Japan Has Kept Asia Anxious Too Long

G. John Ikenberry and
G john Ikenberry, Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University
G. John Ikenberry Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs - Princeton University
Michael E. O’Hanlon

August 16, 2001

Will Asian countries ever stop fearing Japan in the way that European states have, for the most part, stopped fearing Germany?

A couple of years ago, things were looking up. A Japanese prime minister apologized to the South Korean president for historical wrongs, and Japan moved toward becoming more open and honest domestically about its past. But this year has seen setbacks.

A new Japanese textbook has been officially approved for use even though it whitewashes parts of the country’s heinous history. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, despite being extremely popular at home, has just made himself unpopular throughout East Asia by visiting a shrine that commemorates the country’s war dead-including several major war criminals. He tried to defuse the issue by quietly visiting the shrine earlier than planned. But no German leader would dare honor Nazis on any day, publicly or quietly.

Japan’s problems do not end there. Even it as continues to stoke the insecurities of its neighbors, Tokyo’s actual contributions to international security remain disappointingly minimal. It barely commits troops to global humanitarian and peacekeeping operations around the world. Its military role in the U.S.-Japan alliance remains little more than that of an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” used by U.S. forces to project power in East Asia.

As the U.S.-Japan alliance celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Tokyo needs to develop a vision for its future global security role. As Japan’s main ally, the U.S. can help. The Bush administration sent some encouraging initial signals. During the presidential race, Bush emphasized the need to strengthen U.S. alliances. And his administration’s top Japan expert, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, coauthored a paper suggesting a stronger alliance.

Unfortunately, Armitage and his coauthors went too far, suggesting that the U.S.-Japan alliance model itself after the U.S. one with Britain. That unrealistic goal would intensify worries about Japan in East Asia, and scare off many Japanese themselves.

Britain, a nuclear-armed state with a history of autonomous military action, is the wrong model for Japan. Tokyo and Washington should instead emulate the U.S. alliance with Germany. To begin with, Germany has dealt with its history much more thoroughly than has Japan. Problems with whitewashing the past and ignoring the fears and resentments of former wartime victims are now virtually unthinkable in Germany

Germany also has sought to embed itself within European institutions. Doing so has made its policy process transparent and accessible and reassured those who might otherwise worry about its growing strength. When it reunified in the early 1990s, it also sought to reassure neighbors that a bigger Germany would not be a threat by working to bolster the European Union and its common foreign and security policies. When Germany deployed thousands of armed combat forces to the Balkans in the 1990s, the country did so as part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization operation.

Japan does not now have an Asian version of NATO or the EU within which to situate its security policies and military activities, so it is not realistic to expect Tokyo to do as much as Berlin in the immediate future. But Japan can act with the United States, and under U.N. auspices. It can work to strengthen regional institutions and regional trust. A key part of those efforts would be to more consistently support multilateral military missions designed for humanitarian or peacekeeping purposes.

And just as Germany helped maintain passable relations between east and west during some of the darkest moments of the Cold War, Tokyo may be able to improve communications between the major democracies and Beijing. It might find ways to prevent tense military interactions between its armed forces and those of China, creating rules of the road that Washington and Beijing might someday institute between their militaries as well. It might also look for ways to defuse crises over Taiwan.

The U.S.-Japan alliance has been a remarkable and important feature of the East Asian security architecture for half a century, but it is stuck in the past. Tokyo and Washington need to push the alliance to a new place. Given the dangers of the northeast Asian region, the time for action is now.