The Future East Asian Security (i.e. The Future of U.S.-Japanese Relations)

For the last 600 years the history of world has been defined by the Atlantic. On these waves sailed the explorer’s caravel, the conquistador’s galleon, the slaver’s schooner, and the trade-man’s gunboat. The winds of the Atlantic have carried the blood of revolutionaries, the cries of pilgrims, and the powder of world wars. It was these waters that first felt the rough touch of the ironclad, the shock of the telegraph, and the grace of an airplane’s shadow. The modern world was made on the crest of the Atlantic. Yet history does not stand still; these stately waters now stand second to the power of the Pacific.
Many Americans have been slow to recognize the greatest geopolitical shift they will witness during their lifetimes. It would do these Americans good to look at the words of Asia’s current leadership, as they have certainly noticed their new found status. Take for instance, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who said that the next 100 years is set to be “The new Asian Century.”
But don’t take their word for it- a simple look at the statistics will tell you all you need to know. Where the economies of the Europe are staggering, the countries of Asia are entering their second decade of commercial growth. We now live on a planet where three of the world’s four largest economies are on the Pacific rim, the number of merchant ships in the Pacific is double of that in the Atlantic, and the world’s five largest militaries all reside in Asia. It does not take a degree in international relations to realize that the center of world power is shifting to the East.
Many different policies have been proposed to lead the United States through this new Pacific-centric world. Unsurprisingly, most such policies deal with the United State’s relationship with China, the region’s “rising” power. A prominent example of this attitude can be found in the words of Senator Hillary Clinton, who wrote December of last year , “Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.”

Simply put, this position is wrong. Our relationship with China is nowhere near as important as our relationship with another Asian country- Japan.
Japan has been a critical ally of the United States since the end of the Second World War. As it stands now, the U.S.-Japanese bilateral alliance is one of the strongest -if not the strongest- alliance the United States has in the world. Our relationship with Japan is the foundation of all other American activities in Asia. If we want to get our “Asia policy” right, we have to get our relationship with Japan right first.
With that in mind, an essay written by Masahiro Matsumura, Brookings fellow and international relations professor at the University of Osaka, on the strategic options of the Japanese state is particularly pertinent to U.S. policy makers today. In the essay, Matsumura lays out five broad strategic paths Japan could take in the next 20 years and what the implications of each strategy is for the region. As said in the essay, the five strategies available to Japan are:
  • Continue the U.S.-Japan alliance under strong U.S. hegemony and distance itself from a strong China. Under such scenario, Japan would continue its Cold War role as a firm -yet dependent- ally of the United States. The relationship between the two states would be asymmetric; the United States would pay a dominating role in the security apparatus of East Asia, with Japan providing supplemental logistic and rear area support. Under this strategy, Japan’s domestic safety would be completely dependent on the conventional forces and nuclear umbrella of the United States. During such a scenario the United States becomes the de facto regional power, with Japan playing a secondary leadership role. (Or as Matsumura puts it, “the hub to other U.S. regional allies”) Tokyo’s policy decisions would be dominated by technological and economic concerns and Japan’s strategic options would be dominated by the use of soft power. Such a relationship would be justified by the shared democratic and free-trade policy goals of both states.
  • Continue the alliance under weakened U.S. hegemony, and distance from a strong China. This strategy is similar to that of the first one, save it assumes that the United States will either lack the resources or the political will needed to maintain a strong presence in East Asia. Under this strategy, Japan would support U.S. hegemony yet perform its own security buildup. During such a scenario it is likely that the U.S. will pressure Japan into acquiring projection capability so that the combined military power of both states might act as a deterrent towards Chinese aggression. Regional politics would increasingly be defined by economic and military competition between a Japan-centered bloc of democracies and China. Matsumara succinctly describe this dynamic as “characterized by open regionalism. The United States, although an outsider, would be welcome to play an active role, and China would be included as a major member state, yet without having any strong leadership role.”
  • Continue the alliance under weakened U.S. hegemony, and embrace a strong China. Like the second scenario, this strategy assumes that the United States’ presence in East Asia will enter a state of decline. This approach differs from the second scenario in that it assumes Japan will either lack the resources or the political will to perform a military buildup needed to sufficiently deter China. The reasons for Japan’s inability to enter into an arms race are many: economic recession, demographic decline, and self-imposed pacifism would all likely play a part. Under such a scenario, Tokyo would be forced into a diplomatic entente with Beijing, and would often be compelled to appease Beijing on various political and economic issues. Such a scenario would lead to a Sino-centric regional order, with China shaping the economic landscape of East Asia. While Japan would still have an active soft power role within the community, it would likely suffer from geo-economic marginalization.
  • Abrogate the alliance as a result of the end of U.S. hegemony, and embrace a strong China. In this relationship, China would replace the United States as the regional hegemon. Such a scenario would come into existence after Japan failed to perform an arms buildup sufficient to defer Chinese aggression. Such a scenario also assumes that Japanese attempts at entente would similarly fail. Under this approach, Japan would become a de facto protectorate of the new Sino-centric regional order. The relative independence Japan has in the Western interstate system would disappear; Japan’s political, military, and economic policy would all be tied tightly to- if not outright defined by -China’s foreign policy goals. Under such a system, Japan would be substantially less secure, as it would face hostile United States without the benefit of a Chinese nuclear umbrella.
  • Abrogate the alliance as a result of the end of U.S. hegemony, and distance from a strong China. This final relationship would result from the breakup of the U.S-Japan hegemonic alliance with Japan acting as a third “pole” in Northeast Asia. Under this scenario, Japan would balance against both the United States and China, with neither country holding much influence over Japanese foreign policy. Such a situation would require a massive military buildup; this buildup would consist of the possession of major conventional projection powers as well as a strategic nuclear arsenal. Such a strategy would transform regional politics into a “great game” between the three competing powers, with Japan, China, and the United States all vying for political and economic advantage. Needless to say, this triple-power relationship would be highly unstable, particularly when one takes into account the historical grievances between China and Japan.
If these five scenarios are the only foreseeable options for the North Asian security apparatus in the near future, then it is in the United State’s best interest to try and direct the U.S.-Japanese alliance into one of the options that best protects our interests in the region. Of the five scenarios, two are clearly contrary to current American and Japanese interests- Option Three (Japan embracing a strong China while maintaining a weak alliance with United States) and Option Four (Japan embracing a strong China and ending the alliance with the United States) both assume that when American and Chinese interests conflict Japan will most likely take the side of the latter at the expense of the former. Likewise, Option Five (an independent Japan) is detrimental to American interests, pitting America in direct competition with both Japan and China. Thus, it is in the best interests of both American and Japanese policy makers to steer the U.S.-Japanese alliance into one of the first two options. 
With this goal in mind, I find a speech given earlier this week at the shangri-La Dialogue security summit by Shigeru Ishiba, the Japanese Minister of Defense, particularly enlightening. Ishiba’s speech was titled, “The Future of East Asian Security,” and it contains a few passages that are of interest to anyone trying to predict which option the current Japanese leadership feels Japan should move towards:

“Speaking of the stability of East Asia, continuous effort to review whether or not a balance of power is effectively working in this region is necessary….our thoughts on strengthening Japan-US Security Alliance and Japan’s role, and the synergy between Japan-US Security Alliance and Japan’s Asian Diplomacy. The Japan-US Security Alliance, between the largest and the second largest economic powers, has become one of the most solid alliances in the world. Besides the military significance of the alliance, it should be seen as a regional public good, and as being in a broader context than merely a bilateral alliance. Bilateral efforts to tackle regional challenges by the United States, with its increasing military presence and Japan with further determination and capabilities, could contribute to the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region….

The national interests of Japan and the United States significantly overlap and that is why our alliance has been upheld. The core mission of the alliance remains to be the stability of East Asia. As many of you know, the Japan-US Security Alliance is said to be an asymmetrical bilateral relationship. Simply put, the US has an obligation to defend Japan while Japan can not defend the US, as it can not exercise right of collective self-defence due to its interpretation of its own Constitution…. In Japan, some people strongly believe the following: that it is immoral that while Japan seeks assistance from other countries when it is attacked, Japan does nothing to protect foreign countries when they are under attack. they say that Japan will not gain the trust of other countries. They go on to say that that is why Japan needs to pave the way to enable itself to exercise the right of collective self-defence.

At present, the Government of Japan plans neither to amend its Constitution nor change its interpretation. Were this issue to be discussed in the Diet in the future, the following elements should be strictly defined: what conditions are there for the exercise of the right of collective self-defence and how should the Diet should engage itself in the decision making process, so that we should not let an act of invasion take place, in the name of right of collective self-defence….

Next, let me share with you the question I am frequently asked by people from abroad. When North Korea carried out a nuclear test the year before last, some insisted that Japan should also possess nuclear weapons. Japan, however, does not have any plan whatsoever to become a nuclear power today or in the future. If Japan, the only nation that suffered from atomic bombings, becomes a possessor of nuclear weapons, it would automatically lead to the collapse of the entire NPT regime. I should admit that the NPT regime is far from perfect, and that it does entail unfairness. I am convinced, however, that NPT regime offers a better world than a nightmarish one where more nations hold nuclear weapons. It is not nuclear armament that Japan should pursue. Japan should work harder for the non-proliferation of WMD by  strengthening the reliability of the nuclear deterrence of the US and by exerting further efforts for continuing Six-Party Talks.”

