The U.S.-Japan Alliance and America First: Coping with Change in the Indo-Pacific

Daniel Russel at Johns Hopkins SAIS 2019 Reischauer Lecture

The following is ASPI Vice President of International Security and Diplomacy Daniel Russel's full remarks at Johns Hopkins SAIS 2019 Reichauer Lecture on November 19, 2019.

Thank you for the introduction, Professor Calder.

It’s an honor to be back at SAIS to deliver the 2019 Reischauer Lecture and a special treat to see some of my former State Department bosses and colleagues in the audience.

I had the honor of working closely with a friend, successor, and close contemporary of Edwin Reischauer – Ambassador Mansfield. Or “Private” Mike Mansfield as he chose to be memorialized.

A further honor, when I was a newly minted Foreign Service Officer, miraculously assigned to Embassy Tokyo for my first tour, and even more miraculously assigned as Ambassador Mansfield’s staff assistant… was to be included in a dinner that Mansfield hosted for Edwin and Haru Reischauer during a visit in 1985.

So, surely there is no better way to begin my remarks to you today than by recounting the prescient, insightful, and highly erudite conversation between these titans of the U.S.-Japan relationship?

Unfortunately, all that I can remember about the dinner was being completely and paralyzingly awestruck at the exalted company, the elegant surroundings, the glittering silver, the sparkling crystal, and the intense challenge as an aspiring diplomat of ascertaining which fork and spoon I should be using at any given course, and therefore don’t remember a single word that was exchanged that entire evening.

But notwithstanding that lapse, the convictions that guided Reischauer and Mansfield, both about the value of a strong U.S.-Japan relationship and the importance of genuine, mutual understanding, had an immense impact on me personally and professionally that continues to this day.

They were both inspiring but unpretentious role models – showing respect for others, cherishing their life partners, and combining loyalty, candor, and even constructive dissent, in public service. (I don’t have to persuade this audience how precious those qualities are at this juncture in our nation’s development.)

Reischauer wrote persuasively in his famous essay, “The Broken Dialogue”, of our “unspoken assumptions” about one another that serve as barriers to true understanding. To his immense credit as Ambassador, he reached out to all segments of Japanese society, both to listen …and to speak honestly.

Both Mansfield and Reischauer had a rare talent for listening.

I can still hear Mike Mansfield’s voice and see him taking a puff on his pipe and saying, “Dan, always listen to the other guy. You never know… maybe he’s right!”

And they both fit the wonderful Will Rogers definition of a diplomat as “someone who can tell you to go to hell …in a way that makes you look forward to the trip!” Not through flattery or oratory, but by being honest, direct and sincere.

Let me see if I can emulate these two mentors by being honest, direct and sincere with you: because now it’s the world that seems to be going to Hell, and none of us are looking forward to the trip!

I’m not just talking about the daunting list of hotspots, issues, and challenges facing Japan, the Alliance, and the region – I’ll get to those in a moment.

I’m talking about the fact that the United States and China are careening towards a toxic form of strategic rivalry that seriously threatens the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific Region and beyond.

The “broken dialogue” now is between Washington and Beijing – the trade war, the tech war, the influence war, the visa war, the supply chain war – “decoupling” …all these carry immense risks to all parties, particularly those like Japan that have important ties to both powers.

On the one hand, you’ve got China’s rapid growth along multiple lines of national power, combined with an unprecedented pattern of increasingly assertive behavior.

On the other hand, you have a shift in Washington’s priorities and behavior under the “America First” doctrine, that has called into question its commitment to the region, its commitment to longstanding shared values, and by extension, the viability of the “liberal international order”.

This double punch is unleashing immense anxieties, particularly in the Asia-Pacific Region but in South Asia and Europe as well, and is helping to drive a process of realignment and adaptation that looks like it will lead to consequential, long-lasting structural changes – changes that are quite worrisome from the perspective of universal rights, norms, and rules.

So against that backdrop, I’d like to take a look at two things in particular:

  • How is the U.S.-Japan relationship doing?
  • And what is Japan doing in the Indo-Pacific region to hold things together while the U.S. is AWOL?

I have to begin by saying how proud I am to have been part of the bipartisan effort to strengthen the foundation of the U.S.-Japan relationship and alliance, first in the Bush Administration, and then during the eight years of the Obama Administration.

Regarding the Rebalance to Asia, you could say it began with the visit of the first foreign leader to meet with President Obama in the Oval Office – within a month of his inauguration in 2009 – Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso.

From that point forward, we consistently demonstrated that the first pillar of the Rebalance strategy was strengthening and modernizing America’s alliances – and Japan was, as the saying goes, the “cornerstone.”

