A group of 10 young researchers from The Heritage Foundation just returned to Washington after a two-week stay in Japan.
During our trip we met with Diet members, staff from the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and scholars, including those from the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management and the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
Almost the day after arriving in Japan, President Obama announced that he would be visiting Japan and other Asia–Pacific countries in April. This became the center point of many of our meetings, as the U.S. rebalance to Asia has been a big interest for Japan. There has been much talk in the U.S. and Asia about the substance of President Obama’s pivot, yet, on a rhetorical level, the commitment to the region it implies is welcomed in Japan.
Relations between Japan and neighboring countries South Korea and China have been rocky since all three countries took on new governments. Most officials in Japan see restoring relations with South Korea as a top priority, but almost all see relations with China at a standstill, or what has been called the “grey zone challenge”—not at war but not at peace. There is a growing worry over China’s presence in the Indian Ocean as Japan increases imports of oil from the Middle East, and there is also the concern that the U.S. is too little interested in the events occurring in the South and East China Seas.
The U.S. will be looked toward helping mend the relations of Japan and South Korea, but there is concern over the growing lobbying power of large Korean American populations in the U.S. and the decreasing talks between U.S. and Japanese representatives. There is also concern about the decreasing backdoor dialogues between Japanese and Chinese officials; meanwhile, Japan is seen as a stopover for U.S. officials flying to China.
President Obama’s trip in April will surely be welcomed with open arms, but it should not be seen as a time to be any less assertive. It will be up to his time there to reassure the Asia–Pacific region of a strong U.S.–Japan alliance and to begin to sow the seeds of creating a three-way dialogue among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea—regardless of their current political differences.