China has historically been the “most divisive element” in the U.S.-Japan relationship, Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun, told a Stanford audience last Friday at a panel discussion hosted by the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC).
Funabashi said in his keynote speech that despite the past, “we are in a much, much better position now” as tensions between Japan and the United States have been contained lately. However, misperceptions between Washington and Tokyo over their approaches to China could challenge the positive trajectory we see now, Funabashi warned.
The discussion titled, “Continuity and Change in the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” was part of the Shorenstein Journalism Award ceremonies at the Freeman Spogli Institute, an annual honor that recognizes an accomplished journalist who is committed to critical reporting, and who has helped unravel the complexities of Asia through his or her writing. Fourteen journalists have received the prestigious award since its founding in 2002.
Funabashi, the 2015 award recipient, was joined by a distinguished panel of Japan experts. Susan Chira, a deputy executive editor at the New York Times, and Michael Armacost, a Stanford distinguished fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Japan, provided comments to Funabashi’s remarks, and Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Shorenstein APARC, moderated the discussion.
The United States views Japan’s approach to China as “too balance-oriented,” while Japan thinks the U.S. administration under Barack Obama is “more engage-oriented,” Funabashi said. This disjuncture has caused some observers to describe China’s relationship with the West as having already entered a “new Cold War,” he said.
Funabashi quickly dismissed that idea, saying, “I do not think [we’ve] entered into a new Cold War,” and recognized that Japan, the United States and others around the world must identify ways of working with China despite differences.
Funabashi said Japan “can offset the prospect or danger of China and Russia ganging up against Japan” through its strategic engagement with both countries, but that the United States would require some reassurance and understanding of how Japan views its relationship with Moscow and Beijing.
“The approach to China will remain the most crucial factor to managing the U.S.-Japan relationship,” he said.
Chira later added that the U.S.-Japan alliance has been the beneficiary of the shift in focus to a “rising China.” She said it had both “diminished American concern” over the once-heightened economic friction between Japan and the United States in the 1980s, and “underlined the importance of the U.S.-Japan security relationship.”
Funabashi also predicted that the U.S.-Japan alliance “could be very much affected by the U.S. presidential election.” Tendering another warning, he said that the 2016 presidential election cycle “may not be political business as usual.”
Candidates have adopted strong positions on foreign policy early on and have been coupling it with harsh rhetoric. “It will have ramifications beyond their actions” and could have a “long-term impact on the U.S. relationship with the Asia-Pacific,” he said.
Over the past eight years, the Obama administration has been leading its “rebalance” policy in Asia that has both symbolized a pulling-away from Europe and the Middle East, and carried a layer of economic and strategic reassurance for the region. Funabashi said Asian leaders are now “deeply concerned” about what will happen to America’s staying power under the next U.S. president.
Part of the success of the rebalance strategy hangs on the outcome of the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s passage through the U.S. Congress. Funabashi said it “will make or break issues,” and yet, each candidate currently running does not support the 12-nation trade pact. Funabashi characterized trade politics during campaign season as challenging. Armacost later said he agreed.
“The chance of ratifying something between now and the election is somewhere between negligible and nil,” said Armacost, who held a 24-year career in the U.S. government. Attempting approval during the lame duck session is very problematic, he said.
Funabashi also addressed whether President Obama should make a trip to the atomic bombing site at Hiroshima on the periphery of the G7 summit later this month.
He said he hoped that such a trip would not “backfire” on the U.S.-Japan relationship, and relations with China and Korea. A visit by Obama could create an expectation for a Japanese prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor, and for Japanese political leaders to make a trip to the site of the Nanjing Massacre in China.
Funabashi also emphasized that a reconciliation process between Japan and the United States already exists and harkened back to the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Ratified in 1952, the treaty reset Allied powers and Japan on a path toward friendly relations and to settle questions of war.
“We have proved [our ability] to reconcile on a working level, on a day-to-day level, so we don’t necessarily have to convince the public on both sides.
“Nonetheless, I think that this visit could be seen as a furthering of the reconciliation process,” Funabashi said.
“I hope the president does visit,” Sneider added. Acknowledgement of the bombing by the United States is “long overdue” and could set “a certain moral example,” he said.
Following the panel discussion, later that evening, Funabashi received the journalism award among many colleagues and friends.
Orville Schell, a director at the Asia Society New York and a member of the jury that selects the award recipient, described Funabashi as a leading “exemplar” of someone who “thinks clearly and writes extremely well.”