But our contribution also included holding it together through the turbulence of the DPJ Hatoyama government’s “Isosceles triangle” of equidistant relations with Washington and Beijing, and irresponsible statements about moving the Marine bases out of Okinawa.

And holding it together through the “nejire kokkai”, the revolving door years – Aso, Hato, Kan, Noda, Abe – five Prime Ministers in Obama’s first five years. That’s a lot of first dates. That’s a lot of starting over from scratch. A lot of “call me Barack.”

We worked through the tragedy of 3/11 that produced Operation Tomodachi – and the extreme challenge of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Reactor disaster that put the relationship to a critical test.

And we decisively strengthened U.S.-Japan relations through the powerful demonstrations of reconciliation that marked the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII:

  • Prime Minister Abe’s 2015 State Visit and his landmark address to a joint meeting of Congress,
  • Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima the following spring,
  • And their powerful, joint visit to Pearl Harbor later that year.

And beyond these dramatic and extraordinary milestones, beyond the shared investment in reconciliation, our two countries made immense progress on an array of substantive issues ranging from the new Joint Defense Guidelines, to the Trans-Pacific-Partnership (TPP), to unprecedented trilateral cooperation with Korea enabled by the 2015 “Comfort Women” agreement and the 2016 GSOMIA agreement.

On that subject, it’s worth reminding ourselves that Reischauer considered his greatest achievement as Ambassador having facilitated normalization of relations between Japan and Korea.

These things I mentioned, as well as some subsequent areas of progress made in the Trump administration, have all enhanced the resilience of the Alliance and improved its capacity to deal with many of the formidable challenges facing us both in the coming decades.

I would also point out that the quality of our alliance has benefited from important steps taken by the Japanese government in recent years:

  1. the creation of Japan’s National Security Council, ably led for the first 5+ years by Shotaro Yachi;
  2. the launching of Japan’s annual National Security Strategy, which presents a coherent and coordinated set of priorities;
  3. the reinterpretation of the Constitution to allow for a limited right of collective self-defense;
  4. the Security Legislation that enabled expanded overseas deployment by the Self-Defense Forces;
  5. and the adoption of an Official Secrets Act, which protects Japan’s classified information and has permitted the U.S. to share ours.

These measures have incalculably improved and expanded our ability to work together on security and on other strategic issues.

But it’s not just security: it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that the U.S. and Japan have much more than a military alliance. Broadly speaking, we have a political and an economic alliance as well.

On the economic front, it is true that the current administration’s threat (and use) of tariffs against Japan has created considerable resentment.

But despite that, the two governments did ultimately manage to resurrect many of the agricultural provisions of TPP in their recent bilateral trade deal and, more significantly, they reached agreement on a digital trade agreement that marks an important step in setting high-standard open internet rules. That’s a good thing.

Trump became the first head of state to meet with the new Emperor in the Reiwa era. That’s a good thing.

Today, there is still strong public support in the two countries for the Alliance, and continued positive public attitudes towards the other nation – that’s a good thing – even though the annual Pew survey shows that Japanese confidence in the U.S. president plummeted from 78% in 2016 to 30% in the most recent poll.

And of course, it’s widely perceived that Prime Minister Abe has pretty deftly avoided many of the pitfalls of dealing with Donald Trump, and deflected a number of potential threats to Japan’s interests…albeit not without some cost to his dignity.

Of course, it remains to be seen how Abe’s skill in damage control will fare in the upcoming negotiations over Host Nation Support. Judging by recent press reports that Trump’s opening bid is a five-fold increase, I guess the Tokyo Olympics aren’t the only games we’re going to be watching closely next year.

Overall, though, I think that an objective assessment of the Alliance Partnership shows that while there are tensions and clearly some high hurdles ahead, it remains multifaceted and it retains deep roots; it has a number of attributes that gives it resilience and enhances its effectiveness; it has become steadily stronger and more balanced in many key respects; and lastly, that there are powerful geostrategic imperatives – such as the behavior of a rising China – that increase our reliance on one another.

Now let me turn to the question of what sorts of challenges the U.S.-Japan partnership is up against.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that we are operating in a period of strategic uncertainty. One factor is the explosion of disruptive technologies and trends: the revolutions in robotics, information, communications, transportation, energy, automation, biotech, and artificial intelligence.

These are upending many familiar aspects of the social, economic, political, and security order in both countries.

Added to that are the cumulative downstream effects of globalization, such as climate change, extreme weather, mass migration, and pandemics – all these things create new vulnerabilities.

There is then the destabilizing impact of various non-state actors across a broad spectrum, from non-governmental movements and organizations to huge multinational firms that operate across borders, to terrorist groups and the growing list of menacing cyber threats.

