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Foreign Policy

What Caroline’s Nomination Means to Sino-US-Japan Relations

Sep 11 , 2013

US President Barack Obama’s decision to nominate Caroline Kennedy as ambassador to Japan has aroused worldwide interest against the backdrop that Tokyo is currently mired at the center of a whirlpool of political and security uncertainties in the Asia-Pacific region.

The 55-year-old daughter of former US President John F. Kennedy has been a staunch supporter of Obama in his presidential attempts both in 2008 and 2012. Her current nomination gives much food for thought given the subtle relations among China, the United States and Japan.

Obama’s major concern is whether the United States can keep all changes in the Asia Pacific political landscape under its control. The region is a pivotal point in the US’ “strategy of rebalancing”. The continuous tension on the Korean Peninsular, the repeated occurrence of disputes over certain islets in the South China Sea and the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu Islands may erupt out of control if triggered by unexpected events.

With Caroline, who can reach Obama by cellphone directly, becoming the ambassador to Japan the president will be able to learn about anything happening in the region instantly without listening to reports from the State Department. Obviously the nomination of Caroline was a step Obama had taken in the hope of placing the US’ Japanese diplomacy directly under his control, rather than a show of the importance that the US attaches to the US-Japan relationship.

Viewed from the political perspective, there won’t be a fundamental change to the framework of the relations between China, the US and Japan. The relations between China and the US and between China and Japan, although in constant advancement, will never transcend that between the US and Japan, who are traditional allies bonded by the US-Japan Security Treaty. Over a fairly long period of time in the future, there will still be realistic factors to sustain the treaty.

For the US, Japan is an important partner in its strategic move to return to Asia Pacific. Without support from Japan, the US won’t succeed in maintaining its dominant position in the Asia-Pacific region and carrying out its global strategy. For Japan, the complexity and volatility of the situation in East Asia makes it impossible for Tokyo to conduct independent diplomacy free from American influence, although it has been engaging in arms expansion and harbors the ambition to become a major political power, and even tries to escape from the US’ dominance. Japan still needs the US’ support and help in its attempt to pursue “normalization of state” and a big power status.

Therefore, both the US and Japan need to strengthen their alliance despite the conflicts between the two countries such as trade frictions and disputes over the US military base in Okinawa.

Meanwhile, frictions and differences keep emerging between China and the US on such issues as human rights and democracy caused by ideological difference between the two nations. Crucial differences also exist between China and Japan on many issues such as history, Taiwan and territory. Therefore, for quite a while to come, the “scalene triangle” relations among China, the US and Japan will not change.

If viewed from the economic perspective, China’s rise bears different meanings for the US, Japan, and itself. For itself, it means a growing national economic strength and an increasingly richer life for its people. For the US, it may mean a greater challenge. Although it needs China’s cooperation and sharing of commitment on many regional and global issues, the US is fully aware that China will be the only challenger to its global hegemony in the next 10 to 20 years.

For Japan, it remains unclear where China will go in the future and there is even the possibility that this neighbor will become the largest threat to it. So it is increasingly watchful of China. With the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands escalating continually, Japan is becoming more and more hostile to China.

Of course, there is still need for cooperation among China, the US and Japan as the three countries depend on each other in economy considerably. In its bid to return to the Asia-Pacific region, the US needs economic gains in the Chinese market. Although China is not yet included in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement trumpeted by the US, it should be understood that any Asia-Pacific cooperation regime may not fare healthily if China is excluded. Japan’s economy, known for its “lost 20 years”, still relies heavily on exports for growth. So it will still covet a growing share in the Chinese market despite political frictions keeping emerging between the two countries.

Therefore, the three countries will try to maintain a relative stable framework for their relations. Confrontation works to all parties’ disadvantage.

Jiang Yuechun is Director of the Department of World Economy and Development Studies at the China Institute of International Studies.

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