Alliance addenda

After seeing the response to my recent post on the US-Japan alliance, I find it necessary to develop a few ideas further.

First, MTC rightly points out that an alliance based on the partnership of Japanese conservatives and their counterparts in Washington is by no means doomed, because the organizations pushing this line “deal death as a matter of course. They will not be deterred by mere logic, economic constraints or human feeling.” I fully grant this point. Just because history (or perhaps, History) does not favor their argument does not mean that the conservative grip on the alliance will weaken. The advocates of an alternative vision of the alliance — a vision of the alliance that does more than prepare for a worst case scenario with China that may never come (or that may be hastened by the decisions of the alliance) — must push back, fighting back in the halls of academia and think tanks and in the pages of journals.

Second, I must correct myself: technically speaking the 1996 alliance is not rooted in an alliance between Japanese and American conservatives. It is rooted in an alliance between Japanese conservatives and the American foreign policy establishment (FPE). There is sadly a dearth in creative thinking on the alliance in Democratic corners of the FPE, the think tankers and academics who will likely fill important Asia policy positions. In particular, Joseph Nye, who as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the mid-1990s gave his name to the initiative that produced the 1996 bilateral security declaration and with it the 1996 alliance, and Kurt Campbell, who worked deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia during the late 1990s, are the Democratic Party’s senior Asia hands and both view the alliance along similar lines as Richard Armitage and Michael Green, their Republican counterparts. Campbell has in fact praised the work of his Republican successors in strengthening the alliance.

Jun Okumura captures precisely this reality on this post regarding a meeting between senior DPJ officials and the “U.S. Democratic Party,” as reported in the Yomiuri Shimbun. On a visit to Tokyo, Nye and John Hamre, president of CSIS (home to Michael Green) and an undersecretary of defense in the Clinton adminstration, as well as Green and James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific in the Bush administration, met with Hatoyama Yukio, Kan Naoto, and other DPJ officials. The point of the meeting, as Jun notes, was to deliver the message to the DPJ that the bipartisan consensus on the alliance is intact — the DPJ should not expect that it will get much traction in its desire to redefine the terms of the 2006 realignment agreement.

The reality, however, might be more complicated. As Jun notes, none of the aforementioned mandarins is in President-elect Obama’s inner circle. Is this a message from Mr. Obama? From the Democratic Party? From the FPE? Perhaps we should read this meeting and its message as a message from the guardians of the 1996 alliance, nothing more, nothing less. Confident that they remain responsible for the alliance in Washington, they are apparently planning for the possibility that their conservative partners are forced to cede power to the DPJ. While the media is reporting this as the beginning of an exchange of opinions between the US and Japanese Democratic parties, the presence of Messrs. Green and Kelly suggest that it was nothing of the sort: the alliance mandarinate was issuing a warning.

Finally, I want to respond to comments to my previous post.

First, one anonymous commentator argues that the idea that China has any influence over Washington as a result of its debt holdings is “ridiculous.” A second commentator argues that the fundamental arrangement of the alliance — bases for protection — is unchanged, and that not too much has changed with the decline of the 1996 alliance. I will address these comments together because they’re linked.

The alliance today is about China. The 1996 alliance was one way of thinking about China. While the alliance managers vary in the extent to which they support engagement with China, they uniformly support strengthening the security relationship, extending the alliance to distant conflicts, improving alliance interoperability, and broadening the alliance to include cooperation with other US allies in East Asia. They are in agreement about the importance of dismantling domestic constraints on Japanese security policy, although naturally they respect the Japanese democratic process. It is an approach to the alliance that sees the alliance as “the core of the United States’ Asia strategy.” (For an outline of the consensus on the alliance, see the second Armitage-Nye report — discussed at length in these posts.) They believe that the alliance is important as an end in and of itself, because of shared interests and shared values, which is another way of saying that no matter how much it appears that the US and China have common interests regionally and globally, the Sino-US relationship can never replace the US-Japan relationship because of shared values.

I think the “shared values” approach to the alliance is mistaken. It seeks to create distance between the US and Japan on the one hand and China on the other when what the three countries must be do is find a way to bridge the wide differences that separate them. As the current economic crisis is illustrating, the fates of the US, China, and Japan are linked. The US-Japan-China strategic triangle is a non-zero sum relationship. America’s loss is Japan’s loss is China’s loss; and the impact of the economic crisis within China will likely be felt in Japan and the US.

None of this is to say that the nineteenth-century liberal argument that free markets will lead to perpetual peace is right. What the liberals failed to appreciate is that while global commerce may transform national interests, those interests are not translated into policy without concerted effort on the part of national elites. Elites have to recognize that economic links have transformed their nations’ interests and then act to protect those interests. Both Japanese and American conservatives — especially Japanese conservatives — have chosen to minimize the significance of their countries’ dependence on the Chinese economy. Accordingly their vision of the alliance emphasizes the security hedge against China rather than efforts to diminish the need for a hedge against China.

I am not arguing that the US-Japan security relationship is dead. Nor am I arguing that it should be dissolved. The alliane is an important aspect of US Asia policy, but for too long the US FPE has failed to asked why. If it is important only because Japan gives the US bases, then frankly the alliance is a necessary but insufficient guarantor of the future stability of the region. The value of the alliance must be measured by how it contributes to regional stability, namely the incorporation of China into a leadership position in East Asia with as little friction as possible. The 1996 alliance has strengthened those actors in Japan most averse to cooperation with China, which has the ironic consequence of diminishing Japan’s importance to the US as an ally.

What is needed now is a new alliance that seeks more than just a hedge against a violent turn in China’s rise. Accordingly, the alliance needs to be more than just a partnership of national security elites in the US and Japan. Japan and the US ought to be talking about more than just the proper arrangement of US forces in Japan or how Japan can make its token contributions to missions abroad; the focus of every US-Japan bilateral meeting of any significance should be finding new ways to build a trilateral relationship with China. An alliance that’s simply a matter of bases for forward-deployed US forces and some tactical and operational cooperation between US and Japanese armed forces is an alliance that increasingly irrelevant to the future of East Asia.

3 thoughts on “Alliance addenda

  1. David

    I could not agree more. I only hope that the US and Japan will be proactive in changing the course of the long-outdated alliance before it collapses on its own.


  2. Anonymous

    I still don\’t get it. The nub of your post is found in the last para., where you suggest that the US and Japan need to move beyond China. But if that is the case, what is the issue that requires: 1) ongoing, as opposed to ad-hoc cooperation; 2) bilateral, as opposed to regional cooperation? If there isn\’t one, then the alliance, following your logic, is finished. Which of course it isn\’t, because of China. The outcome we have at present is a good one. Pretend the alliance isn\’t about China while keeping it around just in case. But most important, don\’t do anything to suggest encirclement of the Chinese. (It didn\’t work to well in the Cold War, after all.) This is why the arc of democracy is a terrible idea – it encircles China, and directly attacks the political legitimacy of the government there.


  3. The point is not \”moving beyond\” China — far from it. In fact I think the alliance needs to be far more explicit about China, but in terms of engagement. I think the status quo, in which all aspects of the alliance are intended as not-so-subtle balancing against China has a corrosive effect on engagement. The security relationship should not be dissolved, but the emphasis needs to be shifted. Less emphasis on \”shared values,\” less emphasis on cooperation among democracies (like the ridiculous arc of democracies idea), less emphasis on security in an exclusive sense. I think the allies need to focus on regional stability and regional security and find ways to include China.As China\’s mission to the Horn of Africa shows, China is here, like it or not. The allies might as well find similar ways to work with China closer to home.


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