New US ambassadors in Japan, China: Pivot Interruptus?

Mark Michelson examines the new US ambassadors to China and Japan and assesses the challenges each face as they get down to work

US President Barack Obama’s recent choices of new ambassadors to China and Japan send mixed signals regarding the focus and implementation of American policy at a time of growing tension between Asia’s most economically and geopolitically important countries. 

Although both are well known in their respective spheres, neither has much foreign policy or specific Japan or China expertise that would provide effective “eyes and ears on the ground” to reinforce and advance the Obama administration’s “pivot toward Asia.”

US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, the charismatic daughter of the most popular US president in Japan, won rare unanimous approval in her Senate confirmation hearings and widespread public and political acclaim in Japan.  One of her strongest attributes from the Japanese perspective is that she, unlike her recent predecessors, is regarded as being “very close” to President Obama as an early and prominent supporter in his 2008 presidential campaign.  Chief Cabinet spokesman YoshihideSuga put it bluntly, “I think she’s a wonderful ambassador to develop the Japan-US relationship further as she is said to be able to talk directly with the president by phone.”

Ambassador Kennedy has limited diplomatic or policy experience, particularly with Japan.  This resume may actually be a plus for Japanese leaders who have been more comfortable with US envoys who were not Japan or foreign policy specialists. Yet the main issues she will have to face – the increasingly bitter rivalry with China exacerbated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine last month; Japan’s crucial role in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, which seem to be reaching a tipping point; the bold Abe domestic reform agenda; US military base disputes; and others – are highly complex and sensitive.  While Washington retains decision-making authority, the Ambassador plays a key role in advocating and securing support for US policy.

Advocating normalisation

In contrast, Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana), nominated to succeed Gary Locke as US Ambassador to China, is a senior politician and Congressional insider who has been highly influential on trade and financial issues for over 20 years.  He was an early and vital supporter during the 1990s of re-establishing a “normal trading relationship” with China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square tragedy and, later, of China’s membership in the World Trade Organization.  He follows other political heavyweights who have served as envoys to Japan and China, including Baucus’s political mentor Sen. Mike Mansfield (Japan) and former Senate colleague James Sasser (China).

As chair/ranking member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, he and his staff have frequently taken a leading role on Sino-US issues ranging from currency rates to trade barriers to environment, labor and human rights.  They have worked closely with public affairs firms and their corporate and government client – relationships that are likely to expand during his tenure in China.  Ambassador Baucus should feel especially comfortable in taking a proactive role in the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) as well as other discussions on trade, economic and financial issues.

While not nearly as familiar or comfortable with China as his three predecessors, he visited the country some eight times and has consistently cultivated China expertise on his staff and from informal advisors.  Several of Sen. Baucus’s former staff, including Ambassadors DemetriosMarantis, until recently Deputy US Trade Representative, and Darci Vetter, the US’s incoming Chief Agricultural Negotiator, have been closely involved in China-US economic relations.

Adversarial towards China

During the Obama years, Senator Baucus has taken a more adversarial position toward China on matters such as currency manipulation, human rights and direct investment.  He has been a vocal critic of Huawei and was among a group of senators who last year raised national security and food safety concerns related to China’s Shuanghui International’s ultimately successful acquisition of US pork producer Smithfield Foods.

Unlike Ambassador Kennedy, Senator Baucus is not personally close to Mr. Obama.   Leaving the Senate early would allow his Democratic successor the advantage of running as a sitting senator in the 2014 elections.  His key booster is Vice President Joe Biden, a long-time Senate friend.

Perhaps the most worrying deficiency of both ambassadors is an apparent lack of crisis management experience, which could prove to be vital in both posts.  A serious incident in the East China Sea would be a stern test of their assessment and diplomatic skills and instincts – which could be an opportunity for public affairs crisis specialists to provide counsel and training.

Mark Michelson is the Chairman of IMA Asia’s Hong Kong CEO Forum

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