Japan Matters to America, America Matters to Japan

posted by Lyric Hughes Hale on November 19, 2019 - 4:56pm

Written By Eleanor Shiori Hughes -  November 14, 2019

Last week, I attended a national U.S.-Japan relations conference, titled “The US-Japan Partnership in the 21st Century”, which was hosted by Indiana University-Bloomington’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. As part of their 21st Century Policy and Society Initiative (21JPSI), which was inaugurated in 2018 in partnership with Japan Foundation’s Center for Global Partnership, the conference had over 100 in attendance, ranging from students, faculty, staff, and others who are unquestionably invested in deepening the cooperation between the United States and Japan. Despite a massive blackout that affected approximately 40 campus buildings for much of the day, the turnout is truly a testament to just how critical the US-Japan alliance is, especially at a time when this globalized world is facing an increasing amount of economic uncertainty inflamed by social and political unrest, great-power competition in the Indo-Pacific, and rising technologies that transcends borders. 

To commence the conference, Andrea Richter, the Vice President for International Engagement at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, highlighted some of the strong economic ties that Japan shares with the state of Indiana. For example, Indiana is home to 315 Japanese companies, which employ about 70,000 Indiana residents. Moreover, she indicated that “there are now $2 billion worth of Indiana exports, which has increased by 15% in the past couple of years.” Furthermore, in recent years, three Japanese automobile companies: Honda, Subaru, and Toyota, have moved some of their manufacturing operations to Indiana. 

Shortly thereafter, four panelists from various institutions addressed how the US-Japan alliance has confronted foreign policy challenges in the 21st century. First, Dr. Mireya Solis of the Brookings Institution addressed that though the US and Japan underwent a trade war in the 1980s-1990s, it brought about the opportunity for both countries to negotiate trade pacts, most notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). As one of his first executive orders signed after his inauguration, President Trump withdrew the US as a signatory of the TPP in January 2017. To Solis, this move suggests that the United States is straying away from multilateral trade-pacts—the US will also not become a member of the Regional Comprehensive Trade Pact (RCEP). Next, Dr. Michael Auslin from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, iterated that geopolitics has become more prevalent in charting the current course of US-Japan relations, mainly because China has become a security concern for both countries—economically, militarily, and technologically speaking. Then, Dr. Naoko Aoki from RAND Corporation presented Japan’s concerns regarding North Korea’s nuclear stockpiling, and how their recent missile tests, along with Trump’s summitry with Kim Jong-un has affected this bilateral relationship. To conclude this panel-talk, Dr. Adam Liff, the founding director of 21JPSI, also addressed security concerns regarding China, specifically China’s encroachment into the East China Sea and the South China Sea and its advancing military capabilities.

Next, Dr. Richard Samuels from MIT made an academic keynote speech, in which he emphasized that “the need for strategic stability [in East Asia] is needed now more than ever.” With the rise of China’s hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, and America’s foreign policy approach towards East Asia shifting away from multilateralism, Dr. Samuels outlined the multiplicity of ways in which the Japanese public can combat (or, adapt to) an ever-so rising China. One such thought is that “unless the Japanese accommodate to China’s rise, Japan will lose its influence.” This mentality, he noted, has been primarily adopted by the business community, though he quickly clarified that not all business stakeholders embrace this approach towards China. 

After Dr. Samuels concluded his remarks, the conference held another panel-talk, entitled “Domestic Challenges and US-Japan Relations”. The first speaker, Craig Kafura from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, outlined how generally speaking, Americans perceive the US-Japan alliance as critical to US national security. Additionally, Kafura and I exchanged emails after the conference, and he said that “despite some tensions in the relationship during the Trump administration, the American public’s view of Japan remains quite favorable, and there continues to be strong interest in attracting Japanese businesses and Japanese investment at the state and local level.” Then, Dr. Sherry Martin from the US State Department discussed how Prime Minster Abe Shinzo is projected to become one of Japan’s longest-serving prime ministers in modern Japanese history, and how his approval rating has not soured in light of the recent increase in the consumption tax. Lastly, Dr. Rie Watanabe from Harvard University, discussed some of the pressing contemporary climate and energy policies, most notably the Paris Agreement. She added that the US will officially withdraw from the Paris Agreement just a day after the 2020 Presidential election.  

To conclude this tremendous conference, the newly-appointed Consul-General of Japan in Chicago, Kenichi Okada, expressed his gratitude for the amount of hospitality that he has received from the Midwest. Moreover, like Dr. Solis, he too added that once upon a time, the US and Japan underwent a trade dispute, primarily on automobiles.  Now, decades later, Japanese companies have moved their manufacturing operations to the US, thereby providing economic prosperity for both countries, and strengthening the US-Japan alliance even more. 

Mr. Okada’s words reminded me of something that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Japan and Korea, Marc Knapper said during his keynote speech at a dinner commemorating the 89th anniversary of the Japan-America Society of Chicago on June 13th. Knapper pointed out that the “the definition of the Reiwa Era is the friendship between the United States and Japan.” If there is anything that I have digested from this conference, it is the following: Japan will always matter to America, and America will always matter to Japan. The US-Japan alliance is built on shared values, shared strategies, and shared goals. It is, and has always been, in the best interest for both nations to foster and build constructive partnerships within various industries (private, public, non-profit, and higher education). To end his speech, Mr. Okada challenged the attendees to “take what we have learned [at the conference] to further US-Japan relations.” The timing of this 21JPSI conference could not have been any better because as it occurred on my birthday, it was the perfect day for me to accept a challenge with open arms.