Losing Its Edge? Evans Revere on How Japan Can Remain a Leader & America's Closest Partner in East Asia

December 1, 2011

Evans Revere
, Senior Director, the Albright Stonebridge Group; Nonresident Senior Fellow, the Brookings Institution

Andrew Bast
, Editor of, Council on Foreign Relations

Evans Revere, former American diplomat and renowned Asia expert, visited Japan Society to discuss Japan's role in Northeast Asia in a time of major power shifts in the region.

Has Japan lost its edge, its mojo? The answer is no, Mr. Revere said. The country "has had its share of difficulties," as has the U.S. over the past three or four years; but "we have a lot going for us, and I think Japan has a lot going for it."

Still, during a recent two-week trip to meet with government officials and think-tank members in South Korea, Taiwan, Shanghai and Beijing, what surprised him was "the degree to which Japan did not come up." In an hour and a half meeting with PLA generals and senior staff, the conversation touched on Taiwan-mainland relations and on America's effort to "surround China," but there was no mention of Japan, no mention of the fact that the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force is twice the size of the American Seventh Fleet. Clearly, Japan needs to do more to assert itself in the Asia-Pacific region, and beyond.

Andrew Bast of the Council on Foreign Relations, who presided, asked:

Are we seeing something new with the DPJ? Is the party turning a corner post-March 11?

"I was spoiled for life, quite frankly, because I was in Japan during the Nakasone period, during the high tide of LDP power and prime ministerial influence" and of "Japan's global reach and global push," Mr. Revere said. He also worked intensively on Japanese issues during the Bush-Koizumi period, which represented another high point.

In trying to undo the power of the bureaucrats, the DPJ may have been pursuing noble goals, but "they broke a lot of crockery." Prime Minister Noda seems to be "much more of a consensus builder than his two predecessors," and is respected by the bureaucracy. However, "I don't think Japan has quite figured out how to put all the bureaucratic and political pieces back together quite yet."

What are the top agenda items between Washington and Tokyo right now? Is the conversation between them robust enough?

Optimism as Obama took office gave way to jitteriness about the Futenma deal. There were also hints that the Hatoyama outreach towards China was a threat to the U.S.-Japan relationship. We've moved beyond that now. As for Futenma, it is not the whole of the U.S.-Japan relationship. "The functions that exist there are important. Where they should be located—we can work on that."

Japan at number three is behind China, but not far behind. "Look underneath China's growth. As an American I wouldn't want to trade our problems for China's any time. And I think most Japanese would not want to trade their problems for China's problems any time soon." Japan's resilience after March 11 reflected an "incredible ability to mobilize itself, mobilize its resources, mobilize its people."

North Korea is one of the foremost, if not the foremost, security issues in Asia. It's on the Chinese border, and the Chinese know that they're going to have to manage this. Does Tokyo have a security role to play?

"Japan's security role is not defined in terms of confronting North Korea militarily; rather, it's focused on working with the U.S., South Korea and other partners to deal with the very real threat that North Korea poses to it as well as to others."

North Korean missiles will eventually be able to reach the U.S., but they can reach every part of Japan right now. North Korea has chemical and biological weapons; it's working to miniaturize a nuclear warhead; it's been involved in drug running into Japanese waters. All of these are challenges for Japan.

Who has the big ideas in Japanese society, culture, politics, business, technology? Where is the intellectual center of gravity for Japan?

"The whole concept of think tanks is still insufficiently developed in Japan," Mr. Revere commented. "Considering all that is as stake, it's hard to find more than two or three organizations" that can serve as Japanese counterparts to the Council of Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution and the like. More such organizations will help Japan develop the "big ideas" it needs for the future.

There's a wealth of skill and experience in the bureaucracy, however, and the DPJ made a big mistake in throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

"I think Prime Minister Noda understands that, and I think Noda also understands that to make Japan function he's going to need to do a better job of bringing the bureaucracy into the game and making them play his game rather than not allowing it to play any game at all."


Questions from the audience followed:

If the Six-Party Talks resume, which you have hinted at, what's different now? What is going to make North Korea change?

There's a better than even chance "that we'll be back at the table" within the next several months, Mr. Revere replied. "The bad news is that I don't think the North Koreans are going to give up their nuclear capability ever."

Yet it's probably worth trying to do some things that fall short of the full denuclearization of North Korea, such as dismantling the plutonium-based reactor and getting fresh fuel rods out of the country.

All the parties have an interest in resuming negotiations. Having North Korea at the negotiating table with the U.S. won't necessarily stop North Korea from committing provocative acts, despite claims by some to that effect. But "there is this sense that if you're talking to the North Koreans it reduces the possibility."

By resuming talks, North Korea may be able to start receiving food, fuel and other benefits that are desperately needed.

When North Korean artillery fired on South Korea in November 2010, it could very well have started "a downward spiral into another peninsular war," Mr. Revere concluded. "I'm convinced we came very close to a significant conflict. China knows that. We know that. South Koreans know that. So, there's a common interest in using the dialogue channel to try to prevent something like that from happening again."

On the ongoing Olympus scandal, how big an impact will corporate governance issues have on how companies are run and regulated?

"This was to some extent a cultural problem," Mr. Revere said. "This was a 'we've-always-done-it-this-way problem, and you're an outsider and don't ask questions about what you don't know, and this is the way our system operates,' and all of that. Quite frankly for a major economy, for an international economy, for as dynamic a place as Japan is, and a leader in world markets, this is not the way you run a railroad—or a camera company."

This is so in the eyes of "many Japanese, particularly in a DPJ-led government which came into power saying we're going to change the way we do business, and be much more transparent."

"Because if Japan is going to play the sort of role that it should be playing in the region, in the world, and in particularly the global economy, you can't have this sort of thing going on, just like you couldn't have the sort of thing happen with Enron in the U.S."

Japan's aging population is going to have a huge economic impact. What will be the impact of the next generation of young Japanese, who did not know the bursting of the bubble or even its aftermath?

Immigration is a solution that Korea is pursuing, as will China in all likelihood, but it's unlikely to be a solution in Japan, at least not quickly enough, according to Mr. Revere.

More promising for Japan is bringing more women into the workforce and into positions of responsibility. "You talk to younger Japanese people, and despite my advancing age I do talk to quite a few younger Japanese people, they don't have the hang-ups about this that their parents' generation or grandparents' generation had."

How will the Japan-China relationship develop in the near future, and what will be the impact on the U.S. interest in East Asia?

"The biggest mistake that the U.S. could make in terms of our relationship with Japan or any other of our allies and partners in the region would be to force anybody to have to choose between us and China, and I think Washington gets that," Mr. Revere said.

Having experienced this period of greater assertiveness on China's part, "I think Japan is in a much more realistic place in terms of its understanding of what kind of a relationship it should have with China. It should have a good, close, cooperative relationship, but don't go overboard, and remember who your friends are."

What's going to happen with the Trans Pacific Partnership and Japan's role in the TPP?

"Many of the requirements for eventual TPP membership will be difficult, such as agricultural marketing opening. But Japan should be at the table to help create the rules. Japan should make the serious effort that I think it's making to be there when these rules are established and nudge them into the direction that they want them to go. But at the end of the day this is going to be a consensus process among all the players in the region."

—Katherine Hyde

Topics:  Business, Design, Policy

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