The alliance is dead, long live the alliance

Barack Obama’s inauguration is just about a month away. His transition team is gradually filling in cabinet-level positions. His Asia and Japan policy teams are as of yet unknown, however, leaving Japanese elites to continue to fret about Japan’s place on the Obama administration’s agenda.

They have good reason to worry.

The reasons to worry have nothing to do with the myth of the Democratic Party’s hostility to Japan and predisposition to China. After all, Richard Nixon, the pioneer of Japan passing, was a Republican, and Bill Clinton inherited his trade agenda from George H.W. Bush. No, the reasons for concern are far greater than the Japanese establishment’s irrational fear of Democrats.

The post-cold war US-Japan alliance, born in 1996, is dead. It is far from certain what will take its place.

The 1996 alliance — born out of the 1996 reaffirmation of the alliance signed by President Clinton and the late Hashimoto Ryutaro — sought to restore security to its position of prominence in the alliance and rebuild the Chinese wall that had separated security and economics in US-Japan relations until the 1980s. Japan’s economic slump made it a less worrisome partner, and China’s bullying of Taiwan appeared to provide a target for greater security cooperation, with North Korea’s playing a supporting role.

The process of bolstering the alliance stalled after the conclusion of the new guidelines for security cooperation in 1997, but the Clinton administration bequeathed to the Bush administration a framework for deeper security cooperation with Japan. Specifically, it was bequeathed to the group of alliance hawks, led by Richard Armitage, who assumed important positions in the new administration in 2001. Mr. Armitage and his colleagues took the baton passed from their predecessors and developed a particular form of security cooperation following 9/11. As the US prepared for the global war on terror, the US would treat Japan as a first-rank ally, akin to the United Kingdom; learning the lesson of the Gulf War, the US would not issue marching orders to Tokyo but would appeal to Japan’s conscience as a major world power to do the right thing by supporting US efforts in some form. The material value of Japan’s contribution was inconsequential; what mattered was Japan’s showing the flag, not how much oil it was pumping in the Indian Ocean. In exchange, Japan under Koizumi Junichiro became a trusted ally of the Bush administration, which after 2003 needed all the friends it could get. Of course, the US wouldn’t be perpetually satisfied with refueling missions and unarmed humanitarian relief missions, but by encouraging Japan with high praise (the frequent refrain during the first half of this decade about the alliance being “the best ever”) the US could gradually push Japan in the direction of a more active security role.

This new partnership was cemented not in the Middle East but in Northeast Asia, as the US and Japan moved in lockstep in the six-party talks after 2002, taking a hardline against North Korea on nuclear weapons, missiles, and Japan’s abductees, a pact sealed by Ambassador J. Thomas Schieffer’s March 2006 visit to Niigata — to the beach from which North Korea abducted Yokota Megumi — and President George W. Bush’s meeting with Megumi’s mother Sakie in April 2006. In the background loomed China, resulting in the inclusion of the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan Straits crisis as a common strategic objective for the first time in the February 2005 Security Consultative Committee (2+2) statement. It was also cemented via ever deeper cooperation on missile defense in Japan and broader cooperation between US Forces in Japan (USFJ) and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF).

This partnership was not nearly as durable as it appeared. First, it was more a partnership of elites than a partnership of nations. Alliance hawks in the US forged a strong relationship with their resurgent Japanese counterparts to promote an alliance agenda that served both their interests. As William Overholt wrote in Asia, America, and The Transformation of Geopolitics (reviewed here):

As the 21st century began, the United States decided to bet its entire position in Asia on the alliance with Japan. In effect, it has bet not just on the Japanese nation but in particular on a newly assertive national-security elite that represents a rather narrow and unrepresentative slice of Japanese society. In all of American history, the United States has never before made such a bet anywhere in the world, with the arguable exception of the bet on Britain in World War II. The current bet is not on the Japan of 1945 or 1975 or 1989 (the year before the bubble burst) or 2000, but on a rearming Japan with an economy, a polity, a foreign policy, and a military evolving faster and more unpredictably than those of any other advanced country, under a new and increasingly right-wing leadership that wants to rebuild national morale by reengineering a failed vision of the first half of the 20th century rather than through an inspiring new vision of the future. Rarely in world history has such a power made such a consequential bet.

