The previous notes discussed the general background of the report and the report’s ideas about the evolving structure of East Asian international relations.
Now I will turn my attention to the report’s main purpose: answering, in the report’s words, whether “the fundamentals of the alliance strong enough to deal with the array of significant challenges that will arise in the decades ahead.”
In light of the recent rough patch that the alliance has gone through in recent months, which I recently discussed here, the answer to this question is not necessarily obvious. The report’s authors suggest that in order to ensure the alliance’s continuing importance to the region, the alliance needs a firmer foundation that will reduce its vulnerability to the vicissitudes of domestic politics in both countries and the temptation, particularly on the part of a weary America, to cut deals with China and other regional powers that could enable the US to scale back its commitments to the Asia-Pacific region. Accordingly, they argue, “The alliance can and should remain at the core of the United States’ Asia strategy. The key to the success of this strategy is for the alliance itself to continue to evolve from an exclusive alliance based on a common threat toward a more open, inclusive alliance based on common interests and values” (p. 15).
It is shared values, they insist, that make the US and Japan natural partners in the region and undermine the logic of a US-China condominium in the region.
Accordingly, the report calls for a comprehensive push that will reinvigorate the US-Japan relationship politically and economically and make it a dynamic player in the regional power game:
Turning away from the U.S.-Japan alliance or lowering our expectations of Japan would likely have a negative impact on regional stability and its role in the region. Instead of a Japan that underpins the international system in 2020, it may become comfortable as a “middle power” at best, and recalcitrant, prickly, and nationalistic at worst. Not to encourage Japan to play a more active role in support of international stability and security is to deny the international community Japan’s full potential. But if U.S. strategy continues to have high expectations for Japan that meld with Japanese national sentiment, Japan will stand as a powerful model for the region of what leadership based on democratic values means (p. 15).
As with the first Armitage-Nye Report back in 2000, this report makes a number of specific policy recommendations to Tokyo, including reforms to strengthen the national security establishment, encouraging the GOJ to give proper support to the JSDF as Japan’s commitments grow, and praising Japan for its constitutional debate. The authors are careful to note, however, that decisions stemming from domestic debates on these issues can only be made by Japan, and that while there are outcomes that the US would prefer to see, there’s nothing the US can or will do to sway the discussion in favored directions.
One bilateral recommendation that deserves mention is the report’s call for work to begin immediately on a comprehensive US-Japan FTA (comprehensive meaning that it includes even the thorny issue of agriculture). The authors acknowledge the difficulties that negotiating such an agreement would entail, but they insist that doing so will bolster the alliance. In other words, there is no longer a neat dividing line between the security and economic facets of the US-Japan relationship. It has to be considered as a unified whole, with decisions in one area having clear implications in others.
As for the security relationship, the report includes an annex containing a list of technical measure that should be implemented to strengthen US-Japan security cooperation, a list in some ways shows how much is still left to be completed from the 1997 revision of the guidelines for defense cooperation.
This is not a revolutionary document. It is a practical guide to ensuring that the US-Japan alliance remains the primary vehicle by which the US is engaged in regional affairs for the next several decades.
As with the first report, however, much will depend on the four p’s. To quote my dissertation (sorry!), the US government’s willingness to push for cooperation has depended on
personnel, whether security experts with connections to Japan were in powerful positions that enabled them push cooperation forward; presidential support, whether the president was engaged enough to provide a mandate for agreement on cooperation to proceed; politics, whether the USG’s Japan experts were insulated from public pressure on Japan policy; and perceptions, specifically of threats in the regional and international environments that determined the alliance’s value to the US. For the US to desire an agreement strongly, the right personnel required a presidential mandate, little public interference, and a threatening environment, especially in East Asia.
For the moment, it seems that the first three are missing, and the fourth is unclear (although the importance of threat perceptions may be changing as the region becomes increasingly shaped by “co-opetition” between Japan and the US, and China). Indeed, as the report notes about the US-Japan-China triangle:
…A bipolar structure with only the United States and Japan facing China would be ineffective, because it would force other regional powers to choose between two competing poles. Some might side with the United States and Japan, but most regional powers would choose strict neutrality or align with China. Ultimately, this would weaken the powerful example of American and Japanese democracy and return the region to a Cold War or nineteenth century balance-of-power logic that does not favor stability in the region or contribute to China’s potential for positive change. Stability in East Asia will rest on the quality of U.S.-Japan-China relations, and even though the United States is closely allied with Japan, Washington should encourage good relations among all three (p. 14).
This is why it’s hard to see exactly what the US-Japan relationship will look like in 2020, because this report calls for making the alliance both more durable and more flexible, an alliance in which Japan is able to play a more independent role while at the same time being bound more closely to the US politically, economically, and militarily. As the global security environment becomes more fluid, the US will increasingly demand more flexibility while simultaneously relying more on its allies in the developed world.
Accordingly, the US-Japan relationship may well continue as it is today, with the US, at the same time that it is deepening military cooperation with Japan — by, for example, deploying F-22 fighters to Kadena in Okinawa, incidentally satisfying one of this report’s recommendations — seeking, for example, more military exchanges with China and pursuing a deal with North Korea that is not particularly in Japan’s national interest. (This is essentially the legacy of outgoing PACOM chief Admiral William Fallon.) Dense ties with Japan will not stop the US from acting as it sees fit in the region, nor will such ties keep Japan from acting as it sees fit. The density of the US-Japan relationship essentially makes it a platform for both to secure their interests and values in the region; however, without political cooperation — without constant communication at the highest levels between both governments — the arrangement may not be durable enough to retain its importance to either country.
So that is the big question. As Japan begins to act independently of the US, in pursuit of interests that may or may not overlap with American interests, are political leaders in both countries ready to accept that there may be disagreements, and do they realize that the durability of the relationship will depend on their willingness to explain their policies to each other?