Assertive Japan

Michael Green’s review of Kenneth Pyle’s Japan Rising in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, is now online here (via RealClearPolitics). I previously discussed a draft version of Pyle’s book here.

I find Green’s review interesting because it gets at the ambiguities of Japan’s re-emergence. Green (and Pyle) are correct to point out that Japan’s strategic culture is fundamentally realist: Japan has long been sensitive to the distribution of power in its region and internationally, so sensitive that on multiple occasions its domestic institutions have been remade due to international circumstances. (This was well documented in Pyle’s earlier book The Japanese Question.) But, at the same time, since the end of the cold war the impact of the international environment has been uncertain. Should Japan cling ever closer to a unipolar United States? Should it seek ever closer union economically with its Asian neighbors? Should it become a more independent, Gaullist wild card in the East Asian balance of power? And beyond these strategic questions, the significant question of how Japan’s domestic institutions need to change to enable Japan to remain a significant regional and global power remains unanswered.

Japan, meanwhile, is trapped between the region’s challenges and opportunities — as in the second Armitage-Nye Report’s formula — and its “rise” is, therefore, hardly a linear process. As such, I find Green’s conclusion convincing:

Ultimately, Japan is not all that inscrutable, nor is management of U.S.-Japanese relations all that complicated. Japan’s political elite will always harbor some ambivalence about its junior-partner status with the United States, but the current generation of political leaders clearly wants the U.S.-Japanese alliance to work better for both nations. They are no longer reticent about doing more — or asking for more in return. The important thing is that Washington continue to listen. Japan’s public is intensely worried about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, China’s growing influence in Asia, and the United States’ preoccupation with the Middle East. The alliance between Washington and Tokyo remains the centerpiece of Japanese foreign and security policy, but as Pyle notes, Japan is no longer sheltered from the Sturm und Drang in Asia or passive about deciding its own course. As a result, there is much less room for error when it comes to maintaining the credibility of the U.S. commitment to this most successful of alliances.

This illustrates what I’ve argued before: it is imperative, now more than ever, that the US and Japan exert significant effort forging institutions to facilitate smooth political cooperation. As the allies become more engaged in hashing out the political future of Asia, the lack of political coordination could have serious consequences for the alliance, and for the region as a whole.

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