Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Komori on US China policy

Komori Yoshihisa, veteran correspondent and Washington-based editor of the Sankei Shimbun, was invited to speak to Nakagawa Shoichi's "True Conservative Policy Study Group" last Friday, where he explained the reality of US China policy and contemporary attitudes in Washington towards the US-Japan alliance.

He provides a summary of his remarks at his blog.

For the most part, they're innocuous. He notes that Congress and Washington in general are alarmed about China on a number of fronts: China's military modernization, trade practices, intellectual property violations, and human rights violations are causes for concern among US elites. (Indeed, according to Pew's November 2005 survey of public and elite foreign policy attitudes, US elites are far more concerned about China than the public at large. This may have changed after several years of media reports about shoddy Chinese imports, but I still expect that the US public as a whole remains more sanguine about China than Washington.) He reports that while the US-Japan alliance is rarely discussed in the media, it enjoys a solid bedrock of support from both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Broadly speaking, Mr. Komori's picture is accurate.

But there are a few problems. First, whatever the fears of US elites about a multi-dimensional Chinese "threat," I think US policymakers, especially in the executive branch, are willing to silence their fears and work with China when necessary. This is consistent with the enduring pattern of Sino-US relations since 1972. Congress has been obsessed with threats from China and aggressive in its criticism of human rights violations, threats against Taiwan, etc.; the White House, whatever its unease with China and regardless of the party affiliation of the president, has sought closer coordination with China. There is an enduring realism in US China policy that is entirely absent from Mr. Komori's remarks.

This realistic tendency will likely become even more pronounced in coming years, because — and this is my second qualm with Mr. Komori's remarks — the US obsession with Iraq and the Middle East more broadly will not abate anytime soon. Mr. Komori seemingly provides no context for US thinking about China, which for most of Washington remains of secondary importance to more urgent Middle Eastern questions, meaning the US will be ever more inclined to work with China on a range of regional and global problems.

While naturally there are China hawks in Washington who share the views of Mr. Komori's audience, it would be a mistake to suggest that their viewpoint is dominant and commonly accepted. Their viewpoint certainly hasn't been dominant under the Bush administration, despite early indications to the contrary, and the next administration will be forced to embrace a sort of "resigned realism." Even if a McCain administration were to talk about the importance of cooperation among democracies in Asia, such rhetoric would most likely not be backed by a decisive shift in how the US-Japan and US-Australia alliances interact with China.

I would add that Mr. Komori and other Japanese China hawks, much like their American compatriots, have nothing constructive to say about how the US and Japan should deal with China. Mr. Komori says that it is "appropriate to identify and criticize, frequently and clearly" China's military activities and human rights violations. Maybe so, but that cannot be the sum of a China policy, especially for Japan. As Fareed Zakaria argues, criticism and outrage can backfire if they promote a popular backlash among the Chinese people. A China policy that amounts to little more than jabbing China repeatedly with a pointy stick is no China policy at all.

Meanwhile, Mr. Komori has not been paying enough attention in Washington. He notes that he concluded his remarks saying that in other countries principles like "building a country in which the people have pride in their country" and "steadily defending the national interest" are not conservative at all: they are accepted by all as a matter of course. I wonder what country Mr. Komori has in mind. China maybe? Both examples cited by Mr. Komori are fiercely contested in US public discourse. Both the definition of the "national interest" and how to defend it are in constant flux. As for a country of which people can be proud, once again, "pride" means different things to different Americans. To some, including Senator Obama, being proud of the US means being proud of its ability to correct its own flaws; as Senator Obama said in Montana earlier this month, "I love this country not because it’s perfect, but because we’ve always been able to move it closer to perfection."

If anything, Japan needs more of this: more discussion about what its national interests and more discussion about how to secure those interests, but above all, more discussion about what it really means to be proud of one's country — and what it means for a Japanese to be proud of Japan.

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