Abe Shinzo was the symbol of the US bet on the Japan’s neo-conservatives. As Sunohara Tsuyoshi, a Nikkei reporter, documented in the introduction to his book Japan Hand, Michael Green, then National Security director for Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, saw potential in Mr. Abe, who was deputy chief cabinet secretary at the start of the Koizumi government. Mr. Green effectively made Mr. Abe a project, working to give the future prime minister a direct pipeline to the top of the US government. While serving as LDP secretary-general, he visited Washington in April 2004, where he delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute hailing the alliance’s new golden era and making the case for constitution revision. On that visit he also met with Mr. Green, Mr. Armitage, Donald Rumsfeld, then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, and Republican congressional leaders, at which time he was effectively branded a future prime minister of Japan. Mr. Abe had to still be selected by the LDP, of course, but the backing of the US administration surely helped propel Mr. Abe to the premiership despite having no ministerial experience aside from serving as chief cabinet secretary. Mr. Abe, in short, was a direct product of this alliance between US conservatives and Japan’s “newly assertive national-security elite.”

The death of the 1996 alliance began with the decline and fall of Mr. Abe. The conservative partnership did not expect the Japanese people to deal so harsh a blow to Mr. Abe in the 2007 upper house elections. They failed to appreciate that the Japanese public would have little interest in a debate on constitution revision while Japan’s regions stagnated, while the pensions system collapsed, while the national debt prompted questions about how the government would meet its liabilities. (See this post for a discussion of the binational conservative establishment’s shock at Mr. Abe’s defeat.) They also didn’t expect that the DPJ would have considerable success in undermining the illusion of the robust security alliance by forcing a debate on the MSDF refueling mission. The DPJ ultimately lost the battle to block the mission’s extension, but in their opposition they exposed how farcical the whole thing was: the lack of accountability in how the mission was conducted and the mismatch between the rhetoric and the reality of the mission (i.e. the contrast between rhetoric that focused on Japan’s responsibilities to the international community and the reality of heavy-handed US pressure on Japan to extend the mission, spearheaded by Ambassador Schieffer). By forcing a debate on the refueling mission, the DPJ punctured the image of a golden era. Far from being a sign of how far the alliance had come, the refueling mission became a sordid affair, marked by the whiff of corruption on the part of Japan’s defense trading companies and the newly formed ministry of defense and the cowardice of the Japanese establishment, which despite bold rhetoric about contributing to the war on terror was actually not prepared to make real sacrifices to help the coalition in Afghanistan.

But the 1996 alliance was doomed for reasons beyond Japanese domestic politics. The post-1996 security partnership was designed for a unipolar world. Naturally it flourished after 9/11, in the heady days of “shock and awe,” as the Bush administration swaggered and flexed the US military’s muscles. Accordingly, in some sense the 1996 alliance was a casualty of the Iraq war.

First, US difficulties in Iraq altered the US calculus globally. Would the Bush administration have made such a drastic about-face on North Korea had Iraq gone successfully? If the US could still credibly threaten regime change in North Korea, would Christopher Hill have been given the freedom to negotiate a new agreement? The shift on North Korea, occurring in the immediate aftermath of both North Korea’s presumed nuclear test and the aforementioned US-Japan “pact” on North Korea by which the US signaled that the abductees were a priority for the US, has had profound consequences on the alliance, not least of all on the neo-conservatives who now wonder whether they can rely on the US security guarantee.

The shift on North Korea coincided with a pronounced softening in Sino-US relations. The US increasingly needed China as a “responsible stakeholder.” With the US bogged down in the Middle East, it needed calm in East Asia — and found that China was the key to maintaining the status quo in North Korea and the Taiwan Straits, the two greatest flashpoints. Accordingly, US North Korea policy increasingly amounted to beseeching China to intervene with Pyongyang to keep North Korea committed to the six-party talks and leaning on Taiwan not to provoke China. At the same time, the US became increasingly indebted to China, thanks in part to the Bush adminstration’s decision to finance the Iraq and Afghanistan wars via deficit spending, creating what Niall Ferguson has called “Chimerica.” As Admiral William Fallon, formerly head of US Pacific Command, noted in an interview with the Boston Globe last month, China’s position as the number one creditor for the US alters the Sino-US agenda. As Fallon said, “The size of the country and its influence is staggering. So we’ve got to figure this out. There were people who warned me that you’d better get ready for the shoot ’em up here because sooner or later we’re going be at war with China. I don’t think that’s where we want to go.”

