During his visit to Tokyo later this week, President Obama needs to strike a careful balance. His message in Tokyo needs to be two-fold: he needs to reassure Japan, but he also needs to encourage Japan to look for any opening for high-level diplomatic engagement with China.
First and foremost, Obama needs to reassure Japan of U.S.’ defense commitment.There has been rising concern in Japan about whether the U.S. can be relied upon to come to Japan’s defense should the situation grow more aggravated, particularly around the Senkaku Islands area. The U.S. response to allegations of Syrian use of chemical weapons last year and Russia’s aggressive behavior in Crimea make many in Japan seriously concerned about U.S. capacity and willingness to act decisively were a similar situation to occur in the East China Sea. Furthermore, many in Japan have expressed concern about what the Obama administration has in mind for “operationalizing a new model of major power relations.” Obama must articulate in Japan that the U.S. anchors its Asia policy in regional alliances, and the U.S.-Japan alliance is among such critical anchors.
At the same time, however, Obama also has to encourage Tokyo to stabilize its relationship with Beijing. This, however, is often easier said than done. In that context, he needs to make it clear (in private, as nobody, including Japanese people, wants to see their leader being lectured by a U.S. President in public) that, while Washington appreciates Japan’s grievances over Chinese behavior, it should refrain from demonizing China. In private, he also has to communicate that Japan should strictly refrain from the behaviors that give China excuse to blame Japan for Beijing’s own aggressive rhetoric and behavior, such as the recent seizure of Japanese commercial vessels “as a part of wartime reparation.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has consistently said that the window of dialogue is always open for China. Obama should encourage Abe to continue to pursue policy that reflects this statement, thereby putting the onus on China to take the next step.
Overall, the most important message that Obama has to deliver in Japan is that, while differences may exist in approaches to specific policy issues, the United States and Japan share an interest in welcoming and encouraging constructive behavior from China that respects established international rules and norms, and that they stand united against any behavior to destabilize the status quo by force.