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Why Japan Still Matters

Last October, during a largely-overlooked press briefing at the American Embassy at the end of a trip to Tokyo, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell made the seemingly obvious observation that for the United States “it is very hard to operate effectively – diplomatically, politically or strategically – in Asia without a strong relationship with Japan.” He also provided some deceptively urgent advice for the U.S. foreign policy community, warning that it is “critical for this generation of American policymakers to in no way take Japan for granted.”

Campbell’s advice might appear superfluous to American observers of Japan, who are steeped in the mantra of the late Senator Mike Mansfield: the U.S.-Japan relationship “is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.”

And the outpouring of American sympathy and support for Japan in the wake of the Great Eastern Earthquake of March 11, including the unprecedented role of the U.S. military in relief operations inside Japan, had the kind of trusting spontaneity that marks an enduring alliance.

But years of low economic growth and political ups and downs in Japan have quietly frayed the country’s image in the halls of American power, with Japanese leaders often viewed with an unspoken derision. And the American people would be forgiven for wondering how Japan can compete with a rising China when American politicians, corporations, and news media appear preoccupied with Japan’s giant neighbor.

So the question can be heard in Washington these days: Is Japan still relevant in strategic calculations?

The answer is decidedly “yes,” especially as the Obama administration increasingly ponders a major rebalancing of America’s global posture, shifting away from the heavy concentration in Southwest Asia and more toward the critical Asia-Pacific region. Japan will be indispensable to any such rebalancing. But conventional wisdom about Japan still often lags behind the emerging American strategic intent.

For many in Washington, Japan has seemed stuck in a rut. It was bad enough that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) seemed to be running a dizzying revolving door policy for prime ministers, shuffling a new person into office each year since 2006. Then came the upstart opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which took power in September 2009 after a sweeping victory in parliamentary elections, promising among other things to forge a more “equal” alliance relationship with the United States, to improve relations with China, and to put more emphasis on Asia in Japan’s overall diplomatic policy.

For Republican and Democrat alike the DPJ was an unfamiliar, perhaps even unwelcomed phenomenon after 50 years of virtually uninterrupted dealings with the LDP. The jaded consensus was that the DPJ was vaguely pro-China, potentially anti-American, and certainly under-appreciative of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The resulting tensions all came to a head over relatively minor disagreements concerning U.S. Marine basing arrangements on Okinawa, particularly where to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. The Futenma dispute, portrayed by many as a virtual litmus test of Japan’s commitment to the alliance, cast a cloud over U.S.-Japan relations, effectively pushing all other considerations off the agenda.

More worrisome was the coarseness, bordering on outright disdain, that came to color discussions in Washington about Japan, illustrated most starkly perhaps by Washington Post columnist Al Kamen’s April 14, 2010 reference to then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama as “hapless and (in the opinion of some Obama administration officials) increasingly loopy.” High-level communication between Washington and Tokyo became so strained that the Obama administration effectively barred any significant celebrations in 2010 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

The tensions were a major factor in Hatoyama’s resignation last June, a development that some U.S. officials mistakenly saw as necessary “tough love” for Japan and the alliance.

It was concern about these tensions that led to Campbell’s reminder that the “overarching objective” of U.S. policy should be “to ensure that the United States and Japan are working together to strengthen a partnership, an alliance, that is effective not just in Northeast Asia but increasingly globally.”

Success at the working level

Ironically, while the political leadership in Washington and Tokyo have been at loggerheads for much of the past two years, at the working level the U.S.-Japan alliance has proceeded fairly well. Japan has naval forces in the Arabian Sea, for example, working with U.S. and other national navies against piracy. In the midst of devastating floods that hit Pakistan last year, Tokyo quietly dispatched Ground Self Defense Forces (SDF) to assist in relief efforts. Tokyo was quick to work closely with the U.S. and South Korea in the wake of North Korea’s sinking last year of a South Korean naval vessel. The major naval exercises held by the United States in the vicinity of China last fall, in a not-so-subtle message to Beijing to act with restraint in the region, took place with Japanese military observers on board. The USS George Washington aircraft carrier embarked for the exercises from recently-upgraded facilities at its home port in Yokosuka, Japan. The George Washington’s air wing is redeploying to a new $2 billion runway built largely with Japanese assistance at the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni.

