A new alliance in the making

Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya has arrived in Hawaii for a Tuesday morning meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Following weeks of bilateral acrimony, the two will discuss negotiations to strengthen bilateral cooperation on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the US-Japan mutual security treaty, signed fifty years ago this month.

For the moment it appears that the US will — not without displeasure — set Futenma aside while a defense ministry team considers possible alternatives for building a replacement facility at Henoko bay. In advance of her meeting with Okada, Clinton said, echoing a recent New York Times op-ed by Joseph Nye (more on this in a moment), that the alliance is more important than Futenma, and she and Okada will discuss ways to improve cooperation instead of dwelling on the contentious base issue.

It is about time that the Obama administration stepped back from the brink. The administration ought to have known better. It is one thing to state that the US government understands the Hatoyama government’s political constraints; it is another to act on the basis of this recognition and play it cool, recognizing that perhaps there is something unseemly about the US government’s leaning heavily on the first Japanese government headed by a party other than the (longtime US client) LDP to abandon a campaign promise within weeks of taking power.

Nye’s counsel of patience is well-timed and appropriate — as is his admonition that “a victory on Futenma could prove Pyrrhic” if it comes about through a heavy-handed approach to the Hatoyama government. Also appropriate is his reminder that the bilateral relationship is about China, as it was when Nye was at the Pentagon spearheading the review of the alliance in 1995. “Integrate, but hedge,” writes Nye.

The problem, however, is that 2010 is not 1995. Japanese leaders and the Japanese public remain concerned about China’s rise, but Japan’s economy is far more dependent on China’s than it was in 1996 when the US and Japan reaffirmed their security relationship. If anything, the idea of a threatening rise seemed clearer in 1996, when China was menacing Taiwan, than today, with China, its economy growing even as the developed economies struggle to recover from the global financial crisis, continuing to modernize its armed forces. Today China is an indispensable participant in global meetings but also, perhaps, a hegemon in waiting in East Asia. At the same time, the value of the US-Japan alliance as a security relationship may be less valuable today than in 1995. It would only be sensible for Japanese officials to wonder about the value of the US deterrent after what Stephen Cohen and Brad DeLong call “the end of influence.” As they write in their new book by that title: “As money alters power relations, the United States is not simply becoming dependent — but it is no longer independent, either. That is a major change. And China is no longer helpless and cowed in face of the superpower hegemon; it has got a grip on it. Indeed, while the world peeks in, the two countries are realizing that they have thrown themselves into an intimate economic embrace with, to say the least, very mixed feelings.”

The alliance is by no means valueless, but the terms certainly have changed. Japan can no longer afford to be wholly dependent on the alliance as its hedge against a violent turn in China’s rise, because the US commitment may be less than ironclad. Even politically, Japan has plenty of reasons to desire good relations not just with China — as it watches the US develop the bilateral relationship described by its current secretary of state as the world’s most important — but with other countries in the region that eye China warily even as they profit from its rise. The Futenma feud has, to a certain extent, drawn attention away from the Hatoyama government’s other initiatives: the prime minister’s multilateral diplomacy, but, more importantly, his visit to India, his government’s first negotiations with Russia over the Northern territories (of particular importance to Hatoyama as the grandson of Ichiro, who restored Japan’s relations with the Soviet Union in 1956), and the possibility of a rejuvenated partnership with South Korea. Analysts who see Japan’s foreign policy decision as a dichotomous choice — the US or China — are missing the reality that Japan prefers to be dependent on neither, or rather prefers good relations with both (a “dual hedge”) and moreover close relations with other countries in the region as a hedge against US-China competition and cooperation. It will take time for these diplomatic initiatives to bear fruit, but the Hatoyama government is moving forward with a clear vision. It recognizes the need to enhance Japan’s influence in the region, and by signaling a renewed willingness to make amends for Japan’s wartime past and a desire to deepen Japan’s economic ties within the region (an important theme of the government’s new growth strategy), the Hatoyama government is developing an Asia-centered foreign policy.

The question for the US and Japan going forward is what role the alliance can play in this more fluid regional environment. The hope that the US and Japan, along with other democracies, could present a united front tasked with integrating China peacefully has proven unrealistic. Instead the most salient division in the region may be that separating the US and China from the region’s middle and small powers. Accordingly, the security relationship will be scaled back (as discussed here), making the dispute over Futenma that much more of a distraction. The future of the US-Japan relationship may be a hard security core linked to the defense of Japan and some form of US forward presence in Japan (in the same way that Singapore has facilitated the US forward presence in the region), looser political and economic cooperation in the region, and closer cooperation on global issues like climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, and the like.

