The US-Japan Security Treaty has been the backbone of Japan’s national defense posture for 51 years. In its current form, the security of Japan is heavily reliant on the US military presence. While most Japanese recognise the importance of the pact for their security, the relationship is not without significant tension nor existential crises.
20 years after President George H W Bush hailed the start of a ‘New World Order’, Japan remains seemingly unable to decide what role it should play in post-Cold War international relations. Its international anchor, the US-Japan security treaty, has been tested by political and survived – but how suited is it to the changing balance of power in the Asia-Pacific?
Jitsuo Tsuchiyama on drifting Japan
On Saturday, Asahi Shimbun published an op-ed based on an interview with Jitsuo Tsuchiyama, an academic specializing in Japan’s international relations. In that interview, Tsuchiyama seems concerned by the lack of focus in Japan’s diplomacy:
A future Asian order could take any of the following forms: The United States and Japan maintaining a balance of power with China; a partnership between the United States and China; or a “Sino-centric order” in its new incarnation. But whichever it will be, international relations in Asia are bound to remain tense in the absence of a stable regional order. Japan must now decide what sort of international order it wants to build with China.
Although more than 20 years have passed since the end of the Cold War, Japan is still without a national objective it can call its own and state to the rest of the world. Prime Minister Naoto Kan says he intends to pursue pragmatic politics, but what Japan is lacking is not facile pragmatism or strategy, but a philosophy or idealism with which to build society.
The relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture is an urgent issue, but it must be discussed within the larger context of why the Japan-U.S. alliance is really important. Given the current environment of East Asia, the alliance is indispensable.
It is the responsibility of politicians to start a reasoned discourse to transform the Japan-U.S. alliance into one that provides reassurance to this region.
Japan’s international role has certainly been damaged by the lack of consistent and sustained political leadership in the 1990s and 2000s (with the notable exception of Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi). Some believe that Japan is simply just not interested in engaging the world in general, as evidenced its news coverage and other such cultural elements, but the existence of this mindset is debatable given Japanese tourism and role in international organizations. Regardless of the causes, Japan is in a tug of war between the various schools of thought on how to interact with the world and defend itself – nothing special for a democratic nation, but sadly detrimental to the progress of these debates at a time when Japan’s security environment seems to be growing ever more dangerous.
Drew Thompson on China and its challenge to US regional relationships
The issue of how to accommodate China’s rise and its effects on the regional balance of power also featured strongly in a symposium on the future of the alliance held in Tokyo last month (strangely reported in the Japan Times on Saturday, nearly a full month later).
Drew Thompson, senior fellow and director of China studies at the Nixon Center in Washington stressed that while “China’s economic rise is manageable and should be welcomed … The conduct of China’s foreign policy has changed perceptively since the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis. China has been increasingly assertive, bullied its neighbors and even made veiled threats against the U.S. presence in the region.” Thompson warned that “the rising sense of national confidence and its importance to the government’s legitimacy “create foreign policy challenges for Beijing, [creating] a feedback route for government decisions to increasingly cater to public opinion” shaped by censorship that “excludes moderating perspectives from being freely voiced”.”
The current environment, Thompson said, calls for the strengthening of U.S. alliances in the region, in particular the alliance with Japan. It also requires Japan to solidify its relations with South Korea, he said, noting that Japan “has a vested interest in the strong U.S.-South Korea alliance and continued stationing of forces in the Korean Peninsula.”
The U.S., for its part, “should reassure Japan and South Korea that its commitments to the alliances are unwavering and that (the) improving U.S.-China relationship does not undermine or detract from other U.S. bilateral relationships in the region,” he said. “China has made it clear that it is not seeking to be either No. 1 or No. 2 in a ‘G-2.’ The Obama administration’s offers to give China a right-size seat at the international table has met with suspicion in Beijing and ultimately rejected.”
There is little doubt that the US-Japan security relationship will continue to be the most significant alliance in the Asia-Pacific largely due to Japan’s strategic off-shore position and military integration. Japan’s recent National Defense Posture Outline shows synergy between the two nations, at least in theoretical terms – it is unclear just how far the acknowledging the threat posed by China and the ‘dynamic’ defense doctrine will be implemented practically and culturally. There is little chance that the existential dilemmas raised in the above articles will end complete disengagement.
The Chinese threat, which has popular currency in Japan, effectively demonstrates the necessity of security ties with the US, as well as loosening the resistance to greater practical burden-sharing in the alliance. However, Japan’s current political transition from single-party dominance to party pluralism raises the danger of the relationship once more being held hostage to the Futenma relocation issue and other sticking points. The relationship will survive, but the wedge such arguments drive between the two nations could be detrimental to coordination on managing China’s rise – a dangerous and undesirable prospect for both the US and Japan.
A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan.
His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch