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US–Japan cracks are starting to show

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The Ronald Reagan Strike Group ship's the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54) and the guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69) conduct a photo exercise with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship's the helicopter destroyer JS Kaga (DDH 184), the destroyer JS Inazuma (DD 105) and the destroyer JS Suzutsuki (DD 117) in the South China Sea, 31 August 2018 (Phot: Reuters/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila V. Peter/US Navy).

In Brief

US President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018. The ‘historic event’ ended up with a piece of paper, which verified already existing commitments made by North Korea at the third inter-Korean summit in April 2018. Although there were no specific promises made in the US–North Korea joint statement, President Trump made a generous gesture to halt joint military exercises with South Korea.


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International and US media have expressed concerns about stopping the exercises without a more substantial pledge to denuclearise from North Korea.

The sentiment in Japan following the US–North Korea summit is of disappointment and powerlessness. President Trump mentioned Japan as one of the main cost bearers of denuclearisation, yet no concrete agreement about denuclearisation was made. Once again, Japan would be paying for something it has little influence over. The pacifist sectors of Japan — the opposition and left-leaning media — are critical of the Abe administration for being out of the loop.

Japan finds itself in a difficult position. It doesn’t really have any policy alternative other than to attempt to influence the US government. But what is clear from the United States’ turn towards rapprochement with North Korea is that this influencing capability is quite limited. Japan also has no offensive capabilities, neither nuclear nor conventional, to draw concessions out of North Korea. Japan’s Self-Defense Force will likely not be joining the military operation towards North Korea in any significant fashion. In case of a military scenario, the decision-making will not include Japan nor address its concerns, while many of the associated risks and costs are likely to fall on Japan. In other words, the Japanese government has no lever to pull.

The unfolding saga on the Korean Peninsula is exposing a more fundamental issue for Japanese and regional security: the gaps in perception between Japan and the United States regarding their alliance. The perception of the Trump administration embodies a long-standing distrust towards Japan as a ‘free-rider’ in the alliance. The United States has accused Japan in the past of using its pacifism ‘excuse’ to maintain a low-cost defence policy. This remains a widely shared view among the US public and some US policy experts as well. But that is not the prevailing view in Japan at all. Japanese media focusses almost entirely on a fear of entrapment by the United States.

This gap in perception has a long history, dating back to the early days of the Cold War. The United States changed its policy towards Japan to integrate it into the US policy of containing Communism. The United States repeatedly demanded that Japan re-arm and build-up its military but Japanese diplomats dodged and delayed military contributions, citing Japan’s pacifist public opinion. Declassified diplomatic documents regarding the renegotiation process for the Japan–US security treaty in the 1950s reveal the tensions between both countries during that time.

The impression that Japan used its pacifist public as an excuse to not help in the containment effort irritated the United States. The feeling of discontent led the United States to demand keeping a ‘free hand’ military policy. The biggest fear among Japanese diplomats was being abandoned by the alliance (the old version of the treaty didn’t include the US obligation to defend Japan). The Japanese public, on the contrary, did not share such fear of abandonment nor did it strive for a more independent security policy. The Japanese government therefore chose to focus on hospitality toward the US military and remain a non-military power.

Differing views on the alliance within Japan created a domestic conservative–progressive ideological dispute. The progressive-leaning public focussed on the risk of entrapment, and intentionally or unintentionally ignored the risk of abandonment. The conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government, albeit in small increments, chose to strengthen the alliance and tried to keep the details away from the public as much as possible.

The LDP’s strong grip on power and economic focus made this possible. The Japanese public and opposition were largely kept in the dark regarding the realities of the alliance. The failure of the progressive Hatoyama administration during its short time in power in 2009 to remove the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Okinawa prefecture tends to be explained through its incompetence. But it can also be explained as the opposition party also fearing, once it was in power, that Japan might be abandoned. Due to the opposition’s limited tenure in power, this realisation was not sufficient to overcome the almost comical perception gap among Japan’s conservatives and progressives.

The recent trend among Japanese progressives, cut off from Cold War narratives, has been to become more isolationist. President Trump’s straight talk has made Japanese progressives doubt US commitment to the alliance, all the while maintaining their strong fear of entrapment. Their policy interest heads towards weakening the alliance and becoming more independent, but not necessarily building up independent military capabilities. That kind of policy direction has no linkage to any world order, old or new. Contrary to the Cold War period, recent progressives don’t even like China (only around 10 per cent of the Japanese public likes China). It would lead to nowhere but isolationism. Japanese conservatives, on the other hand, have no policy alternative but to cling to the current US-led world order, which is quickly collapsing.

Adding China to the narrative provides a clearer view of the potential future of the Asia Pacific. North Korea may return to international society by gradually decreasing (but likely not abandoning) its nuclear capabilities. By the time its nuclear arsenal reaches a bearable level for the United States, it is possible that a new world order will have emerged in which China plays the dominant regional role. South Korea has shifted towards reconciliation with North Korea, and nobody seriously wants to stop such a trend. Japan and South Korea have different views about China, but the progressives in both countries share a similar view about the United States: ‘Don’t involve us in the confrontation with China’. This isolationist sentiment will continue to be a critical gap in the United States’ regional alliances.

With diminishing relative power and resolve, the United States alone cannot stop China’s expansion. US presence in the region works to deter the invasion of its allies, but it cannot prevent the salami slicing tactics used by China. The United States may grow increasingly critical towards its regional allies and accuse them of being opportunistic, which will likely be true. These alliances are, after all, based on mutual interest, and interests can change.

In the coming new regional order, Japan will be forced to play a semi-American role that can provide a partial counterbalance to China and fulfil the role of benchmark keeper. No other country is capable of or interested in playing such a role. But the question remains whether Japan itself is up to the task. Japanese society will be torn in two between isolationism and active realism.

Lully Miura is a Lecturer at the Policy Alternatives Research Institute, University of Tokyo.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Peak Japan’.

One response to “US–Japan cracks are starting to show”

  1. In my opinion, there are two elements not noted in this analysis. First, perspectives and policies of the USA are in flux right now. it is possible that Trump’s perspective on Japan is an anomaly. Ie, once his presidency is over the USA may return to its former policies with Japan. Admittedly, China’s evolution in the next few years may make all of that a moot point.

    Second, neither this author, nor any other Japanese analyst I have read, says anything about the effect that Japan’s demographic issues will have on future defense policies, etc. With a declining population how will the country have enough young men to join a larger SDF? Will it institute a draft in order to conscript young men into the military? That would cause huge tensions both within Japan and among its neighbors. How can it devote even more money into building a larger arsenal of weapons when it is already dealing with a huge and still growing national debt? The cost of its social and healthcare services continue to grow with an ever declining number of people of working age to support it. Someone needs to talk about this ‘realism’ which Japan faces.

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