Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had an op-ed in yesterday’s Yomiuri Shimbun, in which he comments on the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance and on the United States’ role in Asia. He gets it exactly right when he asserts that when it comes to our relationship with Japan, shared values are at least as important as shared security concerns. He writes:
On the eve of my first visit to Japan as United States Secretary of Defense, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the enduring nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance that has been the cornerstone of stability and security in the Asia Pacific region for more than 50 years. Our partnership is based on more than just shared security and economic interests—its true strength comes from the common values our two peoples hold dear, a belief in democratic ideals, and the rule of law.
Somewhat troubling, however, is Panetta’s description of America’s goals vis-à-vis the challenges the alliance faces in Asia:
These include North Korea, which continues to engage in reckless and provocative behavior and is developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which pose a threat not just to Japan, but to the entire region. China is rapidly modernizing its military, but with a troubling lack of transparency, coupled with increasingly assertive activity in the East and South China Seas. Together, the U.S. and Japan will work to bring North Korea back to the Six Party Talks, and encourage China to play a responsible role in the international community.
While Panetta at least describes the desired (if idealistic) outcome of Washington’s China Policy—a “responsible” Beijing—he fails to do so for North Korea. This passage is striking, and perhaps unintentionally revealing, because the goal it ascribes to America and Japan’s North Korea policy is a return to the Six Party Talks. Not denuclearization. Not an end to Pyongyang’s murderous acts of war. Not the return of kidnapped Japanese citizens. Just talks.
That a return to the Six Party Talks is precisely what North Korea wants should give the Obama administration pause. (Nick Eberstadt explained earlier this year what Pyongyang desires out of renewed negotiations). But, hey, if that’s our only goal, well, at least it’ll be easy to achieve.
For an alternative approach to North Korea—one that hasn’t, unlike the Six Party Talks, proven itself a repeated failure over the last decade—see my recent Asian Outlook on the subject.