What Romney Got Wrong When He Insulted Japan

The presidential candidate had some disparaging -- and not quite accurate -- words for this close U.S. ally.

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Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally. (Reuters)

Coming home after several weeks in Tokyo, I had planned to write about several issues that are consuming the attention of Japan's political and policy elites. But instead I came back to a hubbub stirred up by presidential candidate Mitt Romney's commentary on Japan.

At first, I found it hard to believe that Japan had come up at all in the U.S. presidential race. Not since the trade disputes of the 1980s did Tokyo factor in our domestic political contests, and even then it was in large part a function of our own economic concerns and the protectionist impulse that this created in some sectors of our society. China seems to be our demon of choice today in electoral politics, and politicians in the midterm elections fixated on that perceived threat.

After having read about Romney's comments in Foreign Policy, I'm a bit concerned. First, the Republican candidate for president seems to be misinformed about Japan's economy. He described Japan as "a nation that suffers in decline and distress for a decade or a century." But this is simply not true. Japan remains a formidable economic force, although China squeaked by Japan in the global ranking in 2010. But that is no reason to ignore the world's third largest economy. In terms of GDP per capita, Japanese citizens continue to be far richer than Chinese, and Japan's businesses continue to invest confidently in the United States.

Second, Mr. Romney's remarks were not simply a careless slip, but rather the basis of his analysis of Asia. The Romney campaign's website contains a very simplistic rendering of East Asia, one that focuses almost exclusively on China and that completely omits our closest ally, Japan. It would be reckless to continue to be misinformed about one of the world's most accomplished democracies.

More worrisome is his inference that Japan is no longer important to the United States, or for that matter in global affairs. Today, the United States counts Japan as one of its strongest partners in virtually everything we do around the globe. For example, the United States has worked tirelessly with Japanese diplomats and successive political leaders to contain nuclear proliferation--first with North Korea and now with Iran--and Japan has coordinated closely with us on our latest rounds of sanctions on Iranian oil. Japan has been one of the world's most significant contributors of overseas development assistance, and has played an indispensable role in one of Washington's most pressing challenges, the stabilization of Afghanistan. Tokyo leads the effort to organize global assistance for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, with the largest pledge of $5 billion in economic assistance over five years, and has just convened a donors meeting bringing together over 55 countries and 25 international organizations to work together on Afghanistan's future.

Tokyo is also a critical partner in global economic governance. Japan stands strongly behind the Bretton Woods institutions that continue to ensure that the world economy has a lender of last resort, and has been a formidable force in support of the International Monetary Fund's effort to stabilize European finances. It has worked together with the United States and Europe in the World Trade Organization to ensure free trade practices are respected, and disputes are fairly adjudicated.

Undervaluing Japan is not only mistaken, it is potentially compromising to our own national interests in Asia. For over half a century, Japan has been the cornerstone of our alliances there. During this half-century, Tokyo and Washington have grown into a mature relationship of military cooperation that far outpaces other alliances in the region. Our two countries now work to ensure ballistic missile defense against North Korea, to patrol and maintain open sea lanes of communication in the Western Pacific, to police and if necessary act against piracy and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and to assist other Asian nations, particularly in Southeast Asia, in building the capacities they need to defend their coastal waters and airspace against these new 21st century threats.

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Sheila A. Smith is the senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She writes regularly at Asia Unbound.

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