Speaking of menacing threats, there is North Korea, under an emboldened Kim Jong Un, expanding an arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles with impunity.

And of course, there is the challenge from China.

First and foremost, there is the U.S.-China trade war, which is a serious threat to Asian economies – the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank have already lowered growth forecasts for the region.

More broadly, there’s the behavior of a more assertive China that has departed from the “hide and bide” orthodoxy of Deng Xiaoping. A China that is working overtly to build a position of decisive regional influence and that has demonstrated an inclination under Xi to use its growing power to undercut accepted rules and to coerce other countries.

Now, cataloging the impact of Chinese behavior and policies on the region is an entire speech in itself, and I don’t want the issue of China’s rise to crowd out the main topic of my remarks. My point here about China is just that its growth and behavior are driving significant geostrategic and geo-economic changes in the region, and secondly, that this is particularly dramatic because it comes in combination with the bewildering Trump phenomenon – the shift in a direction that is almost universally perceived as a weakening of the U.S. commitment to its historic values and to the Asia-Pacific region.

It’s as if the U.S. approach to the region suddenly shifted from “rebalanced” to “unbalanced.”

Let’s face it, “America First” is just not a banner that other countries can rally around. It’s not a recipe for united action. Our Asian friends say that the withdrawals from TPP, the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Deal, even the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia…These have all taken a toll on U.S. credibility in the region. As has skipping the East Asian Summit. As has deriding allies as “free riders.” As has the Commander in Chief talking of withdrawing U.S. troops because (as he put it) “Asia is not our neighborhood.”

So if the leader is tweeting and acting on America First, how seriously will other countries take “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) – the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy?

There is plenty to admire in FOIP. In fact, for someone like me who was deeply involved in the Rebalance, there’s a lot that is very familiar in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. But the fact remains that it’s hard to square with Trump’s message or behavior, that there are serious doubts in the region about FOIP implementation, and there are widespread reservations about its intensely anti-China cast.

So at a time when the region is being buffeted by all the trends that I have mentioned, there is extraordinary value in the ability and the willingness of Japan, as a stable and respected democracy, to sustain and expand its engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

For starters, Japan is perceived in regional surveys as “trustworthy and consistent.” Moreover, the Lowy Institute’s Index of the relative power of 25 countries in Asia identifies Japan as the region’s “top overachiever” – a quintessential smart power.

And under the Abe government – the author of the original “FOIP” – we’ve seen a surge in Japan’s activism in regional diplomacy.

Abe famously visited all ten Southeast Asian countries in his first year back in office, and has made it a point to attend every APEC meeting and every ASEAN Summit. Japan has put special emphasis on ASEAN, given its centrality to the regional Architecture as the “hinge” connecting the Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions.

Abe still maintains a high tempo of foreign travel, as well as regularly hosting foreign leaders: individually, and collectively in a variety of combinations. In just the past year, he hosted the G7 in Tokyo and the G20 in Osaka of course, but also other groups like the heads of the Pacific Island states and the leaders of the five Mekong River countries. When Xi Jinping visits Tokyo as expected this spring, nearly every leader in the region (except Kim Jong Un) will have made the trip to Japan.

In meetings and in public, Japan has been a strong advocate for a free, open, inclusive, and rules-based international order. This has included a heavy emphasis on international law, although admittedly less so on human rights. Nevertheless, Japan has a lot of credibility as a proponent of international law and universal norms and values.

In terms of regional security, Japan provides – and has expanded – important forms of support throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific. That includes significant contributions to regional Coast Guards, to developing maritime domain awareness, and in training programs that build practical skills and technical capacity. And based on my own experience, I think one of the reasons that Japan can be effective, is that much of this work is conducted cooperatively by multiple ministries, sometimes in collaboration with Japanese NGO’s.

We’ve seen the Self Defense Forces significantly increase joint exercises and training with regional partners and conducting naval drills in the South China Sea. This is matched by an uptick in Japanese defense diplomacy – including things like port calls and exchange programs – as well along with some security assistance, particularly with the littoral states.

We can see the Japan-Australia defense relationship shaping up to be the backbone of a durable security network that augments the alliances that each country has with the United States.

And at the same time, security cooperation with India is expanding, including through institutionalizing defense and other dialogues – a 2+2 meeting is coming up in a few weeks. And of course there is Malabar and other joint exercises, and (as with Australia) an uptick in defense technology and defense industry cooperation.

In the economic sphere, particularly given the rise of protectionism, I think there’s a broad recognition that Japan’s activism in trade and investment liberalization is particularly valuable. You don’t need me to tell you the story of Japan’s role in salvaging the TPP-11 from the debris left after the U.S. abandoned the TPP.