With both the US and Japan economically interdependent with China, the 1996 alliance’s vision of a security partnership that would essentially be preparing for the big war with China has become increasingly unrealistic. Indeed, the global economic crisis may completely transform the strategic landscape by making it clear just how much the three corners of the East Asian triangle need each other. How can the 1996 alliance possibly survive a new system in which China plays “the role of a vigilant creditor” vis-a-vis the US? Negotiations on trade imbalances and the relative values of the dollar, renminbi, and yen will be thorny, but next to these issues the security agenda pales in significance.

And so the 1996 security-centered alliance is dead.

The shell of the alliance will continue to exist, barring the outbreak of war in Northeast Asia. (I don’t think the alliance would survive a shooting war.) But will the Obama administration and the Japanese government — whoever is at its head — be able to find a way to build a new alliance?

There are a variety of opinions on how the allies should proceed. Japan’s conservatives may be the most confused about the future of the alliance. They had invested their energy in using the alliance as a vehicle for promoting their desire for an independent Japan — greater security cooperation with the US would lead to constitution revision, collective self-defense, and normalization — and a de facto cold war with China, but with the US shift in its relations with North Korea and China the US appears to be as less reliable ally for the Japanese right. Under the Obama administration, conservatives will likely shift to a position on the alliance akin to General Tamogami Toshio’s, arguing for a more independent Japanese defense posture and more vocal disagreement with the US, particularly on issues like North Korea. Indeed, General Tamogami may literally become the posterchild of this line of argument. As he argued in his APA contest essay, while “good relations between Japan and the United States are essential to the stability of the Asian region,” Japan needs its own preventive strike capabilities and greater diplomatic clout. It is difficult to imagine what the alliance would look like were this scenario to come to pass, but I can imagine that one consequence of Japan’s developing independent deterrent capabilities (conventional or nuclear) would be to push the US closer to China, in effect balancing between the two.

If the Obama administration decides to press Japan on history questions — which Sakurai Yoshiko believes is in the offing — it will give the Japanese right a convenient excuse for pressing for a more independent defense posture, but the seeds of that shift were planted in the Bush administration’s about-face on North Korea.

It may take years before we learn the extent to which the Bush administration’s shift on North Korea affected Japan’s hawks, who were “shocked” by the US decision earlier this year to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. But judging by their initial reactions, the impact has been profound. The impact has also been felt at the popular level. The Cabinet office’s annual foreign policy attitudes survey, released earlier this month, recorded a new low in respondents who view US-Japan relations favorably: 68.9% said they see the relationship favorably, compared with 76.3% who answered favorably last year, and 28.1% who see the relationship unfavorably (an increase of eight points from 2007). Mainichi claims that the US government attributes the drop to the US shift on North Korea, hardly surprising considering that the greatest source of concern for the Japanese public in Japan’s relations with Noth Korea remains the abductions issue (among respondents, 88.1% see this as an object of concern, compared with only 69.9% who see the nuclear issue as a cause for a concern, a five-point drop from 2007). A recent Yomiuri poll on the US-Japan relationship recorded a similar slip in Japanese public trust in the US, with North Korea explicitly cited as a reason for lower trust in the US.

In the short term, however, it is difficult to say what impact any of this discontent will have on the relationship. Aso Taro is handicapped by the crumbling economic situation and is in no position to devote considerable effort to reimagining the alliance. The LDP is working to build ties with the new administration, but it seems to be driven more by the need to build links where none exist than any particular policy agenda. The DPJ, anticipating that it will have the opportunity to work with Mr. Obama, is working on deepening its links with the incoming administration; Okada Katsuya, possibly Ozawa Ichiro’s successor as DPJ president, visited Washington earlier this month for meetings with people in Democratic foreign policy circles.

The Obama administration and a DPJ administration might cooperate well in building a new alliance less focused on purely security matters. The challenge is calibrating the right level of security cooperation so the allies can focus on other, more pressing matters. Security cooperation must be downgraded to but one conversation among several in the alliance. Getting Okinawa and Guam right will help — I’m encouraged by reports that Mr. Obama’s Japan team is open to renegotiating the 2006 realignment agreement. Seeing as how the 2006 agreement is already delayed, the US and Japan might as well get it right. This point will undoubtedly be debated at length in the debate over the 2009 budget, which will include a request from the ministry of defense for 100 billion yen for realignment. I expect that DPJ will strenuously resist this request, perhaps using the economic crisis as an additional pretext for opposing it.

But there is still the need to develop a bilateral agenda that encompasses more than security. With the 1996 alliance dead, what will take its place?

My problem with the new AEI report from Michael Auslin and Christopher Griffin is that the answer they provide to this question is basically to deny that the 1996 framework is dead. While acknowledging that the alliance is in a new era, their answer is more of the same: ever greater security cooperation whether in East Asia or globally. Rather than seeing the golden age of the 1996 alliance as having passed, never to return as the result of structural changes, they maintain that the problem is the Japanese domestic political situation, which has halted the process of reforming Japanese national security policy and the national security establishment. The task is to press forward with more and closer security cooperation, creating what they call a “normal alliance.” This normal alliance would be a vehicle for the promotion of liberty in East Asia, in cooperation with other democratic alliances in the region (reminiscent of Mr. Abe’s arc). As they write, “…The U.S.-Japanese alliance should reorient itself to become an active promoter of political, social, and economic liberalization. Tokyo and Washington should seek to enhance and promote the goal of making democracy, free markets, and transparent security policies the norm in Asia.”

This statement is wholly at odds with Asia as it exists today. I’m not certain that the alliance is capable of promoting democracy in Thailand, let alone in Burma, North Korea, or China. And China, as the region’s leading trader is a more critical partner as far as free markets for goods and investment are concerned. Of course, Auslin and Griffin are largely concerned with China. In their words, “China is also the only legitimate military threat to long-term stability in the Asia Pacific.” They cite China’s plans to build a blue-water navy, a distant prospect at best and something that does not necessarily threaten the US or Japan. They acknowledge economic interdependence, but are much more interested in preparing for the worst-case scenarios with China than with getting the trilateral relationship with China right so to stave off the worst-case scenarios. They are trying to resurrect the partnership between conservatives in Tokyo and Washington that produced the “golden age,” only it is unclear who is still willing to sign on to this agenda in either Washington or Tokyo. Having been burned in North Korea, I suspect Japan’s neo-conservatives will be less enthusiastic about ever deeper security cooperation that has proven to be one-sided in favor of the US. Moreover, I’m not clear whether there is public support in Japan for the kind of alliance they envision. The Japanese people may view East Asia as a frightening neighborhood — see the aforementioned Cabinet Office poll — but that doesn’t mean that they’re ready to support remilitarization and more vigorous security relationships regionally and globally.

In Washington, the pendulum appears to have shifted away from the China hawks, particularly with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates slated to stay on in the Obama administration. The emphasis appears to be increasingly on stability and order in Asia, instead of the “freedom” agenda desired by Auslin and Griffin. Of course, the greater the emphasis on stability, the greater the need to cooperate with China.

It is still unclear to me what the US-Japan alliance will become, but I’m convinced that what it won’t become is the normal alliance outlined by Auslin and Griffin. It may ultimately be the case that the alliance is destined to be limited to ensuring the defense of Japan but little more, with Japan providing token contributions internationally and playing a slightly greater role in providing for its own defense, but little more. As long as Japan is hamstrung by structural problems — its demographics, its shambolic economy, its public finances — it will be unable to be the vigorous partner that, as Sheila Smith argues, Washington needs in the midst of the crisis. But if Japan cannot find a way to overcome its problems, it will not be the partner Washington (and Beijing) need in Asia as they try to build a new, stable regional order.

3 thoughts on “The alliance is dead, long live the alliance

  1. Anonymous

    \”How can the 1996 alliance possibly survive a new system in which China plays \”the role of a vigilant creditor\” vis-a-vis the US? \”The idea that it gives China any political influence on Washington is ridiculous.And what in the world would the Chinese do if the US economy collapse? The CCP would have bigger worries than the federal government.


  2. Anonymous

    Japan provides bases in Okinawa to the U.S. and in return Japan gets protection, while providing some regional security public goods. This was so in the Cold War (e.g. ASW in the \’80s), and it remains so today. Nothing has changed in that calculation. It\’s fine to point out that any idea of Japan being the Britain of the East was bound to fail, but let\’s not get carried out on the implications of this.


  3. Anonymous

    Wrong on most accounts. The 1996 alliance is NOT just what it was under Abe. A lot of military and security integration (BMD, etc) that will not be easily undone by either side and no incentive to do so–China and N Korea are still there as potential threats and that is the \”glue\” tha keeps the 1996 alliance together now. Abe hawkish dreams (or nightmares) are dead, and that is correct; but the fundamental mistake of the article is to assume that the 1996 alliance= the Abe administration. Indeed, Obama admin and DPJ admin may put on new footing with more Japanese participation in UN-sponsored interventions which Ozawa has said he would support. Sorry, it doesn\’t fly.


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