President Obama has just begun the first Asian tour of his presidency, arriving in Japan today with plans to continue on to Singapore, China and finally South Korea. While he has been criticized both for leaving the home front with the tenuous health care bill on the line and for using this trip as justification for not going to Berlin last week, he is right to make relations with Asia a priority. This trip is absolutely necessary in order to strengthen ties with countries that play a vital role in powering the global economic recovery, combating climate change and containing nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran.
Since the election of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama this September, the U.S.-Japan relationship has become increasingly strained. During his campaign, Hatoyama pledged to make the interactions between the two countries less one-sided, implying his country will become more autonomous in foreign policy decisions. There is the concern that Hatoyama will be looking more and more to China, becoming less inclined to cater to U.S. policy. This trend is already present in economic relations between the three countries; China recently passed the U.S. to become Japan’s number one trade partner.
Recent decisions about military strategy have added to the tension between the two countries. There is an ongoing dispute over the Marine Corps Air Station Futenama on Okinawa. Residents of the island have long wanted it removed and Hatoyama promised to ensure that happens, but the U.S. doesn’t agree and wants to resolve the issue by moving the base to a less populated part of the island per a 2006 agreement. Hatoyama added to the strain by stating that Japan intends to stop refueling U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean that are part of the American effort in Afghanistan.
Despite these recent conflicts, there are many indications that Japan wants to find common ground. Hatoyama has made it clear that an alliance with the U.S. is crucial for Japanese security, and his administration wants to ensure that relationship remains firm. Last Tuesday, the Hatoyama administration promised to increase non-military aid in Afghanistan to $5 billion in an attempt at reconciliation.
Japan knows that for the foreseeable future it will be necessary to work closely with the U.S. for economic as well as military reasons. The two countries remain important trading partners and Japan is second only to China in holding the most U.S. debt. The visit today will be a crucial step in removing some of the strain introduced recently so that both countries can move forward with what will continue to be a mutually beneficial relationship.
When Obama travels to China early next week, it will be the first time for him to sit down with President Hu Jintao in Beijing. They certainly have a lot to talk about. A major issue will be the exchange rate; the U.S. dollar continues to depreciate while China has recently announced that it intends to let the yuan gradually appreciate in value. In addition, there have been repeated conflicts over import-export tariffs, sanctions against Iran and Sudan, human rights issues and environmental protection concerns.
Both Obama and Jintao know that preserving harmony is crucial for both sides. The two countries trade more with each other than anyone else, and China now holds around $800 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds; the economies are so closely intertwined that if one stagnates, they both suffer.
While this means neither side will be willing to push the other too far, the talks may lay the foundation for future cooperation. In particular, there is hope that discussion of the environment this week will lead to a consensus at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen next month.
With China there will certainly be some tiptoeing around areas of conflict, but the trip provides the opportunity for Obama to initiate dialogue now in order to make real progress in the future. How the U.S.-China relationship plays out will be the dominant force shaping the 21st century, and it is no surprise that Obama has chosen to spend four days of the seven-day tour in China. As East Asia continues to grow in importance, we should hope to see more trips in the future.
Cameron Dabaghi is a junior in Berkeley College. He is currently studying abroad at Peking University.