At first glance, Japan and the U.S. might seem like unlikely allies: The cultures couldn’t be more different, and the origins of their modern partnership lie in a gruesome global war.
But more than a half-century of common geopolitical goals has changed all that, and the painstakingly constructed people-to-people and investment connections have added mortar to the building blocks of strategic Pacific partnership.
That was the message Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA leaders brought to Atlanta last month during a roadshow highlighting the importance of the alliance during uncertain times in Asia. The World Affairs Council of Atlanta hosted the packed event at the Commerce Club downtown.
Appreciation for Japan (and knowledge about it) may have dropped as the economic threat of the 1970s and ‘80s faded, but a longstanding security pact and a mutually beneficial trade ties make Japan as relevant as ever to the U.S. — and perhaps even more so, said retired Admiral Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence and commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific region.
“Because China has become the current story, I think part of the appreciation of Japan has paled, and I think Americans need to remember the importance of this long-trusted diplomatic ally that we need to be working with,” Mr. Blair said in a discussion with council President Charles Shapiro.
Even as China ramps up its military presence in the South China Sea and North Korea fires missiles over Japanese territory, President Donald Trump has questioned the cost of U.S. bases places like South Korea and Japan.
In his rhetoric, Mr. Trump has linked security with economic outcomes, noting U.S. “losses” on its trade deficit with Japan. Yet he also pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation deal that promised greater market access for U.S. companies and farmers in Japan and was widely seen as a strategic move to counter China’s growing role in Asia.
All this has ruffled some feathers from regional leaders who now question the firmness of U.S. security commitments around the Pacific, according to experts on the panel. Alliances can’t be measured with a purely economic yard stick, Mr. Blair said.
“It’s an interlocked relationship that you can’t put a scale next to and say whether it’s equal or unequal,” he said.
The enduring ties between Georgia and Japan offer a glimpse of how the broader alliance can move past some of the current bumps in the road.
Soon after Japan’s 1964 induction into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Georgia had already won its first few Japanese manufacturing investments, welcomed a Japanese consulate, sent delegations to Japan and helped spearhead the SEUS-Japan alliance, which is to hold its 41st annual conference in Tokyo this month.
“Within 10 years of Japan rejoining the most advanced economies in the world, Georgia and Japan were at the forefront of the relationship,” said Satu Limaye, director of the East-West Center in Washington.
Fast forward four decades plus, and the state’s trade and investment ties with Japan have blossomed into a strong testament to mutual benefit of engagement, underpinned by sister cities and other vehicles for cultural connectivity. More than 500 Japanese facilities from companies like Rinnai, TOTO, Hitachi, Mitsubishi Power Systems and more call Georgia home, employing more than 36,000 people. Georgia companies like insurer Aflac Inc. see Japan as a primary market.
But there is a danger that disruptions in the global trading order could threaten the deep, abiding ties based on much more than economic interaction, panelists warned.
Japan recently won a stay on automotive tariffs as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed with Mr. Trump to begin talks on a bilateral trade deal, though the country as a whole has not received an exemption from earlier Trump taxes on imported steel and aluminum.
Companies like YKK Corp. of America, a subsidiary of the Japanese zipper giant, have been working to navigate the uncertainty, said Jim Reed, president of the Marietta-based firm, which operates factories in Georgia and across the Americas.
Mr. Reed said he frequently gets calls from YKK executives in Japan aiming to parse out how grave each new tweet from the White House actually is.
While he mostly can allay their fears, he warned that confidence in the competitiveness of the Americas region overall could be rattled by trade turbulence. He gave the example of car seats, which cross the U.S., Mexican and Canadian borders multiple times in the course of manufacturing.
“If you start putting up barriers and walls within a region, that region is going to be less and less attractive,” Mr. Reed said.
That is the opportunity the U.S. missed by pulling out of the TPP — helping set rules that would help smooth the way for more rules-based trade in Asia.
Staying in the TPP would have done much more to “box in” China, which many agree has abused its World Trade Organization membership, given that the trade deal had specific chapters on state-owned enterprises, government subsidies, environmental regulations and more, said Ambassador James Zumwalt, CEO of Sasakawa USA, who served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Japan when the country was pummeled by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. (He later became U.S. ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.)
“I have not yet met a trade expert in Washington who says to pick fights with everyone at the tame time is the right strategy,” Mr. Zumwalt said. “Most people would have advised to work with allies and friends to put more pressure on China than we can acting unilaterally.”
He added that though there have been overtures from Japan about the U.S. returning to the revised 11-country CPTPP, the country is now in a position to be a “rule-taker rather than a rule-maker.”
That could be a big strategic blow to American credibility in the region, said Mr. Limaye of the East-West Center.
“You can already see Southeast Asian countries without the U.S.— Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia — are thinking about how to dock onto that rule-making. That’s what worries me, that we’re not part of that rule-making shaping the order of the 21st century.”
The three-day tour in Atlanta was the kickoff to Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s “The Alliance Working in America” series. During the Sept. 4-7 visit, Mr. Zumwalt also spoke at Spelman College and Morehouse College, and the group also hosted a seminar at Georgia Tech on workforce development featuring Japan-based tractor manufacturer Kubota Manufacturing of America Corp.
The events occurred a week before the 32nd annual JapanFest, the annual celebration of Japanese culture in metro Atlanta, which generally draws more than 20,000 people.
Learn more about Japan-Georgia ties on the Japan Matters for America report compiled by the East-West Center on its Asia Matters website: https://asiamattersforamerica.org/japan/publications/georgia
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