United States & Japan Need to Focus on ASEAN to Renew Their Alliance

By Ernest Bower

President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 28, 2015. Source: Ismadison's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 28, 2015. Source: Ismadison’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

As they face the new geopolitical realities of the twenty-first century, the United States and Japan will be required to modernize and reorient their alliance toward deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific, with particular emphasis on strengthening ASEAN.

Asia is now and will be, for the coming decades, the primary source of global economic growth and dynamism, and it will present the century’s most serious security challenges. U.S. and Japanese national interests are at stake in Asia. Protecting these interests will require coordinated leadership. The two governments must work more closely to create political, security, and economic space for the emergence of an ASEAN-based architecture compatible with and able to influence dynamic global governance trends. These efforts must allow for ASEAN to continue to pursue strategic balancing, an identifying characteristic of the regional grouping and most of its members.

The United States has begun to recognize this strategic requirement by talking about the need to “rebalance toward Asia.” Yet no U.S. president has yet invested in establishing the domestic political foundation to support the deep, balanced, and comprehensive engagement that is required to promote and protect U.S. interests in Asia in the coming decades.

The same is true in Japan. Effective diplomacy is essential to create trust, transparency, and confidence among Japanese in a new regional architecture for promoting peace and prosperity across the Indo-Pacific region. The focus on economic reform led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the country to be fully engaged and invested in that diplomacy.

In the United States, current policy assumptions, institutions, and the political foundation supporting foreign policy are rapidly becoming anachronistic. In other words, the United States is not prepared for the required paradigm shift and new mind-set needed to articulate and implement a comprehensive strategy to promote its long-term national interests in Asia. This shift will need transformative political leadership to set the vision and implement significant changes to the domestic understanding of U.S. national interests. Leadership will also be required to significantly upgrade the sustained level of engagement by U.S. officials in Asia.

The United States must modernize its engagement across the Indo-Pacific. How? By building on long-standing opportunities to invest in an ASEAN-centric model. Investing in this model will form a basis for strengthening existing alliances, enhancing new partnerships, and creating a strategic platform that will allow countries throughout the region to integrate their economies on a rules-based model, define regional security norms, and invest in public goods together.

Basic conditions required for the success of this evolution in foreign policy are in place, but need to be advanced through vision, diplomacy, and a commitment to lead. Other elements of a successful effort need to be developed and institutionalized. Building the necessary foundation will be based on an evolution in Americans’ understanding of the fact that Asia already plays a pivotal role in their lives—a role that will increase exponentially throughout the coming decades.

For the United States and Japan to succeed in this effort, they must support one another and be more open, frank and consistent in urging their treaty counterpart to do more.

In the latest CSIS research study, funded by the Sasakawa Foundation, entitled, “Southeast Asia’s Geopolitical Centrality and the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” my team and I have made the case that the United States and Japan must be more engaged in all key areas, including economics, security, and people-to-people ties.

Our recommendations focus on specific ideas for modernizing bureaucratic engagement, including coordinating ministerial and business missions to ASEAN between Tokyo and Washington; institutionalizing trilateral diplomacy to regularly include ASEAN; and a number of pointed recommendations in the areas of economic, security and bureaucratic reform.

These recommendations are not minor. They encompass changing the culture of engagement between Japan, the United States and ASEAN, as well as fundamentally reorganizing at a national level.

If you would like to read the full set of recommendations in the latest CSIS report, visit this page: http://csis.org/publication/southeast-asias-geopolitical-centrality-and-us-japan-alliance

Mr. Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @BowerCSIS.

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.


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