Better Public Diplomacy in East Asia

Governments must do a better job explaining the strategic rationale behind their most controversial decisions.

Demonstrators at the "No Base Okinawa" protest in Ginowan.Negotiating security agreements between governments is not an easy task. National interests are scrupulously weighed. Technical details are worked out after months, and sometimes years, of tedious communiqués moving back and forth across official channels. Tensions can flare even among the closest of allies. When agreements are finalized, there is usually a palpable sense of achievement—and relief—among those involved in the hard work of hammering out a difficult deal. But the Herculean efforts involved in bringing these agreements to fruition are often unknown to the general public. And even an official agreement does not imply that it has been accepted by the public.

The court of public opinion is increasingly the ultimate test of whether an official agreement moves forward or stalls. In East Asia, home to two of America’s closest strategic allies, Japan and South Korea, public opinion has decided the fate of a series of recent strategic agreements. As the United States embarks on a strategic “rebalance” toward Asia, Washington and its allies in the region must do a better job making the case for policies that require broad public support. This is especially true in fiscally constrained times, when the threat of sequestration may require the United States to rely more heavily on its friends and allies in the region to share the burden of ensuring a stable and secure East Asia.

One example of failed public diplomacy in the region is the debacle this summer over a proposed Japan-South Korea intelligence-sharing agreement, known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The first-of-its-kind measure would have deepened bilateral defense relations between America’s two key allies in the region and paved the way for further coordination in the face of mounting regional-security concerns.

When it comes to relations between Japan and South Korea, the legacy of Japan’s colonial period looms large, and many Koreans still harbor a deep mistrust of Japan and its military intentions. Yet, after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, officials in Tokyo and Seoul were ready to finalize the deal in late June. At the eleventh hour, however, news of the agreement was leaked, creating a political firestorm in South Korea that forced President Lee Myung-bak to postpone the agreement and accept the resignation of his top national-security advisor, Kim Tae-hyo. As some have pointed out, Mr. Lee’s government obviously underestimated how deeply entrenched South Koreans’ anxieties were about cooperating militarily with Japan.

This unfortunate turn of events might have been avoided had President Lee made some effort to convince voters of the rationale behind his moves. Rather than publicly explain the need to move beyond historical grievances with Japan for the sake of broader national-security interests, the president gambled that he could deliver the agreement under the radar screen of public scrutiny. This was perhaps a more expedient approach than reopening the wounds of history, but in the end Lee’s gamble failed. It is now anyone’s guess when the bilateral GSOMIA can be brought up again.

A similar issue exists in Japan, home to the second-largest contingent of U.S. forward-deployed forces in the world. For years, a bilateral agreement to relocate the Futenma U.S. Marine Air Station on Okinawa to a less populated area on the island has been stalled due to intense local opposition, leading to tensions in the U.S.-Japan alliance and delays in broader U.S. alignment plans. To claim that this is merely a public-relations problem would be oversimplifying a far more complex issue. After all, Okinawa shoulders a disproportionate amount of the U.S. military footprint in Japan. But with Tokyo and Washington seeing eye-to-eye on the details of the relocation plan, it is clear that the main sticking point lies with the Japanese public (in particular with certain communities on Okinawa).

Yet U.S. and Japanese officials have failed to make a convincing enough case to win the message war against a minority of vocal opponents to the current plan. Japanese leaders have been reluctant to engage their constituents consistently about the plan or discuss the strategic rationale behind the continuing U.S. military presence on Okinawa.

This is in large part a consequence of the culture of antimilitarism that has prevailed in Japan since the end of the Second World War. While postwar taboos regarding the military are gradually eroding, they may not be disappearing at a pace that keeps up with the country’s external priorities, which must account for East Asia’s rapidly evolving security environment and U.S. plans for a revamped presence in the region. Few lawmakers in Tokyo, however, are willing or able to advance this debate in a way that resonates with Japanese voters.

How do we stanch the flow of stalled agreements? What policies or communications strategies could be created to more effectively convey their necessity, particularly those that are both vitally important to the region’s security and also sensitive to the general public?

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