Forging Even Closer Japan-US Ties


Michael Armacost, the US ambassador to Japan around the end of the Cold War nicknamed “Mr. Gaiatsu” (external pressure), talks about the Japan-US partnership in view of the changes in the Asia-Pacific accompanying the rise of China.

Michael Armacost

Earned a BA from Carleton College, as well as an MA and PhD in public law and government, respectively, from Columbia University.  Entered the State Department in 1969 as a White House Fellow and remained in public service for 24 years. During that time he held high-level international security positions in the State Department, Defense Department, and National Security Council, including postings as ambassador to the Philippines (1982–84), undersecretary of state for political affairs (1984–89), and ambassador to Japan (1989–93). Served as president of the Brookings Institution from 1995 to 2002, and since then has been a Shorenstein distinguished fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.  He also chairs the board of the Asia Foundation. Awards received include the President’s Distinguished Service Award, the Secretary of State’s Distinguished Service Award, and the Japanese government’s Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. Author of three books, including Friends or Rivals, examining Japan-US relations.

During his four-year tenure as US ambassador to Japan, Michael Armacost earned the nickname “Mr. Gaiatsu” (external pressure) for pushing Japan to make a visible contribution to the Gulf War and for calling on Japan to open up and deregulate its markets during the Structural  Impediments Initiative talks. Armacost presented his latest views on Japan-US relations in May 2012 in a speech delivered at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. During this visit to Japan, he also traveled to the US military bases in Okinawa Prefecture for the first time in 20 years. caught up with him to hear his views on the future course of the Japan-US partnership, particularly with regard to security-related cooperation and economic relations, including the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP).

Impact of an Inward-Looking Attitude

INTERVIEWER  During your recent speech at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, you said both Japan and the United States are now preoccupied with their domestic politics. How do you think this inward-looking attitude is affecting the Japan-US relationship?

MICHAEL ARMACOST Well, I don’t think it’s had a huge impact. Americans are preoccupied with domestic issues for two reasons. One, we’re in the middle of a presidential campaign. The administration is focused on the issues that are of most concern to our voters, and because our economic recovery has been weak and unemployment high, naturally those take precedence. Since our indebtedness has grown, there’s less money available for foreign policy, or at least there are greater fiscal constraints. But I don’t think it’s had a huge impact yet.

We’re still involved in a very expensive war in Afghanistan, but we have been focusing more heavily on Asian concerns. The relationship with Japan, in many ways, is extremely good. This is partly because of the collaboration in Operation Tomodachi,(*1) partly because of increased Chinese assertiveness and defense capabilities. So I think our relationship is in pretty good shape.

INTERVIEWER A look at Japanese politics reveals a state of gridlock where politicians are unable to decide on anything.  As a former ambassador to Japan, how do you view the current situation?

ARMACOST  We’re probably not the right people to be asked for advice. The US government looks very dysfunctional at times now, too. Our politics is very complex and polarized, so we’re no model of efficiently functioning democracy at the moment. I think the biggest change that I’ve observed in Japan is the effort to subject the bureaucracy to greater policy guidance and political discipline from the elected politicians. That had some impact on our relationship because the management of our security relationship was heavily influenced by officials. Most of the time the management was at the level of senior bureaucrats in both our governments.

Many of our senior bureaucrats are not career people. They’re brought into key positions as political appointees in an administration. But we handled things pretty much at the official level, and when Japanese officials were sidelined, at least briefly after 2009, that had a big effect. But I don’t think it has been surprising that a change of that magnitude would take a little time to implement. It involves a change of culture in the bureaucracy and it requires an improvement in the competence of elected politicians to manage policy issues. Now we seem to be over the most difficult period.

I think it’s also the case that when there’s a prolonged interaction with the president and prime minister and an obvious rapport between them, that has a big impact on our relationship. When  people down the line in the government see the president and prime minister getting along and having a close relationship, they understand that when problems come up they should resolve them rather than offering excuses for inaction. That was the case in the past, I think; we had a particularly close relationship during the lengthy association between Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, for example, and President Ronald Reagan, and a lengthy association between Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō and President George W. Bush. They clearly liked each other and they wanted the relationship to improve, and that was a message that was understood and was communicated down the line into the government bureaucracy. When you have frequent turnovers of leaders, you don’t have as much time to develop such close relationships.

The Bilateral Security Relationship

Armacost recently visited Okinawa for the first time in 20 years. (Photo: The Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

INTERVIEWER You just visited the US military bases in Okinawa for the first time in twenty years. The decision has been made to relocate 9,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam and other Asia-Pacific sites, so the United States and Japan have come to a good agreement. Yet the bilateral security relationship seems not to have deepened over the decades. What is your take on this?

