It is possible that Clinton's non-response is reflective of the state of the administration's Asia policy team. The nomination of Wallace Gregson as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs was only sent to the Senate on Monday of this week, Kurt Campbell has been cleared to succeed Chris Hill as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific but his nomination has not been submitted to the Senate yet, and while Mainichi has become the latest Japanese newspaper to report on Joseph Nye's appointment as ambassador to Japan, there is still nothing official on Nye's appointment. But that said, there are few signs that the Obama administration will be devoting political capital to drafting a new security declaration when the old one is serviceable and, more importantly, when there is so much uncertainty regarding who would be signing the declaration on behalf of the government of Japan. Why spend the time and energy drafting a largely symbolic document only to have a Prime Minister Ozawa come into office and demand substantial revisions or oppose the declaration altogether? For the foreseeable future the Obama administration will be doing all it can to fix long-standing problems (cf. Cuba) while containing newer and more dangerous challenges — and the US-Japan alliance is neither broke nor in danger of breaking.

That explains the neglect.

The administration also showed the "benign" portion of benign neglect last week when Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said unambiguously in an appearance at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo that the US does not want Japan to send troops to Afghanistan, but would rather Japan devote its efforts to shoring up the Afghan government and economy. The Obama administration will not be ignoring Japan — far from it. Instead it will look to Japan to help the US solve urgent problems within Japan's constitutional limits, much as Secretary Clinton said in her speech to the Asia Society in February. The result will be a relationship that is perhaps less "special" than it was when George W. Bush was escorting Koizumi Junichiro to Graceland, not least because, as David Rothkopf writes, the US needs "to cooperate with China on everything." But it will be something more than Japan passing. The Obama administration appears to be simply lowering the bar in light of both Japan's short-term political constraints and its longstanding institutional constraints.

I do not think that this approach will be temporary, for reasons that I will outline in a future post.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: