With an Eye on China, the US + Japan Draw Closer
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Japan’s promise of stepped-up security cooperation with the U.S. may be a sensible response to a changing environment, but it also risks provoking neighbors.
Pacifist Japan is stepping out of its usual shrinking-violet role to take a more prominent military stance, to the delight of its U.S. ally. Others, namely neighbors and many of its own people, are much less giddy.
Standing before the American and Japanese flags in Tokyo last week, the Pentagon’s No. 2, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, declared the two nations were at “an inflection point for our alliance.”
It’s a simple but fundamental change. Up to now, the U.S. has been obligated by treaty to come to Japan’s defense if it’s attacked, but Japan’s Constitution — as interpreted — has prohibited the Japanese from reciprocating if the United States comes under assault. That’s what’s changing. Sounds simple, even natural, but not to Korea or China, both of which openly or secretly welcomed the old arrangement, which they saw as restraining Japan and preserving regional stability.
The U.S. and Japan have been close allies since the U.S. occupied Japan after World War II and wrote an oft-regretted pacifist clause into the Japanese Constitution. But now it’s watching uneasily as America’s overwhelming dominance of Asia-Pacific slowly erodes.
The cause: an empowered, assertive China. Beijing’s attempt to stake a claim to the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu to the Chinese) in the East China Sea and provocative actions in international airspace are ticking off both Washington and Tokyo. But tensions between Japan and neighboring South Korea and between North Korea and, well, everyone have also frayed nerves. In response, America and Japan are tightening their embrace, pursuing measures to facilitate ever closer security cooperation.
China’s especially twitchy about it.
The Chinese and the Koreans are saying, ‘Uh oh, here come the 1930s all over again.’ Well that’s very hard to sustain, in my view.
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his Cabinet’s decision to ease post-World War II restrictions on the country’s military last month, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency called the changes a “brutal violation” of Japan’s pacifist constitution. Abe also faces domestic blowback from a public that’s reflexively anti-war. One protester in Tokyo lit himself on fire in advance of the July announcement, landing in the hospital in serious condition.
Washington, however, has been all smiles over the decision.
“I think 10 years from now, people will look back to this very time and say this was one of the signature things that allowed peace and prosperity and a secure Asia-Pacific region to grow and thrive,” Work suggested.
Implications of the “reinterpretation” of the constitution’s ban on “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” may not turn out to be the dramatic shift that either critics or supporters expect, even if the symbolism is powerful.
Opponents of the hawkish Abe fear a revival of Japan’s World War II-era militarism.
“The Chinese and the Koreans are saying, ‘Uh oh, here come the 1930s all over again.’ Well that’s very hard to sustain, in my view,” says Alan Romberg, a former diplomat and expert on Asia at the Stimson Center, a D.C. think tank.
“It’s mainly having to do with bolstering the U.S. if we end up with a problem,” primarily with North Korea but also potentially with China, Romberg says.
The move will make it easier for Japan to team with the United States — its only formal treaty ally — on day-to-day operations like joint exercises, joint surveillance and planning for joint operations, says Narushige Michishita, the director of the security and international studies program at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
It’s going to be pretty tough because it has become pretty clear that Japanese people don’t necessarily support the idea of Japan playing a larger role on international security matters.
Currently, “we have to keep drawing lines between individual self-defense and collective self-defense all the time,” says Michishita, who served as an adviser to Japan’s Ministry of Defense last decade. “That’s a pain.”
Abe’s government still has hoops to jump through before it can implement the new policy. Japan’s parliament, the Diet, must approve potentially dozens of new laws authorizing specific actions Japan’s Self-Defense Forces can perform — like shooting down a North Korean missile headed for Hawaii or joining demining operations in the region. Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party could fail to get the needed votes from its coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, which has more pacifist leanings.
“It’s going to be pretty tough because it has become pretty clear that Japanese people don’t necessarily support the idea of Japan playing a larger role on international security matters,” says Michishita. Votes are likely to come this fall.
At the same time, Washington and Tokyo are renegotiating defense guidelines for the first time since 1997. Leaders hope to incorporate the new collective self-defense rules in the latest draft, due by year’s end.
The goal, Work said, is to “strengthen an alliance that already is the cornerstone of our security arrangements in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The U.S. and Japan have already made strides in the past year in resolving a long-running irritant, the burdensome presence of American military bases on Japan’s Okinawa Island.
“The Japanese need to be forthright” about the steps involved in their new policies “but also deal with the history,” says Romberg, alluding to Japan’s violent 20th century conquest of both China and South Korea, where anger and suspicion over Japan’s perceived lack of remorse run deep.
Abe seems to be wising up on that front, for example, skipping a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on the anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat. The shrine is an ode to Japan’s war dead but also entombs several World War II-era war criminals. Abe hopes to secure a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in China in November.
A sit-down with Xi is a real possibility. Convincing Beijing that Washington and Tokyo aren’t hiding an agenda to “contain China’s rise,” as American officials often insist, is not even a remote one.