Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted jointly for Weekly Toyo Keizai, and Dispatch Japan . Dan Sneider is associate director of research at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center. He formerly headed the Tokyo and Moscow bureaus of the Christian Science Monitor, and was both national editor and foreign policy columnist at the San Jose Mercury News.
TBL: Do you accept the notion that the Obama administration will shift greater focus, attention, and overall resources to the Asia-Pacific region, as the US winds down the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
SNEIDER: I was one of many people who criticized the Bush administration repeatedly for focusing too much on the Middle East and South West Asia, while neglecting East Asia. Even from a narrow security point of view that criticism was important to make, especially for those of us watching the situation in North Korea. We argued that the North Korean nuclear program was more clear and present danger than anything Iraq posed.
But not all blame should be placed on the Bush Administration. The Clinton administration, for example, did not give East Asia the importance it deserved, at least from an economic point of view.
TBL: You don’t seem very impressed with the stated new Obama policy.
SNEIDER: Northeast Asia has always been one of the primary focuses of American security policy, along with the Middle East and Europe. The rise of China doesn’t really alter that reality. We have security alliances with Japan and South Korea for a reason, and they have been there for more than half a century. I don’t see any change in that regard.
TBL: I hear a “however” coming…
SNEIDER: Yes. The Obama Administration is certainly investing not only rhetoric, but the time and energy of senior leaders on East Asia on a scale much greater than previous administrations. The President’s extensive commitment to host the APEC summit and to attend the East Asia summit all point to this trend. The administration is genuinely working to come up with a coherent policy toward the whole region, which is a major change.
However, I continue to believe that if one could draw a pie chart measuring the collective brain of the US national security establishment, you’d see that far greater amounts of time are still devoted to the Middle East and Europe, and, relatively speaking, East Asia is still not a priority.
TBL: How would you measure that?
SNEIDER: The number of people who deal with East Asia is actually pretty small, particularly those who have real depth of knowledge and experience in the region, including language skills.
I don’t yet see strong evidence that we are really going to strategically pivot away from the Middle East to East Asia. Policy makers spend a lot more time thinking about Iran than they do about North Korea. We have a stability policy in East Asia; we want to prevent conflict by maintaining a basic balance of power. But that is different from a genuine, proactive, positive policy toward the region.
I also don’t see attempts to freshly rethink how we approach the Asia-Pacific region. We pretty much have a set of policy prescriptions that we have been following for a long time. In fairness, that may be in part because those policies worked pretty well. This has meant a series of bilateral security alliances – the well-known hu-and-spokes policy, where there is no regional security architecture; the US has been the balancing power. More recently, we’ve shown a slightly greater commitment to regional security arrangements.
Toward China, we have had a hedging-engagement policy for a long time; sometimes we hedge more, and sometimes we engage more.
TBL: So you don’t see a big change?
SNEIDER: I don’t get the sense that anyone in the Administration has sat down and said: “It is really important that we rethink this region as a whole, where it is headed, and what our role is going to be.”
TBL: How does economic policy fit in this picture?
SNEIDER: I think our approach to the region, for a long time, has tended to be weighted much too much toward security in the traditional, narrow sense, and not weighted toward economic policy. The Obama Administration has undertaken some semblance of a trade policy, and that is a good thing. But, for the most part, we have assigned ourselves the role of guarantor of military balance of power as our primary function.
TBL: You see to think that our friends in East Asia want more.
SNEIDER: Yes. The fact is that many countries in the region have much more concern about the direction of US economic policy. If we don’t recover economically, and find new sources of growth for the US economy, it is not going to matter how many Marines are sitting in Darwin, Australia, or how many aircraft carriers are moving around in the Western Pacific.
The real source of the sense in the region of American decline does not come from policy makers in the region counting US ships and planes. It’s the perception that the US is unable to deal with its own economic problems, and is drifting into stagnation.
TBL: Did the Chinese and American leaderships misread each other when Obama took office?
SNEIDER: Every US administration goes through a learning curve with China. The ‘W’ Bush Administration came into office in 2001 talking about China as a threat. People tend to forget the extent of the tough talk in place when Bush came in. We had the forced downing of the American surveillance aircraft, for example. Officials pretty quickly learn that the kind of rhetoric you bring from the campaign trail into the White House doesn’t work very well when you are trying to govern.
The Obama Administration might have shown the reverse. There was some China-bashing during the campaign. But for the most part, the Administration came into office looking to engage China in a whole range of global partnership initiatives, including climate change and currency management. The view was that China was the central relationship to manage in East Asia.
The first trip the President took to China was very upbeat, and the Administration tried to push difficult issues to the side, for which he was criticized. But the efforts ran into the normal difficulties that are there: Who the Chinese are, what they want, the inevitable, relatively speaking, limits of American power in a world in which other countries are becoming stronger, and the fact that there are issues on which we cooperate with China, and issues on which we clearly disagree.
TBL: So, we misread each other?
SNEIDER: The Obama administration settled into wariness. After the 2008 financial crisis the Chinese became overbearing and arrogant, and had a sense of triumph of their system over that of the US. But in the end, both countries understand that they somehow have to manage this relationship because there is no strategy of confrontation, or even containment that works. China is far too embedded into the world economic system, and the US is too deeply engaged with China economically as well. Rhetoric that echoes the Cold War, sliding China into the role the old Soviet Union played – should not be taken seriously. It can’t be done.
TBL: Has the Obama administration learned this lesson?
The Administration has definitely gone through a learning curve with China. But I don’t think former National Security Council director for Asia, Jeff Bader, who has dealt with China for a long time, had huge illusions that we were going to enter into an alliance relationship with China and throw off our relationship with Japan.
Did the Obama administration see China as being central? Yes, because China is central. That is not an ideological statement; it is reality. The goal is to use alliance relationships to help manage China, and pull China into structures where they are forced to adhere to existing rules. That’s what the administration seems to be is trying to do.
I see this more as a natural learning curve than a dramatic shift in US policy.
TBL: What about future US force structure in East Asia?
SNEIDER: I don’t see any evidence that someone in the government sat down and said: “OK, 20 years from now, what kind of force structure do we want to have in the Asia-Pacific region? How do we want to think about that structure from the point of view of potential adversaries, crisis situations, and other possible scenarios?” I would love to see evidence that this kind of thinking is actually going on.
TBL: What about Okinawa:
I certainly don’t see any serious rethinking about the role of the US Marines on Okinawa. Until that issue is resolved, we will continue to have unnecessary tensions with Japan, our most important ally in the region.