Interviewed by Masakatsu Ota, senior editorial writer, Kyodo News
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who was a key policymaker toward Japan under President Barrack Obama until last year, noted that President Obama’s visit to Japan will take place amid unprecedentedly high tensions in East Asia and stressed the strategic importance of the Japan-U.S. relationship. On the postponement of the President’s visit to the atomic-bombed city this time, he pointed out that the U.S. government may seek a way to make it happen in the future.
Q: What is your assessment of the situation in Asia?
Campbell: I’ve never seen tensions in Northeast Asia growing ever higher. The current regime of North Korea under a young leader is extremely unpredictable, and is undermining its traditional ties with China.
The Japan-China ties are also conspicuously tense. Almost every day, [China’s] government ships and airplanes enter the area which the two countries dispute. China established an air-defense identification zone (above the East China Sea) and created an unstable environment. That’s why (the nations concerned) are strongly hoping for U.S. engagement and leadership.
Q: The Japanese and U.S. leaders will meet under such circumstances.
Campbell: The Japan-U.S. ties are robust, but we need to deepen dialogue further, improve communications and build stronger mutual trust. Negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact remain tough, but I strongly believe that consensus will be reached.
President Obama’s visit to Japan will become important because it is aimed at deepening the two leaders’ understanding of each other rather than dealing with individual issues. The Japan-U.S. ties are very important and dynamic. That’s why our leaders must hold more in-depth dialogue. Within the context of dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will listen to President Obama about what he wants.
Q: To get China to take constructive steps, what strategic goals should Japan and the U.S. pursue? It also becomes important to cooperate with South Korea.
Campbell: This is an extremely difficult task. First of all, Japan and South Korea need to improve their bilateral ties. The U.S. should play a role to this end and make it clear that the improvement of their ties will be in their best interests. Japan and South Korea are facing complicated issues, such as history, but building a huge economic, business and political relationship will surpass mutual distrust that has grown between the two nations for years.
I’m confident that Japan-South Korea relations will improve, but Japan-China relations are in such poor shape. I guess that China seems to have decided to give up building cooperative ties with the Abe government at least for some time. Since it is uncertain whether the relationship between the leaders of Japan and China will change for the better, the two countries need to continue diplomatic and military dialogue at a level somewhat lower than that.
I personally believe that Japanese and Chinese leaders should be given a chance to put aside the Senkaku issue for some time and concentrate on building cooperation and promoting economic integration.
Q: President Obama will not visit the A-bombed sites this time, but 2016 (his final year in office) may be a good opportunity for him to pay a visit.
Campbell: (On August 6, 2016,) President Obama sent then-U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos to Hiroshima. Back then, his stance was that he would think about various issues in the future. I am not inside the government now so I don’t know how things will develop. But my friends within the government should be studying the proper next steps to be taken. This process began by using Roos’s visit to Hiroshima as the first important step.
Q: Wouldn’t it be possible that the strained relations between Japan and South Korea over history may put a damper on the President’s future decision? The President needs something to justify his visit to the A-bombed city.
Campbell: History issues are complicated. How we focus on this will have a great impact on the dynamics of current policymaking. I don’t disagree with your analysis.