Another feature of this activism has been taking the initiative in multilateral institutions, like the important digital economy initiative at the Osaka G20 – “Data Free Flow with Trust”. 

Advocacy for open markets and efforts to promote improvement in a multilateral trade system are also important, but beyond that, Japan is putting its market where its mouth is: it now has some 14 free trade agreements or economic partnership agreements in the region, and that’s not counting either TPP-11 or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. 

There is also valuable innovation taking place in Japan in sectors like healthcare – turning its greying population into an asset because the lessons Japan is learning about “silver” populations, and the products and technology it’s developing for them, are widely applicable to the rest of the world.

Much of what Japan is contributing to the region comes from its substantial foreign direct investment (FDI) flows in the region, which continue an upward trend, particularly in the manufacturing and service sectors. Many people are surprised to learn that Japan’s overall stock of FDI in the region is greater than that of China.

Similarly, Japan is a huge source of development assistance, including official development assistance, throughout the Indo-Pacific. On top of that are initiatives that promote people-to-people and educational exchanges. Japan International Cooperation Agency, for example, launched a scholarship program to bring to Japan for graduate-level training (in English) something like two thousand young civil servants from developing countries, mostly from the region.

And then there is infrastructure. Japan launched the Partnership for Quality Infrastructure Initiative that comes with $200 billion in funding for investments, and a positive reputation for efficiency and high standards.

And the Eurasia connectivity cooperation plan that Japan signed this fall with the EU is backed by a $65 billion fund. We’ll have to see what this actually produces in terms of transportation, energy, and other projects, but it is another of Tokyo’s collaborative infrastructure initiatives, on top of those it’s developing with Australia and the U.S.

As of this year, I think Japan’s current infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia are valued at over $320 billion, in contrast to China’s investment of about $250 billion, notwithstanding the hype surrounding Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

I don’t want to put everything in terms of competition with China, but when I was doing research on the BRI in Asia, I couldn’t help noticing that about 17 of China’s major infrastructure projects in the region, valued at $44 billion, are now suspended or in some cases canceled due to various problems.

This is not meant to be a cheerleading speech for the government of Japan – I’ll leave that to the Gaimusho and other Japanese Ministries.

By pointing out that Japan has done a lot to fill the regional leadership vacuum, I’m not for a moment suggesting that Japan is big enough or strong enough to single-handedly keep the flame of democratic and free-market principles burning in Asia while the U.S. is on an extended leave of absence.

And by cataloging the strengths of the U.S-Japan alliance, I’m not for a moment suggesting that the partnership wouldn’t be badly damaged if the U.S. took certain ill-advised steps, like accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, or moving to withdraw U.S. forces from the region, or even imposing tariffs on autos and auto parts.

And I certainly don’t mean to downplay inhibiting factors, such as Japan’s economic slowdown, or its difficult relationship with China, or the downside risks from the current toxic relationship with South Korea.

My basic point is that Edwin Reischauer’s faith in Japan has been vindicated.

When he served in Japan, at a time of great American idealism and multilateralism, he advocated passionately for Japan to take initiative and responsibility in the international arena, and he could foresee Japan’s potential for exerting an influence on world affairs.

Today, in a period of great turbulence, Japan serves as something of a sea-anchor for the values and policies that the U.S. traditionally championed.

It acts now increasingly as a prime mover in assembling trade networks, strengthening multilateral institutions, establishing high standards, promoting security & development cooperation, investing in infrastructure, driving diplomatic engagement, championing the rule of law.

Japan has been filling vital gaps left by attenuated American engagement in the region and Washington’s shift to a transactional approach to international relations, an approach that Bill Burns wrote was “hollowing out the idea of America.”

There’s considerable irony in the fact that, whereas it was a crisis in the U.S.-Japan relationship that prompted Reischauer to write his “Broken Dialogue” article, 60 years later, it is America’s standing in the region that is in crisis, and it is Japan that is stepping up.

I firmly believe that the United States will in due course recover a more traditionally-engaged and values-based approach to the region. Yet I’m painfully aware that when that happens – even under the most internationally-minded future president – there won’t just be a snap-back to the era of Pax Americana. The countries in the world won’t easily shake their uncertainty about America’s dependability and commitment to the region.

But by “tending the garden” of regional diplomacy and institutions in the ways I’ve described, Japan is helping to ensure that this gap in an otherwise long stretch of American leadership is not simply filled by an alternative approach that will lock in an illiberal order, potentially for generations to come.

Edwin Reischauer and Mike Mansfield would approve.

Thank you.