Panel Review: The Center for Strategic and Intl Studies on Obama’s Asian Trip

Next week, President Obama will embark on an Asian tour which will include stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Yesterday at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held a panel discussing what Obama’s visit means for the US-Japan alliance, the key lynchpin to American policy in East Asia. There was plenty for the four panel members to discuss.

American representatives Michael Schiffer and Scott Miller had plenty to talk about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and what it meant for both the US and Japan. I’m not an economics person, and thus will admit that I don’t know a whole lot about the TPP. I know that it’s a free trade agreement, and I know that the Internet/Reddit crowd really hates it for some reason (which in my book is in and of itself a legitimate justification for believing it’s a brilliant idea). Even so, there was plenty that was interesting to note. Miller talked about the state of the Japanese economy, and how the TPP could do plenty to snap the Japanese economy out of the funk it has been in for the last two decades. While Japanese industry is highly efficient, Miller observed, its service and agricultural sectors are not so much. They could be spurred by greater competition into implementing reforms and changes which would improve themselves. As for the United States, Schiffer and Miller both discussed the difficulties of getting the TPP to pass. America has grown considerably friendlier towards free trade over the years, and as a result, a greater share of its GDP is devoted to exports/imports, jumping from 10% in 1974 to around 32% today. Nevertheless, pressure from the far right, which instinctively jump to attack anything and everything Obama does, and the far left, which always play the environment/labor card towards any free trade agreement, means that President Obama will likely fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A successful entry of both the United States and Japan will be a huge boon for the TPP – while there are currently 12 potential members, those two states alone would make up about 70% of the group’s total economic power.

Another issue which came up was the historical question, which I touched on to a small degree last week. This will be particularly delicate given the fact that President Obama will also be visiting South Korea, and some organizations like the Heritage Foundation have called for him to take a public approach towards rebuking Japan for some of its more unsavory incidents regarding its past. However, Schiffer as well as moderator Michael Green from the CSIS disagreed with this idea. Green observed that previous administrations had not commented on this historical issue, and expressed the concern that a public rebuke would give China a chance to attempt to split the United States and Japan apart as part of their attempts to grab the Senkaku islands – a possibility which Australia, India, and Indonesia, all countries which fought against Imperial Japan, are visibly worried by. Naturally, Obama should discuss this in private with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but no more than that.

As for Japan, or rather Abe’s, efforts to reinterpret and change Japan’s pacifist ideals? Professor Yasuhiro Matsuda of the University of Tokyo provided some charts and reaffirmed that while the Abe administration and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is reasonably popular, his ability to transform the Japanese people out of their pacifist ways will be a difficult challenge. This is on top of him attempting to force through other unpopular programs, such as the TPP, a higher consumption tax which will be implemented in Japan next week and is in fact provoking panic buying at this very moment, and increasing the defense budget. Contrary to the perception shown by the Western and Chinese media, Japan has utterly no desire to go back to the old ways – one recent poll conducted asked the Japanese people how many would be willing to fight to defend their country in the event of an immediate and direct attack. Only 6% would. To put it quite bluntly, I would find that shameful if America ever reached that low.

The conference talked of other issues as well, such as but not just the recent Japanese decision to hand over its plutonium and uranium stockpiles to the US (Green noted that in a time when Iran, North Korea, and now the Ukraine have all in their own ways have been blows to non-proliferation efforts, Japan’s move helped a great deal), the dispute over the Senkaku islands, and just the necessity of a shared and cooperative vision between the United States and Japan. Needless to say, President Obama will not be able to come even close to fixing all of these things in his short visit to Japan and a few conversations with Prime Minister Abe. But it is highly critical in and of itself to show that the US-Japan alliance is strong and committed, something which has been argued to the contrary by many pundits and thinkers.

I managed to obtain a copy of the powerpoint slide which Professor Matsuda used during his presentation, and thus am posting it below for anyone who would like to examine it. Furthermore, I would be willing to submit my full notes should anyone be interested.

Japanese Politics and Expectations ahead of Obama Trip 140326

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