From this speech a few conclusions can be drawn. Tokyo believes that the U.S.-Japanese bilateral alliance is the bedrock of their national security. However, the current administration believes that it is necessary for Japan to increase its military “capabilities” in order to keep East Asia stable. Here Ishiba’s breaks from Matsumura, affirming his belief that the United State’s presence in the region will not decline to the point where Japan needs significant conventional projection capability or a nuclear arsenal to maintain sovereignty. Tokyo’s current strategy straddles the line between the First Option (strong asymmetric relationship with the United States) and the Second Option (symmetric alliance with the United States) described by Matsumura.
While Minster Ishiba’s address gives us an informative look inside the minds of the current Japanese leadership, the most interesting thing said by Ishiba was his description of the political views he disagrees with. According to him many Japanese politicians believe that it is immoral for Japan to depend on the United States for its own security. I think it is safe to say that these politicians believe that the first of Matsumura’s options is unacceptable. While this group is not in a position to define Japan’s strategic stance at the moment, it is not hard to imagine a future where such views are held by those controlling the contours of power. For many observers, this is not part of some remote future but a process that is going on right now. One such observation was published by James Lanley and Jason T. Chaplan in their essay for the December 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, “Washington’s Eastern Sunset,”:

The more profound changes in Japan’s security posture, however, have been in the realm of policy and institutional reform. Constrained by a U.S.-written pacifist constitution, Japan watched the Cold War from the sidelines and left its security in the hands of the United States while it concentrated on its economic development. As the historian Kenneth Pyle notes in his book Japan Rising, during that era Tokyo imposed on itself eight security-related restraints. It vowed not to deploy Japanese troops overseas, participate in collective self-defense arrangements, develop power-projection capabilities for its military, develop nuclear weapons, export arms, share defense-related technology, spend more than one percent of its GDP on defense, or use outer space for military purposes.

Today, as Pyle notes, Tokyo is scaling back or abandoning all of these self-imposed restraints. In addition to supplying fuel for the warships of the coalition forces operating in Afghanistan, this past May, the Diet passed a bill calling for a national referendum as early as 2010 to amend Article 9 of the constitution, which renounces war, prohibits the threat or use of force to settle international disputes, and bans Japan from having a formal military. The government has also been seeking to reinterpret the constitution in order to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense with the United States, which could theoretically include supporting the United States in a conflict with China over Taiwan. Japan is seeking to develop its capability to project power: earlier this year, it requested to buy 50 F-22 fighter bombers from the United States, it has purchased the midair refueling tankers, and in August it launched the Hyuga, an aircraft carrier for helicopters. Its decision to join the United States in developing a ballistic missile defense system for the region belies its past commitments not to export arms or share military technology. And last year, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party voted to allow Japan to use outer space for military purposes. (The Diet is expected to vote on the matter later this year.) Finally, earlier this year, Tokyo formally elevated the Japan Defense Agency to the status of a full ministry. The move’s symbolism was not lost on observers: onsecurity matters, Tokyo is coming out of its shell.

Keep in mind that this is the current pacifist government that is “coming out of its shell.” If these are the actions of an administration that fully accepts U.S. hegemony, what will happen when Ishiba’s “some people” gain power in Japan? In the worst case scenario, they will follow Matsumura’s model and attempt to militarize Japan (i.e. Option Five) in an effort at self-preservation. As has been discussed before, there is not a more dangerous scenario for the Asian-Pacific community.
What can American policymakers do to prevent this series of events from unfolding? Matsumura states in his essay that the strength of the U.S. hegemony is the “primary determinant” of Tokyo’s strategic choice making. Lanley and Chaplan reinforce this truth in their own essay, stating:

On the other hand, the emerging security situation in Northeast Asia presents opportunities for cooperation. The U.S.-Japanese alliance is stronger than it has been in many years in part because Japan, faced with China’s military modernization, is looking to strengthen its security ties with the United States as a countermeasure…. If anything, it is Washington that must demonstrate its intention to stay fully engaged in the region. Downsizing U.S. forces could create the perception that the United States is a wounded giant stretched so thin by its commitments elsewhere that it is failing to pay sufficient attention to the Pacific.

The United States’s stretched-out military, economic problems, and public backlash against free trade and immigration has led many foreigners to believe that America is about to enter into an age of isolationism. The United States can make no strategic blunder larger than proving these predictions true. For both our own security and that of our allies, it is time for America to stand up and prove that we will protect our allies, despite “commitments” elsewhere. If we do not show that the United States is committed to safe-gaurding the free world, despite the enoumous cost of doing so, we will be planting the seeds of our own destruction.
Tip of the Hat to Westhawk for pointing me to the Matsumura’s paper.

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