October 30, 2008

Consenting Adults

Why the United States and Japan have every reason to strengthen their alliance.

Why the United States and Japan have every reason to strengthen their alliance.


Christian Caryl

Consenting Adults

Why the United States and Japan have every reason to strengthen their alliance.

Last summer Japan’s then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi arrived in the United States. The highlight of the trip was the visit paid by Koizumi and President George W. Bush to Graceland, the legendary home of Elvis Presley. Koizumi, a lifelong fan, had always wanted to make the pilgrimage, and his friend, the American president, was happy to oblige. At one point Koizumi donned a pair of sunglasses and crooned Elvis hits. The press, needless to say, was thrilled.
The state-sponsored silliness ended up obscuring some salient facts. In an age when Washington’s international standing has arguably reached an all-time low, the relationship between the United States and Japan is thriving like never before. The two countries are deeply and amicably interconnected on a myriad of levels. The two are deeply dependent on each other economically. In the realm of soft power, the two eagerly consume each other’s culture (low as well as high). Koizumi used his five-year term as Japan’s prime minister to invigorate the two country’s security relationship like few leaders before him. Among his many other achievements, he stretched interpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution to its limits by passing laws that allowed the dispatch of Japanese naval forces to the Indian Sea in support of U.S.-led Coalition operations in Afghanistan and, later, permitted troops of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Forces (the modern-day army) to deploy to Iraq as part of Washington’s war there. The Japanese public has shown little appetite for overseas military development in the past, so these moves represented a considerable political risk for Koizumi. But he prevailed, and the warm reception afforded him at the White House during last year’s visit signified Washington’s recognition of his willingness to take risks for the sake of the two countries’ alliance.
Koizumi’s get-together with Bush was also known as the “sayonara summit,” since it was to be the prime minister’s last visit to the U.S. before he stepped down from the office in September 2006. But make no mistake – the rationale for the two countries’ close relationship is based not on personalities, however impressive they might be, but on dovetailing and enduring vital interests. Despite the rise of China and its own economic downturn during the 1990s, Japan remains the world’s second-largest national economy, and its advanced technology is still the envy of the world. America is the leading market for high-margin Japanese products, and Tokyo is happy to purchase reams of U.S. debt in return. Meanwhile, East Asia is today the world’s most dynamic region economically, and both Japan and the United States are dependent on its continuing stability. The rise of China confronts both with vast opportunities as well as the potential for destabilizing rivalry. Washington and Tokyo also share the view that a nuclear-armed North Korea represents an immediate and profound security threat. Mike Mansfield, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Tokyo, famously referred to the Japanese-American alliance as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.”
Indeed, as North Korea’s first nuclear test in October vividly demonstrated, Japanese-American cooperation in the realm of security has every reason to get closer in the years to come. Koizumi’s successor as prime minister, Shinzo Abe, shows every indication of preparing to push ahead. A foreign policy specialist, he has long been an outspoken advocate of a more “realistic” security strategy for Japan, which includes a more robust embrace of the relationship with Washington. He also happens to be the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, the postwar prime minister who was instrumental in overseeing the creation of the 1960 Security Treaty that still forms the basis for the two countries’ alliance. That treaty recognized the limitations of Japan’s pacifist constitution, which, among other things, places tight constraints on Tokyo’s ability to project military power beyond its own borders. To compensate for this, the treaty allowed the basing of large numbers of U.S. troops on Japanese territory. (Right now there are about 50,000 U.S. troops based in the country, about half of them on the strategically crucial island of Okinawa.)
Abe has already made it clear that one of his priorities as prime minister will be to revise the constitution, and specifically its Article 9, which renounces war as an instrument of policy and prohibits Japan from maintaining armed forces – not that this has prevented inventive Japanese policymakers from building up one of the world’s biggest militaries. As the deployments in the Indian Ocean and Iraq have shown, however, finding ways to put this power to use overseas still requires politically fraught and unwieldy legislative acts. Revision of Article 9 could entail measures as simple as acknowledging that Japan has the right to possess a full-fledged military – and could go as far as specifically acknowledging the possibility that defending the homeland can also imply defending crucial Japanese allies.
The latter notion – known as the “right of collective self-defense” – could well become a focus of defense reform efforts in the Abe administration. For decades the Japanese cabinet has persisted in asserting a peculiar, almost scholastic reading of its own obligations within the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Japan, the Cabinet has stated, has an implicit “right to collective self-defense” – i.e., the right to undertake actions that would defend Japan’s allies from harm – but chooses, in line with constitutional constraints, to eschew exercising that right. (Even though the United States, for example, has pledged to protect Japan with its own nuclear umbrella.)
These days, however, that hallowed principle is coming under pressure. The main reason is the realization that Japan lives in a tense and increasingly unpredictable neighborhood. The biggest wild card of all, of course, is North Korea, which has not only demonstrated its capacity for nuclear weapons, but has also performed tests that showcase its arsenal of long- and intermediate-range missiles, many of which can easily target Japan (including the U.S. bases on Japanese territory). This threat has been driving intensified U.S-Japanese cooperation on missile defense. The Americans recently installed a high-powered anti-missile radar in Aomori, on the northern tip of Japan’s central island of Honshu, and both Japan and the U.S. have been deploying missile cruisers equipped with the powerful Aegis anti-missile radar in waters to the West of Japan. (Aegis ships would target North Korean missiles in the “boost phase” immediately after launch, and thus represent the first line in a multi-layered missile defense system.) The Tokyo government has even loosened defense-technology export regulations that will allow it to share with the U.S. any innovations in ABM technology devised by the Japanese.