On a day-to-day basis, successful bilateral cooperation on both ongoing issues and the periodic crisis of the day belies the notion of an alliance in disarray.

A tilt toward China

To a large extent, the dismissive attitude toward Japan in some policy circles worked in parallel with efforts by the Obama administration to develop a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive” relationship with China on everything from currency and other global economic matters to climate change and North Korea. Some fear that this relationship could take the form of a “strategic partnership” which could crowd out some American allies.

It took about a year in office for the administration to grudgingly accept that such a partnership was unlikely to develop any time soon. To the contrary, China has been decidedly uncooperative on currency and climate change. Beijing has continued to show great reluctance to pressure North Korea even about unprovoked aggressive actions against South Korea, much less Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Moreover, China’s huge, unexplained military buildup has continued, and Beijing has shown a disturbing tendency to try to bully neighboring East Asia neighbors, including Japan, over disputed territories.

One result of these difficulties with China has been an Obama administration effort to reenergize alliance relationships in East Asia, and to cultivate broader political and security relationships with nonaligned nations, all carefully calibrated to dissuade Beijing from trying to throw its growing weight around the region.

The highpoint came last September, when a conflict flared between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands, south of Okinawa. Washington quickly reaffirmed its stance that the disputed islands are covered by the terms of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

Washington’s fast reaction greatly reduced the static level in U.S.-Japan communications.

Still, it was hard to ignore the sense that at least some in Washington were viewing support for Japan as a necessary piece in a broader strategy to balance China, rather than as support for an alliance with great bilateral, regional, and global value in its own right.

Japan as a “linchpin”

But there are indications the administration may be moving more clearly toward the broader alliance view. Shortly after the Japan-China scrap last fall, Vice President Biden spoke in Washington before the U.S.-Japan Council, a group spearheaded by Senator Daniel Inouye to promote grassroots support for close U.S.-Japan ties. He presented a view of U.S.-Japan relations that gave real substance to the alliance. Simply put, he said, Japan is the “linchpin” of an effective American strategy in Asia. This means, among other things, that the United States cannot deal with China without “going through” Japan. The Vice President praised Japan’s cooperation on nonproliferation efforts toward Iran and North Korea, on humanitarian relief efforts in Pakistan, and in stabilization efforts in war-torn Afghanistan.

More forcefully, Biden argued that every major challenge “facing humanity,” from green technology and transportation, to education and development, can best be dealt with through U.S.-Japan cooperation, not only because common interests join the two countries “at the hip,” but because the countries so powerfully share common values.

Transition, not Decline

Political and economic unrest in Japan has undoubtedly inhibited progress on a broad alliance agenda that officials from both sides insist they have never ignored.

But the mistaken American view of Japan’s troubles, rooted in apparently permanent political and economic inertia, as being intractable has led many to more narrowly define the possible range of alliance cooperation.

Japan is in transition, not decline, and the changes underway in the country will tend to reinforce rather than undermine the foundations of the bilateral alliance.

The “Japan, Inc.” of popular acclaim in the 1970s and 1980s was just the economic component of a broader institutional arrangement in Japan known as the “1955 System,” marking the consolidation of single-party power by the LDP. The LDP, together with the government bureaucracy and big business, formed a ruling “iron triangle,” a system that was very centralized, hierarchical, and rigid, with a single-minded focus on postwar reconstruction. The political system was closed, with no room for real competitive politics. The bureaucracy guided national policy, and big business implemented technology and export strategies. There was little room for “outsiders” when it came to the design and execution of government policy―opposition parties, independent think tanks, independent regulators of banks or industry, consumer watchdogs, venture capital or start-up firms, and non-profit or nongovernmental organizations.

As has been well-documented, the system worked extraordinarily well, producing what remains the world’s third largest economy, a global trading and finance powerhouse, a major factor in global overseas development, and a major contributor to global institutions like the United National, the IMF, and the World Bank.

But the system’s viability had run its course by the early 1990s, and the subsequent evolution has produced a broad trend toward greater openness throughout society, with competing political parties, a weaker central bureaucracy, more independent regulatory oversight of business, a decline in the importance of industrial conglomerates in place of more focused and profitable technology firms, a steady growth in the number and importance of start-up companies, a dramatic growth in volunteer and nonprofit organizations, and an equally dramatic growth in social media that has empowered the younger generation, including mid-level corporate managers, toward greater self-reliance and initiative.

