Lest we forget

The US-Japan alliance turned fifty this week, and the allies celebrated by steering the conversation away from Futenma and releasing a 2 + 2 joint statement that reiterated why the alliance matters in the first place.

Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also gave a press conference Tuesday that makes for interesting reading when it comes to thinking about the challenges the alliance faces going forward.

Campbell stressed that 2010 will be year for discussions within and between the two governments on the future of the alliance. He voiced a greater degree of understanding that the DPJ’s early initiatives within the context of the US-Japan relationship are understandable given democratic politics than I think the Obama administration had done previously.

But while Campbell discussed areas of cooperation and the importance of deeper security cooperation, he did not say the US government hopes the outcome of bilateral consultations on security over the coming year will produce. To a certain extent, the US position is the same as it has been for decades and can be summarized in a single word: more. As a superpower that is facing burdens and challenges that will increasingly overwhelm its capabilities, the US needs allies like Japan to share the load now more than yesterday, and tomorrow more than today. More can be greater military spending or new military capabilities, constitution revision or reinterpretation, higher levels of foreign aid, or greater involvement in peacekeeping.

The problem, however, is that, as Brad Glosserman and Robert Madsen note in a Pacific Forum CSIS paper (not yet online), Japan may not be able to provide much more for years to come, if ever. Without substantial economic reform Japan may not be able to commit the material resources the US would prefer — and without serious economic reform the Japanese people will continue to have little or no interest in constitution revision.

In other words, despite the desire on the part of US officials from both parties to “strengthen” the alliance, the Yoshida consensus may continue to hold, in that Japan will continue to provide less security cooperation than the US prefers because its government is focused almost exclusively on economic challenges at home. The difference, however, will be that Japan’s economic resources will likely continue to decline; withholding resources from the SDF today is for the sake of directing them into social security (above all) instead of using them to promote economic development as in the 1950s and 1960s. The question is whether the US will be able to live with a Japan that is, as Glosserman and Madsen note, more dependent on the US even as it is able to provide relatively less towards both its own defense and alliance cooperation.

As I’ve already written, fiscal constraints at home will not be the only factors preventing the realization of an “ever closer” US-Japan alliance. Whatever the latest headlines are concerning China’s behavior, the lesson of the Koizumi years is that the Japanese people do not support a policy of unremittingly cold political relations with Beijing — and the lack of support for more military spending suggests that there is little stomach for an arms race. Japan is going to learn to live with a stronger, more confident China, and it will do so in part through closer relations with other countries in Asia.

Finally, while I am confident that the alliance will continue to exist in some form, it is worth considering (“lest we forget”) how difficult it is to preserve an alliance aimed at an external enemy to an alliance that is, in Campbell’s words, “basically aimed at no specific or particular nation.” While some would off record that it is aimed at China, that would entail a discussion of what it means for an alliance to be “aimed” at a country. Given that we do not even know what Japan would do in the event of a war over Taiwan, it is hard to say that US-Japan alliance is “aimed” at China. Instead the alliance is chasing monsters of a smaller, more amorphous nature. Is there an alliance in history that has successfully transitioned from being aimed at some country or coalition to being aimed at “uncertainty” or instead of being against an enemy being for public goods? That’s not to say it’s impossible, but the Obama and Hatoyama governments have a difficult year ahead of them.

Here’s hoping that the two governments approach the task realistically, acknowledge the limits of each country’s commitment, and shape their future expectations accordingly. Perhaps it is fitting that the year began with Japan’s ordering its refueling ships home from the Indian Ocean, an appropriate reminder of the continuing political and economic limits on Japan’s contributions.

4 thoughts on “Lest we forget

  1. Ed

    I have to admit that I have no idea what the goals of US foreign and strategic policies are. The official explanations tend to be vague and incoherent when they are not dishonest (eg, \”bullshit\”).I'm not quite sure if the US government really wants other countries to take up \”make more of a contribution\”, and if it does, what are they supposed to be contributing to?


  2. Reality in the sense of cosmology is at constant flux. Everything is changing in relationship to everything else. And the nature of this change cannot be studied without influencing the very nature of change. Can one complain about this madding state; yes, but to whom? To Hatoyama? You gotta be kidding me.


  3. Anonymous

    Most \”movers and shakers\” in Asia would agree to the importance of having the USA present in the region, however there doesn't seem to exist a concensus as to the \”form\”/\”weight\” such presence could take. In this context, it seems reasomable to assume that the USA-Japan alliance will evolve as would the Japan-rest of asia relationship. Probably, the USA will become less relevant, as Asian-Japanese history issues subdue thus allowing for more constructive relationships and Asia/Japan in general evaluate China more as a partner and less as a threat.


  4. No doubt that US and China relationship is growing in complexity and will continue to evolve in depth and strength. It makes little sense for Japan to try to hang on to the kind of relationship it once enjoyed with US economically or militarily. Japan will continue to experience being marginalized as its economic profile diminishes. Japan’s only realistic strategy going forward is to join the rest of the world focussed on creating a green, healthy society.


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