Facing constraints in the alliance

Prime Minister Kan Naoto had his debut on the world stage at the G20 meeting in Toronto this week. While in Toronto he had his first meeting with US President Barack Obama.
As Reuters notes, Kan met with Obama for a half-hour, considerably more time than Hatoyama got when he visited Washington in April (when Hatoyama was infamously described as “loopy”). The two leaders apparently discussed their shared love of matcha ice cream, and the Japanese media looked for signs that the two were becoming pals, looking for evidence that the relationship between the US and Japan was back on track after the Hatoyama government “strained” the bilateral relationship.
Meanwhile at gatherings in Washington to commemorate the “fiftieth anniversary” of the alliance (depending on when one chooses the date the birth of the alliance), the mood, according to Peter Ennis, was relatively upbeat following Hatoyama’s decision to embrace a version of the status quo regarding Futenma and his subsequent resignation. Ennis says that the theme was “emphasize the positive.”
All well and good, but as far as I can tell the alliance is right back to where it was 2007-2009, with the only difference being that the Japanese government is openly confronting the problems surrounding the implementation of the 2006 roadmap.
As I’ve argued before, the collapse of the Abe government in 2007 was more than just a spectacular reversal for the LDP — it marked the end of the bilateral “project” that grew out of the Nye Initiative in the mid-1990s to build a stronger, closer US-Japan alliance. After rewriting the guidelines on defense cooperation, securing (token) Japanese contributions to the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and develop a new “shared values” rationale for the alliance, the project ran squarely into the wall of political realities in Japan and in the region.
Regarding the former, when faced with a government that was dead set on constitution revision, it turned out that the Japanese public was not all that interested in it, no matter what years of Yomiuri Shimbun polls said (although revisionist politicians apparently missed the polls that showed that very few felt that constitution revision was an issue deserving of the attention of national leaders). More than that, there are few signs that the Japanese public is interested in anything but the status quo as far as security policy is concerned. In other words, the status quo in which Japan spends less and less each year on defense while playing host to forward-deployed US forces. While public opinion polls are at best ambiguous regarding Japan’s former refueling mission in the Indian Ocean or its ongoing anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa, the public isn’t exactly clamoring for a more expansive role abroad for the SDF. Nor does there seem to be much support for collective self-defense, another remaining piece of the project.
Now, of course, it’s the job of the government to lead — indeed, dating back at least to the early 1990s the idea behind the administrative reforms at the heart of the DPJ’s program was that it would produce more decisive leadership, especially in foreign and security affairs. But realistically speaking, it is unlikely that a government committed to a controversial fiscal retrenchment agenda will simultaneously pursue a foreign policy agenda that would if anything be more controversial, especially in light of the domestic agenda.
The result is an unusual parallel to the Yoshida Doctrine, which, incidentally, Ambassador Katō Ryozō, who before serving as ambassador to the US for the whole of the Bush administration was deeply involved in the project to strengthen the alliance, recently declared had “completed its mission.” Today Japan finds itself in a position where it needs an alliance with the US based on the forward deployment of troops not to free up resources for re-industrialization but so that it can weather its demographic plight and economic decline. The resulting arrangement looks the same, but the underlying logic is strikingly different — and remarkably fragile, resting as it does on the strength of the US commitment to Asia, the willingness of the Japanese taxpayer to provide host-nation support (and Okinawan and other communities to host US forces), and the restraint of the People’s Republic of China.
In fairness, policymakers in both countries seem to recognize that this arrangement is less than ideal. For example, two years before he became known within US-Japan circles for issuing a warning to the Hatoyama government not to challenge the 2006 agreement, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a speech in Tokyo calling for a review of the alliance that would seek to answer basic questions about its raison d’etre. 
But no one has taken up Gates’s call, perhaps in large part because there are no easy answers to the challenges that face the alliance. Japan’s domestic political environment shows no signs of changing (at least as far as the alliance is concerned), and the political environment could even worsen if the ruling parties fall short of a majority in the upper house. While China occasionally acts in ways that could trigger a shift in Japanese public opinion, on the whole China has been restrained, meaning that Japan will continue to seek a constructive partnership with China. There are no signs that the US commitment to regional security is wavering, but given the state of the US economy it is impossible to rule out an isolationist turn (fears of which naturally lead Japan and other countries in the region to consider their options).
In other words, the new project for the alliance is learning to accept and make the best of these constraints. As leaders of both countries say, the alliance continues to play an important role in providing peace and security in the region, but the idea that the alliance could be something more than a “passive” or negative force for peace (what, after all, could be more passive than oxygen, Joseph Nye’s commonly used metaphor for the US presence in Asia), that it could play a creative role in promoting US values or reshaping the regional security environment appears to be increasingly fanciful. The alliance may well survive for decades to come, but its survival — and the form it takes — may depend less on decisions made in Washington and Tokyo than on decisions made in Beijing.

3 thoughts on “Facing constraints in the alliance

  1. Leonard Schoppa

    I question your assertion that austerity in Japan (due to demographic pressures) necessarily forces Japan to stick to the Yoshida Doctrine in order to save money. In the early years, the YD was certainly \”cheap,\” but since the 1980s, Japan has arguably paid a steep fiscal price every time it has insisted on sticking to the YD. First, it was forced to pay a much steeper level of host nation support. Then, during the Gulf War it was forced to spend much more in cash when it failed to put boots on the ground. When it pulled out of the Indian Ocean, the quid pro quo was a massive contribution of aid to Afghanistan. If the US would work with Japan toward this end, I can see a deal in which Japan does more in exchange for contributing less cash. It might actually save money. — Len


  2. Anonymous

    Even in the polls that show that the people wanted to change the Japanese Constitution, they wanted to preserve Article 9. They had problems more with the administration of their government in the bicameral system than in the administration of their security.As far as Dr. Schoppa's comment is concerned, I see two flaws in his logic. Yoshida was concerned about the cost of a military-industrial complex that the U.S. tried to establish in Japan during the Korean War. Looking at the bloated American defense budget, I think the cost concern is still valid since doing more (and maintaining it) could cost more than a one-time fee of $10 Billion for the Gulf War.Second, politically, while Japan was taking a licking internationally (and domestically to an extent), a physical contribution resulting in Japanese deaths would have been the death knell for the LDP in the early 90s. Since all politics is local, it makes more sense to pay a little more cash abroad to save your skin at home.


  3. Anonymous

    Your insightful and balanced account of the dilemmas facing Japan and the new Kan government is well received. It reflects not only the difficult economic situation facing Japan but the uncertainties in the international environment as well. The ambiguities facing the DPJ in formulating foreign policy naturally require both nuance and a thoughtful incremental approach to diplomatic relations. Limited governing experience is not the main problem as I see because even the LDP would be tested by the difficulties of formulating a way forward at this juncture. The G20 which has inherited the mantle of the G8 in finding solutions to major international problems like the global economic crisis will be of little help to Japan or any other nation as was shown at their summit in Toronto.


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