Many of these trends were on display in the days after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami, with the government quicker and more transparent in response than previous governments had been in crisis situations. For example, volunteers swarmed to the afflicted Tohoku region, and criticism of excessively close links between the nuclear energy industry and government regulators arose quickly.*

All of these social changes have not undermined the traditional sense of obligation among average Japanese toward each other that leads to the caring orderliness and stability that the world became familiar with again after March 11.

It’s ironic, but in this age of globalization and rapid social change, it may be Japan’s deepening and widening democracy and civil society, more than Japan’s vaunted economic miracle, that proves most valuable as a model to Asia’s developing nations.

Strategic Cooperation

Meanwhile, broad strategic trends―including many that are unrelated to China―will likely reinforce U.S.-Japan alliance cooperation. Even before taking office, President Obama was influenced by a gnawing sense in much of the American foreign policy community that the U.S. global posture was dangerously out of balance: a debilitating commitment of national power and prestige to two questionable land wars in Southwest Asia, alongside a mysterious lack of strategic investment of time, energy, and resources to an Asia-Pacific region that is anxiously witnessing the truly historic economic and military rise of China.

The economic crisis that began in 2008, the booming U.S. national debt, and two protracted land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dramatically made clear that U.S. economic power has limits. The United States faces not only short-term defense budget cuts, but an era of overall defense restraint, without which a continued disproportionately large global military presence of diminishing returns will seriously tap the country’s economic vitality.

But the United States cannot simply retreat. While China and India are both rising economic and military powers, neither has shown the inclination to absorb the costs and responsibilities of enforcing an open, liberal international order. China often shows the opposite.

Across Japan’s political spectrum, there is broad support for maintaining a liberal international order, involving openness in the air, on the seas, in space, and cyberspace.

In the United States, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and the State Department have all been voicing the same theme of strategic shift to the region. Earlier this month Kurt Campbell told New Yorker magazine: “Our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.”

The administration is trying to foment a system of open and transparent economic and security cooperation in the region, defining the terms of engagement to which China has to respond. For now, the economic component is the fledgling Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade initiative. And the security component involves building on America’s traditional bilateral security alliances in the region to include a network of overlapping bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral security relationships from India, through Vietnam and Indonesia, to Australia, and up to Korea and Japan.

Japan is already cultivating security ties with India and Vietnam, and deepening existing ties with Australia. Perhaps most important are signs of expanding bilateral ties with South Korea, including discussion of formal military agreements involving information sharing and the exchange of military goods and services.

China and South Korea both provided relief assistance to Japan after March 11, opening the door to expansion of the existing “Plus Three” dialogue between Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing.

That kind of action by Japan indirectly extends American influence without expenditure of American resources, while providing Tokyo a far greater degree of self-determination than possible through the exclusively bilateral U.S.-Japan security alliance.

The United States and Japan may also look to capitalize on the invaluable experience gained in cooperative disaster relief operations in Tohoku to formalize a joint U.S.-Japan task force for humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operations.

Jeffrey Hornung of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii points out that Japan’s Self Defense Forces deployed 107,000 personnel, 543 planes, and 59 ships as part of disaster relief after March 11. “It seems reasonable to conclude,” he wrote recently, “that the SDF may draw on this success by prioritizing overseas HA/DR missions in the future.”

Japan already participates in the annual Pacific Partnership, an evolving effort by the U.S. Navy to improve disaster relief coordination among regional militaries that was begun after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Japan’s continuing strategic importance should receive some overdue public attention on the occasion of an upcoming summit meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Naoto Kan. With Japan’s leaders so heavily involved in post-tsunami recovery efforts, no date has yet been set, but officials on both sides have talked about late June.

The November APEC heads-of-state summit in mid-November, which President Obama will host in his native Hawaii, will then provide the administration with a chance to highlight its planned new focus on the Asia-Pacific region, with Japan as the indispensable partner.


* For more about ongoing changes in Japan that were demonstrated in part in the response to the March 11 earthquake, see Peter Ennis, “Recovering Nation: Battered Japan Searches for Bearings,” Brookings Northeast Asia Commentary, No 48 (April 2011).

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 49