ARMACOST When I was in Japan, and throughout the Cold War, the alliance was pretty much an “arms-length” relationship. We had no joint command; we had very few joint-use bases, if any. It was a Cold War deal in which you provided us bases and we provided you a strategic guarantee. But there wasn’t a huge amount of interaction between our uniformed military. It seemed to me that under Koizumi, the Special Measures legislation permitted Japan to take on overseas responsibilities and to deploy some units overseas—not for combat purposes, but for humanitarian reconstruction missions in Iraq and for a maritime mission in the Indian Ocean.(*2) And that changed our relationship quite a lot in the sense that our alliance was more balanced and it functioned in areas more remote from Japan and its immediate neighborhood; it also permitted more interaction between our respective militaries. That was a big change from the time I was here.

I think that Operation Tomodachi also permitted the kind of very close cooperation between services that is valuable for international disaster relief missions. We’re pretty good at those. It seems to me that we can well afford to do more together.

I think that the tradition of cooperation between our respective navies has been greater than between other services. Since one of the challenges we’ll face is the growth of China’s naval capabilities, I think that furnishes another area for closer collaboration.

The State of China’s Military

INTERVIEWER  What are your thoughts about Chinese military capabilities?

ARMACOST  I think they have made remarkable progress in modernizing their military from a very low base. And if you increase the defense budget at double-digit rates for twenty years, you can buy a lot more military capability. That’s the first point.

The second point is that China impinges a lot more on our interests. During the Cold War, their forces were deployed up on the northern border of China, and they were part of a general containment strategy against the Soviet Union. When the Cold War ended, Beijing  could redeploy its forces to the coastal and insular areas of China, and now they’re building a blue-water navy. We shouldn’t be surprised at that. They’ve got a global trade. They’ve got a global resource diplomacy. They don’t want to outsource the protection of sea lanes to our Seventh Fleet. Still, China impinges on maritime Asia in a way it never did before, so it’s different.

The third concern we have is that the increase of their capabilities was accompanied by a more self-assertive diplomacy in 2010: more expansive claims in the South China Sea, shielding of North Korea even from the diplomatic consequences of its military aggressive moves against South Korea, the bullying diplomatic tactics against Japan on the Senkaku Islands issue. An assertive diplomacy on top of the increased military capabilities is worrisome.

But I guess my final comment would be: I wouldn’t exaggerate China’s military capacity. They did start from a low base. We have formidable allies like Japan, Australia, South Korea and others. They don’t have impressive strategic partners. We operate in their neighborhood. They can’t operate in ours, and won’t for a while. We’re getting out of some costly, inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and intend to focus more attention on the Asia-Pacific region. They are developing augmented military capabilities, but they are also pursuing a wider range of interests, so they have to allocate their military and other assets among a much wider range of interests.

All those things, I think, work in our favor. They’ve also got huge domestic problems. They’ve got a lot of formidable neighbors, and we’ve seen that when they encroach on their neighbors’ interests, it alarms them; they are more skeptical about Chinese intentions, and are more eager to have us around to provide a counterweight. I wouldn’t trade America’s problems for China’s.

Advancing Japan-US Economic Ties

INTERVIEWER  I’d like to move on to economic issues. How do you think we can strengthen bilateral economic ties?

ARMACOST You obviously have a need to diversify sources of energy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. We’re experiencing a boom in liquefied natural gas production in the United States and our prices are low. Some producers would love to export. Japan is a vital ally. It seems to me that you have a need, and we have a capacity to respond to it, so we should do so.

It does require licensing under our law. The process seems to take longer than I think it should, but I believe we will export. I don’t know how long it will take to get the licensing done. It’s possible politics could be involved because environmental groups are very wary about hydraulic fracturing technology and they are a key element in the president’s political base. It may be a factor, but I would be confident that by the end of the year, we will have made all the provisions necessary to export LNG to Japan. This is a good thing, because we can reduce our trade deficit, we can respond to your needs, and LNG produces a lot less emissions than oil. So I hope we’ll do it, and I hope we’ll do it quickly.

INTERVIEWER As for the TPP, the bilateral negotiations are moving slowly. What is your outlook on this?

ARMACOST We’re only negotiating at the moment with eight other countries. It seems to be making progress. I like the idea of high-quality agreements, and I like the idea of more comprehensive agreements. These are all countries with which we enjoy good relations, but frankly the TPP doesn’t have a lot of weight if Japan’s not present. It’s no big deal without Japan; with Japan, it would be important. I’m hoping you can clarify your own policy toward the TPP.

