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Yoichi Funabashi on the legacy of President Obama's East Asia policy

Photograph of Dr. Funabashi​Yoichi Funabashi is an award-winning Japanese journalist, columnist and author. He has written extensively on foreign affairs, the U.S.-Japan Alliance, economics and historical issues in the Asia Pacific. Dr. Funabashi is the Co-founder of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation which has published several influential reports on a broad range of key policy challenges facing Japan and the Asia-Pacific. Dr. Funabashi has served as a correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun in Beijing and Washington, and as a U.S. General Bureau Chief. Several of his books include The Peninsula Question, Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific, Alliance Tomorrow, Alliance Adrift, Asia-Pacific Fusion: Japan’s Role in APEC, and Managing the Dollar: From the Plaza to the Louvre. He received his B.A. from the University of Tokyo in 1968 and his Ph.D. from Keio University in 1992. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, a visiting Fellow at the Institute for International Economics, a Donald Keene Fellow at Columbia University, a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo Public Policy Institute and a distinguished guest professor at Keio University. He serves as an active member of several boards, advisory committees and communities. These include: former board member of the International Crisis Group, and a current member of the Trilateral Commission; the World Economic Forum; the Committee for Reforming TEPCO and Overcoming 1F Challenges; the expert committee to discuss the mid-long term direction for the Japan International Cooperation Agency; and the Cabinet Office’s Disaster Risk Reduction 4.0 Future Framework Project. Dr. Funabashi spoke with Michael Grouskay CMC ‘17 on February 2, 2017. 

Photograph and bio courtesy of Dr. Funabashi

What are some of the most important Asia policy initiatives taken by the Obama administration in the last eight years? Which ones were the greatest successes? What are the most significant disappointments or failures?

The Obama Administration's Asia policy is very much characterized by the rebalancing strategy, which he initiated from 2010-2011 and which Secretary Clinton pushed forward in more concrete terms. The most successful part of the rebalancing strategy was the United States’ shift to viewing Asia as a hub for developing multilateral institutions and for building a regional order. For instance, the Obama Administration initiated the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Summit at Sunnylands in order to strengthen ASEAN’s integration and to promote the strategic concept of ASEAN’s centrality in any effort to build regional actors. Based on my conversations with the White House, the Obama Administration seemed very interested in annualizing this conference. The biggest disappointment was the failure to ratify TPP, and this failure alone has, unfortunately, unraveled the whole rebalancing effort. We are now witnessing a huge vacuum in Washington in terms of Asia policy. 

How does the legacy of President Obama’s Asia policy compare to that of George W. Bush?

Given the failure of TPP, President Obama’s overall Asia policy was unsuccessful. However, the concept behind policy was right on the mark. If you compare the legacy of President Obama to that of George W. Bush, there is not much difference actually. Even though the Bush Administration was extremely unpopular (especially after the Iraq War), when it came to Asia policy, the Bush Administration attempted to strengthen relations with China, Japan, and India simultaneously. To some extent, this was successful. The Obama Administration certainly tried to develop better relations with the major players in the Pacific, but compared to the Bush Administration’s policy, President Obama’s China policy did not take a firm stance and was not well thought through strategically. 

What explains Obama’s success and failures in dealing with Asia?

In the context of the U.S.-Japan relationship, the most resounding success was President Obama’s firm commitment to uphold the Security Treaty between the United States and Japan in the context of Japan’s territorial disputes with China. That was very reassuring to Japan, and it helped Japan to maintain a measured, restrained, and tempered response to China’s constant challenges to Japan’s authority. It also helped to stabilize the relationship between Japan and China in more general terms. The second most successful piece of President Obama’s Japan policy was his visit to Hiroshima, which was the culmination of a long process of reconciliation between Japan and the United States. The visit did not cause reconciliation; instead it was the result of a decades-long process of practical and pragmatic cooperation between two countries, and the commitment of millions of individuals on both sides to promote the reconciliation process. Nevertheless, it was a powerful symbol of reconciliation that was reciprocated by Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor. Both of those visits combined were a remarkable finishing touch to this 70 year-long process of reconciliation.

How has American soft power in the region changed as a result of President Obama’s policies?

President Obama was very effective in projecting American soft power to the region. Ninety-eight percent of Japanese citizens supported President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and his no-nuclear message. In general his philosophy was very well received throughout the world, and in particular Japan, even though the United States is a nuclear state and Japan benefits from the United States’ nuclear umbrella. Moreover, his commitment to climate change was well received across the Asia Pacific region. Whenever I traveled to Asian capitals, I found that this was one of the best received elements of the Obama Administration’s policy initiatives. His climate initiative was a clear and radical departure from previous Republican administrations, and unfortunately President Obama’s climate change policy is now compromised by the Trump Administration.

With the benefit of hindsight, do you think Obama’s “strategic patience” toward North Korea has been the correct call? 

The Obama administration did not face any good options. It had to be patient given the volatile nature of the leadership in Pyongyang. That said, the Obama Administration may have taken too deferential a stance towards China. It may have pinned unrealistic hopes on China’s ability to change the behavior of North Korea. The Obama Administration went only halfway with China and North Korea as a result. President Obama himself seemed to have developed a more jaundiced view of China over the last few years. One of the Obama Administration’s biggest challenges in terms of Asia policy was its inability to fully articulate a China policy. 

What has the Obama administration done to strengthen ties with the United States’ allies in East Asia? Do you think the impact of these efforts will be sustained?

The Obama Administration's efforts to strengthen ties with Japan were very significant. Even though the Trump Administration may make the situation more complicated, at the end of the day, they may come back to President Obama’s position on the U.S.-Japan alliance. The U.S.-Japan alliance is a force multiplier, and Japan’s role as a forward presence for the United States has enabled the United States to project power across the entire Pacific. Without the alliance, and U.S. bases in Japan, the United States might find itself reduced to a Western Hemispheric power. Even if the United States gradually pulls back from the world, Japan will remain the last bastion of the U.S. alliance system in the Pacific.

Which parts of Obama’s legacy in Asia are now most at risk under a Trump administration?

Multilateral free trade regimes, the whole-region approach to strengthening the U.S. relationship with Asia, and the U.S. commitment to the Pacific are now under challenge. If the Trump Administration will doggedly pursue bilateralism, and discard the multilateral approach taken by the Obama Administration (and previous U.S. Administrations), the TPP will be completely abandoned—and it is now almost completely abandoned. The next casualty might be ASEAN. ASEAN has already been under tremendous stress as China applied pressure by resorting to the divide-and-rule or divide-and-trade approach. Particularly given heightened tensions over South China Sea territorial issues, China will continue to increase pressure using these tactics. The Trump Administration will likely put pressure on ASEAN countries through this bilateral trade approach, and this will further cause factions and divisions among the ASEAN member states. If the Trump Administration continues to pursue bilateralism, ASEAN could start to disintegrate after four years. Ultimately trade policy and an economic policy could be the most critical factors in unraveling the positive legacy of President Obama’s Asia policy. 

Michael Grouskay