Michael Armacost is the Shorenstein Distinguished Fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center of Stanford University. During a twenty-four year government career, spent mostly on Asia-related matters, Armacost served as US ambassador to Japan, US ambassador to the Philippines, and undersecretary of state for political affairs. Prior to joining the Shorenstein APARC in 2002, Armacost served for seven years as president of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The following interview was conducted jointly for Weekly Toyo Keizai and Dispatch Japan, shortly before President Obama departed for his recent four-country visit to East Asia. It will appear on newsstands in Japan starting April 28.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What goals did the White House have for President Obama’s recent visit to the region?
ARMACOST: The President has made a big deal of declaring that the US will rebalance its global position toward Asia. The predicate was the extrication of US troops from conflict in the Middle East and South Asia. It was designed as a message of reassurance to friends in East Asia.
Three years later, it is my impression that there is a good deal of skepticism in East Asia about the seriousness and sustainability of the US policy to rebalance. The concerns I hear among leaders in East Asia include the continuing fiscal realities in the US; the Middle East and South Asia do not appear to occupy less of the time and attention of the senior officials in Washington; allies have questions about the credibility of some of our ‘red lines’; the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is supposed to be a key element of the rebalance, and yet there is a feeling of political weakness behind the initiative at this point in time because of the upcoming US midterm elections.
Those are four big concerns.
The pivot back to Asia did not address one of the big concerns of Asian leaders: Does the
US have the will and ability to get on top of our own problems, which would be necessary for us to sustain a large global presence in the world?
Washington still displays a large degree of dysfunction. It is in the interest of the US for the President to reassure friends that the rebalance policy is really serious.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is it serious?
ARMACOST: We have been more active in Asian regional institutions, which was one of the components of the policy. We have been active diplomatically with Myanmar.
The rebalance to Asia did not herald a US military buildup in Asia; some thought that the rebalance was designed to avert a US military drawdown after the withdrawal from Iraq and the pullback from Afghanistan.
We’ll have to see how this turns out. The US drawdown from Afghanistan could ultimately result in more US Marines on Okinawa. This could exacerbate the problem of US bases in Japan. Or, it could be reassuring, sending a message that the US is not drawing down our military in a precipitous way.
In my view, the key is TPP, which is a new component; potentially the most important regional institution in Asia.
The TPP negotiations remain at an awkward point. Can the President provide reassurance on TPP? We’ll have to see. Words alone are not enough.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you think President Obama is willing to spend the political capital required to win approval of TPP?
ARMACOST: I am not sure. The President was largely missing-in-action on trade issues in the first three years of his administration. But his appointment of Michael Froman as the chief US trade negotiator was important. Froman is a serious guy. He has made the negotiating process more transparent. He has devoted an important amount of time to enlisting help from Capitol Hill. He has tried hard to promote the possibilities that TPP represents.
But, in the end, it depends on the president to make the difficult political decisions. To display seriousness means indicating clearly what the US intends to accomplish, including what concessions the US is prepared to offer. The President cannot reveal the entire US negotiating ‘bottom line.’ But the President can indicate that he is ready to pay a political price from his domestic side to reach a good TPP deal. Only in doing this does the US convey its seriousness to its negotiating partners.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is TPP more than a trade agreement?
ARMACOST: It could become the most significant regional institution. I did not take it too seriously until the Japanese joined. Until then, it did not have much heft. Now, the prospective deal would involve some 40% of global GDP; China will inevitably want to become involved.
TPP, potentially, is very, very important.
DISPATCH JAPAN: There is quite a bit of tension between the White House and the Kantei these days. How important is ‘chemistry’ between Obama and Prime Minister Abe?
ARMACOST: I can’t assess their personal chemistry; few of us have been there to see them together. But personal good communication among national leaders is helpful.
I saw this between President Reagan and Prime Minister Nakasone; they liked, and respected each other, and it became easier to do ‘business.’ George W. Bush and Koizumi had a good personal back-and-forth.
When the leaders of the two countries visibly get along, there is a message down the line. Differences may arise, but bureaucrats on both sides know that their respective leaders want to see a serious effort to resolve differences, rather than excuses to kick differences down the road.
Still, big decisions like TPP are based on the convergence of national interests. The US and Japan have an interest in a high-quality trade agreement. If the leaders focus on this, and commit themselves to this – decisively, and in concert - they can accomplish important things, which should help them at home.
The two leaders need to articulate what they expect to achieve from an agreement, and what concessions may be required. This inspires confidence in your negotiating partner, because they see that you are doing the political work needed to gain domestic political support.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What about history issues?
ARMACOST: The leaders should not approach these issues from the standpoint of scoring points. There was some headway in recent weeks between Tokyo and Seoul. The prime minister of Japan has reaffirmed that they will not try to revise the Murayama and Kono statements. The trilateral meeting in The Hague was important. There have been follow-up meetings between the three about North Korea.
A thaw in relations is hopefully setting in. When history issues do come up, I would hope the president approaches the issues with quiet encouragement, rather than public admonition.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Did you agree with the Obama administration’s decision to criticize Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni?
ARMACOST: I would have preferred that it be dealt with quietly. That is my personal inclination. There might also have been a problem in the translation of the US statement into Japanese: ‘loss of trust’ as opposed to ‘displeasure’ – ‘loss of trust’ is a fairly strong statement among allies.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How do you view the debate in Japan about collective self-defense?
ARMACOST: Japan has always acknowledged the right of collective self-defense, but not necessarily the right to exercise the right.
I have always wondered: what is the point of affirming a right that one has no intention of exercising? Post-war Japan has always been cautious on these defense matters. Japan’s restrictions on defense posture have essentially been self-imposed. However, over the last 20 years or so, Japanese officials have been discussing reinterpreting some of the self-imposed restrictions.
I was in Tokyo when Japan debated UN peacekeeping legislation; that was perhaps the first modification of Japan’s security policy. Later, Prime Minister Koizumi transformed Japan’s security policy to provide non-combat, logistical support to UN and, on occasion, other allied efforts.
That was welcomed in Washington; a more balanced approach to the alliance; a more global approach, and a more operational approach.
It seems to me that exercising the right of collective self-defense would represent another step in that direction.
Prime Minister Abe has already taken some steps in this direction.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you think about the Senkaku problem?
ARMACOST: Pondering this problem makes me welcome the fact that I am no longer in the government. It is a difficult issue.
The US position may seem ambivalent. But our core interest is clear: the issue must not be resolved, or even approached, by force. China has been acting in a coercive manner.
The current US policy may be emboldening China.
Mrs. Clinton’s formulation about the issue was appropriate: discourage China from challenging Japan’s administrative control of the Senkakus.
At this point, I would favor steps that are reassuring to our ally, Japan; more deterrent in nature toward China.