We understand that politicians have to have their priorities. As I understand it, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s priority is the consumption tax. Meanwhile, we’ve got an election on. Given President Barack Obama’s party’s dependence on the labor unions, it will be hard to move forward rapidly before our election. So we’ve got a little time. But as I said, it’s very important for Japan to be involved. I think the good thing about these agreements is they subject one’s own industries to more competition. It’s a spur to innovation. It lowers prices for our peoples. It keeps inflation down. The contributions of these agreements are very powerful internally. I’d think that would be an additional incentive for Japan to participate. I hope it does. And I hope we can handle our own auto industry. They’re somewhat lukewarm about the TPP, too.

I also think that if Japan’s in on the ground floor—if you’re in on the bargaining sooner—then you exercise more influence over the terms. Once the agreements are set, then for countries that are coming in, there will be a greater burden on them simply to accept the rules that have already been established, and their influence on those rules will have diminished.

Cooperating in Disaster Relief

INTERVIEWER Generally speaking, after the March 11 earthquake in 2011 and Operation Tomodachi, Japanese people have a more positive view of the United States, and vice versa.

ARMACOST Everybody was shocked by the scope of the tragedy, and the next reaction was one of great admiration for the heroic courage displayed by the Japanese people in the face of a huge natural disaster. The absence of looting and the orderliness and the courtesy of people were astonishing to the world. It had a powerful impact on America, and we were pleased to be able to help. I’ve been enormously gratified to see the way in which cooperation between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the United States in assisting the victims made a favorable impression on Japan and on the Japanese people, and increased support for our relationship. As a visitor to Japan, I have a palpable sense that things have changed in an important way.

I come to Japan reasonably often. I was here in March for a couple of days. I’ve seen it before this trip, but it has made a powerful impression on me, and I sensed it even in Okinawa, which is a long way from Tōhoku.

The frequency of these natural disasters in Asia has been quite shocking in the last ten years: the tsunami in Southeast Asia, earthquakes in China and Pakistan, the tsunami here in Japan. So now that we’ve got some experience in dealing with these situations together, the next time something occurs in the region we ought to be approaching it as a joint project. We have a lot of lift capability for moving people fast; the things we can do together would be greater than what we can do alone. We have cooperated in other natural disasters as well, but I think we could do a lot more.

Cultural and Educational Exchanges

INTERVIEWER Yamamoto Tadashi, president of the Japan Center for International Exchange, passed away on April 15. This was a great loss to bilateral relations because he had contributed greatly to nongovernmental international relations and Japan-US policy dialogue. Do you have any concern that United States and Japan may not be doing enough to promote civilian exchanges to develop human resources who will contribute to bringing the two nations closer together?

ARMACOST I knew Tadashi for forty years. He was kind of like a family member. He was quite unique.

Teaching at Stanford, I do see a lot fewer Japanese students, and I regret that. After the tsunami, the Asia Foundation—where I’m chairman—raised around five or six million dollars in a very short time to help victims of the disaster, and we distributed assistance primarily through the Red Cross. So I think that the civil society connections between nongovernmental organizations have flourished, even during a time when some of the exchange programs have declined in terms of the numbers of people going back and forth. I think there’s a lot of work to be done, but I am particularly worried about educational exchanges, because the relationships that are established now will have their real effect ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. Unless we keep those exchanges at a high level, we’ll really lose something in our relationship.

I worry about the combination of America’s fixation on China and Japan’s inward-turning tendency. The combination of those two things has a real negative effect on the vibrancy and the vitality of our cultural and educational exchanges. I know Ambassador John Roos is concerned about this and working hard on it. I think it deserves a high priority on the part of both governments and people outside the government.

(Interviewer Harano Jōji is representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. Photos by Kawamoto Seiya.)

(*1) ^ The name of the relief operation conducted by the US Armed Forces following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. According to US Forces Japan, some 24,500 US personnel were seconded for the operation, involving 24 naval vessels and 189 aircraft at the peak of the mission. In addition, the US forces distributed some 280 tons of food provisions, 7.7 million liters of water, and 45,000 liters of fuel, for a total of 3,100 tons of cargo shipped.—Ed.

(*2) ^ This refers specifically to the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law of 2001 and the Special Measures on Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance in Iraq of 2003.—Ed.

Self-Defense Forces Operation Tomodachi Guam TPP Iraq Koizumi Jun'ichirō Japan-US Alliance Okinawa military bases Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Senkaku Islands Cold War liquefied natural gas Yamamoto Tadashi Michael Armacost Sasakawa Peace Foundation LNG Japan Center for International Exchange