All of which, needless to say, poses the question of collective self-defense with a new urgency. So it was no wonder when, in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test, the issue thrust itself back into the foreground. Surely, it was said, Japan would have to fire upon a missile launched from North Korean territory – even if the trajectory suggested that the U.S. was the target? In November Abe and his senior aides floated the possibility that Japan may soon review a guideline laid out in 2003, according to which Japan would refrain from attacking missiles determined to be aimed at territories outside of Japan. Both U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer and Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Affairs Richard Lawless have called openly on Tokyo to scrap the old policy.
As Abe argues for a more realistic approach to Japanese security at home, he will be preaching to the choir in Washington. Pro-Japan policymakers in the American policy elite have long been calling for Japan to take a more active role in the two countries’ alliance. Perhaps one of the most famous cases involved the so-called “Armitage Report” in 2000 , named for one of its primary sponsors, Richard Armitage, who would go on to become Deputy Secretary of State in the Bush Administration (2001-2005). “We see the special relationship between the United States and Great Britain as a model for the [U.S.-Japan] alliance,” wrote Armitage and his co-authors – an utterance artfully designed to serve both as a reassurance (to Japanese policymakers who worry when the Americans’ attention is diverted by one of its numerous imperial obligations) and an exhortation (urging the Japanese to get closer in line with Washington’s desires). In October 2005, both countries brought that “special relationship” a step closer in the form of a comprehensive agreement that realigned U.S. forces in Japan (including moving 7000 Marines from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam), called upon Japan to bear more responsibility for its own defense, and integrated the two countries’ planning in case of conflict. Washington’s need for Japan to step up to the plate has been compounded in recent years by the fraying of U.S. relations with South Korea, where recent administrations have been pursuing détente with the North to an extent that has made many American policymakers doubtful about the extent to which Seoul can be relied on in a fight.
One could argue that American policymakers have long been arguing for Japan to play a more active role in the alliance, while the Japanese have traditionally managed to cite their constraining constitution as an excellent reason for leaving things as they are. The present situation, however, clearly leaves little room for the status quo. Aside from North Korea’s increasing belligerence, there is also the issue of China. To be sure, relations between Beijing and Tokyo have warmed up to a certain degree since Abe took office. Koizumi had inflicted a severe blow to Japan’s standing in the People’s Republic as well as in South Korea with his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a religious site in Tokyo that honors the memory of Japan’s war dead (including, most controversially, 14 Class-A war criminals condemned to death after the end of the Second World War). Abe made good on his promise to restore good relations with China by making his first trip abroad as prime minister to Beijing, followed by an equally resonant visit to Seoul shortly afterwards. Abe had good reason to make the effort. In 2005 China surpassed the United States as Japan’s biggest trading partner, and the trading relationship between Tokyo and Beijing is quickly becoming a major axis of the world economy.
And yet, as the geopoliticians hasten to remind us, none of this means that rivalry between China and Japan will magically vanish. Never before in history, argue some experts, have China and Japan been great powers at the same time. Just take control of the seas. One of China’s vital interests remains its imperative to assert control over Taiwan. Japan, meanwhile, is almost entirely dependent on imports of oil and gas, mainly from the Persian Gulf, to keep its economy alive, and that means safeguarding the sea lanes that connect it with its energy suppliers. Most of those sea lanes run between Taiwan and mainland China. Meanwhile, as part of its broader efforts to balance or contain Beijing’s influence, Tokyo has also been courting public opinion in Taiwan, and one of the recent U.S.-Japan agreements described Taiwan as a “common concern.” Abe’s administration is set to pass additional bills explicitly allowing Japan to assist U.S. force in the event of a cross-Straits conflict. China is growing increasingly open about its desire to create a blue-water navy as a medium of power projection. But if Chinese submarines wish to disperse quickly into the Pacific, they must first pass through the natural barrier of the Ryukyu Island chain (of which Okinawa is a part).
The potential for friction does not stop there. Japan and China have also become rivals for influence in diplomatic fora (ranging from the UN to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and competitors for raw materials and export markets around the world. Meanwhile, Beijing views Japanese-American efforts to build up a missile-defense shield as aimed more at China’s ICBMs than at North Korea pitiful rocket force.
The United States would like to see Tokyo and Beijing contain their differences wherever possible. Clearly Washington has no interest in seeing Northeast Asian rivalries devolve into outright conflict; nor does it have any wish for Japan to develop its own nuclear deterrent (an option that may well be considered by Japanese policymakers, given North Korea’s growing nuclear potential, but which still makes little sense for Tokyo in the larger scheme of things). But it is equally clear that Washington will continue to pursue an ever-closer security relationship with Tokyo as well as looking for ways to bring Japan and other American regional allies closer together (witness NATO’s recent overtures to Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea).
To be sure, irritants will always crop up. Trade disputes, such as the recently canceled Japanese restrictions on the import of U.S. beef, will never go away completely. Debates will arise over the extent to which the Pentagon deploys its Japan-based assets for purposes that go beyond the bilateral relationship. Burden-sharing is another eternal problem: Okinawans in particular resent the huge American troop presence on their soil, and other Japanese communities sometimes express reservations about the proximity of U.S. forces as well. (Such Japanese complaints often irritate Washingtonians, who insist that Tokyo do more to explain to the Japanese public the rationale for the U.S. presence, which is often portrayed by the Japanese media in terms of some inexplicable favor magnanimously granted by Japan, rather than as a factor that considerably boosts Japan’s own security.) But these problems are minor, and to some extent predictable. The main question about the Japanese-American alliance these days is not whether it will endure, in short, but how far it can continue to grow.

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