What remains to be answered is how long the US will be willing and able to maintain forces in the region — and how much of the cost of basing them in Japan Tokyo will be willing to bear. The answer to these questions remains to be seen, but in time Ozawa Ichiro’s offhand remarks last year about the US forward presence one day being reduced to the Seventh Fleet (and air force elements, as he later added) could prove accurate.

These changes will take years to unfold, and they are not foreordained: exogenous shocks of one form or another could take the region and its major players in different directions than that outlined here.

But the dream of 1996 has passed. The US-Japan relationship will be looser and less security-centered than alliance managers had hoped following the 1996 security declaration, the 1997 guidelines, and the Koizumi government’s support for the Bush administration in Western and Central Asia.

3 thoughts on “A new alliance in the making

  1. Dear Tobias, I think that you nailed it down pretty well. The Futenma issue seems to me like the U.S. is acting like a spoiled superpower that is doing whatever it can to cling to its superpower status but the world knows that it is waning due to the financial crisis. As you said, how long can the U.S. sustain a forward presence in Japan or how long will Japan be willing to foot the bill? Does the United States really need a Futenma replacement at the expense of alienating Japan and the U.S. will still have to shoulder some of the cost for the move, or should the U.S. use this as an opportunity to retract or reduce some of its forces overseas and thereby reduce the cost of the military budget? If the US was not running a deficit, then (for all I care) it can have a base in every country if it wanted to and the other country/ies agreed.


  2. Anonymous

    Thank you for the post. If I may play something of a devil’s advocate: I suspect we agree in large degree to what are optimal strategies the US side should be selecting in negotiating with the DPJ administration, and Nye’s editorial describes that strategy concisely: decouple Futenma from the larger issue of alliance continuity to achieve an intermediate outcome that avoids a collectively less optimal outcome that is likely to result from coupling these two issues. One question that emerges, though, is what has the Japanese side been signaling as (a) its view of the structure of the bargaining game, and (b) its preferred strategy. Public statements and actions that generate the appearance of increased valuation of a relationship with China at the expense of the US-Japan relationship, along with generation of a signal that seems to indicate reneging of a prior deal on Futenma, suggest to an American receiver that, rather than a separate issue in its own right with a separate bargaining structure, Futenma is coupled with the larger game of the US-Japan alliance as a bargaining chip, and that to the American receiver, Japanese valuations of the alliance may have changed for the worse.This is something quite different from the issue of the truthfulness or correctness of the interpretation of the Japanese signal. Rather, this is an issue of reception: each is responding to the other’s signal. Devil’s advocate, then, would argue that what has been occurring is classic coordination failure, and that, according to one view, the American side is reading Japanese statements arguing for a stronger, broader bilateral alliance to be an empty signal. If that’s the case, no wonder the American side has been holding fast to its position on Futenma: rather than an expression of petulance, by acceding to Japanese demands to renegotiate the moving of US forces, American negotiators perceive a unilateral transfer of bargaining power/value to the Japanese, with little to gain from the transfer. Moreover, that the impression exists that the DPJ administration has on the one hand reduced its valuation of the alliance while simultaneously increasing its value for some sort of a renegotiation toward a lesser US presence in Okinawa is concerning in that it increases the likelihood of a less optimal outcome stemming from the coordination failure. Again, this is less about a normative assessment of a socially optimal outcome, and more about the likely rational outcomes based on perceived signals.Give the American negotiators some credit: they’ve taken Nye’s advice and selected a strategy that may yield better outcomes, even though the more strictly rational strategy might have been not to enter into any negotiations to deepen the alliance, particularly if they’re seeing more “stick” from the Japanese side than “carrot.” But the question remains: what does the Japanese side bring to the table in the form of positive incentives to negotiate, and more importantly, how are they showing those incentives to their negotiating partners? Indeed, does the structure of the bargaining game in the minds of each of the players even create good incentives to negotiate? Also, given that American negotiators have read the Japanese signal as linking Futenma with the larger issue of the alliance, one then has to ask a further question. Negotiations have no-deal points that may be stable; where is no-deal for both the Americans and the DPJ, and what is the price of no-deal?It’s food for thought. Thank you again for the discussion.


  3. Excellent article. I think Hatoyama is right in moving Japan away from its far too long prolonged status as a client state of the U.S. A major obstacle though to drastic reduction in the American military presence in Japan is article 9 of the constitution. The reality of Japan's large military already violates the wording of the article beyond any reasonable interpretation.


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