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Foreign Policy

Japanese Prime Minister Abe, the U.S.-Japan Alliance, and U.S.-China Relations

Nov 07 , 2013

On November 2 Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s government held the first “2+2”—combined foreign and defense ministers—meeting with its Russian counterparts.  The meeting was held in Tokyo, evidencing that the initiative for the meeting came from the Japanese side.

Stephen Harner

What should we make of Abe’s Russian initiative, particularly its implications for China-U.S. relations?

For decades, the “2+2” U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee (SCC) (comprising the U.S. secretaries of defense and state, the Japanese ministers of foreign affairs and defense, and maintaining a permanent secretariat) has been the core of  the U.S.-Japan relationship.  The Pentagon sets the agenda, with the State Department playing a largely ceremonial role.  Military and security priorities have dominated.  Indeed, with few exceptions it can be said that U.S. policy-making toward Japan (if not all of Asia) and the overall U.S.-Japan relationship has long been taken over by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The most recent U.S.-Japan “2+2” meeting took place in Tokyo on October 3.  The joint statement of the meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Minister of Foreign Affairs Kishida Fumio and Minister of Defense Onodera Itsunori read in part:

“…the SCC reaffirmed…and reconfirmed our Alliance’s commitment to the security of Japan through the full range of U.S. military capabilities, including nuclear and conventional.”

“…the Ministers…decided upon several steps to upgrade considerably the capability of the U.S.-Japan Alliance.”

“As the United States continues to implement its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region it intends to strengthen military capabilities that allow our Alliance to respond to future global and regional security challenges, including in emerging strategic domains such as space and cyberspace.”

“…Japan will continue coordinating with the United States to expand its role within the framework of the U.S.-Japan Alliance.  Japan is also preparing to establish a National Security Council and to issue its National Security Strategy.  …it is reexamining the legal basis for … exercising the right of collective self-defense, expanding its defense budget, reviewing its National Defense Program Guidelines, strengthening its capability to defend its sovereign territory…. The United States welcomed these efforts…”

Against this background, Prime Minister Abe’s initiative to establish a “2+2” format in relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia is remarkable.  It is even more remarkable as the smoldering territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands has prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a treaty officially ending a state of war between them.  Press reports are that the United States had deep misgivings about this Japan-Russia meeting, not least because it gave Russia the opportunity to warn Japan off U.S. missile defense initiatives.

For all the attention to “Abenomics,” it is increasingly clear that Prime Minister Abe’s most fateful accomplishment will be constructing a framework for a more independent Japanese foreign and security policy.

While we can take at face value the pledges of obeisance to U.S. priorities like relocation of the Futenma Marine base on Okinawa and faith that the U.S. will defend Japan “through the full range of military capabilities, including nuclear and conventional,” Abe’s actions are more correctly, I believe, seen as “hedging” the U.S. defense commitment in the short term, while planning in the longer term for a robust, independent Japanese military defense capability as the U.S.-Japan alliance is down-graded to exist in name only.

There is a fundamental—the temptation is to use the word “fatal”—flaw in the U.S.-Japan alliance.  It is that this Cold War relic is not providing “security and stability” in Asia.  It is causing insecurity and instability.  Rather than being—in the words of the October 3 “2+2” joint statement—“the cornerstone of peace and security in the region”–the alliance, and its seemingly inexorable “strengthening” by layering on of ever more weapons systems and missions (the “rebalance”), presents an unacceptable potential threat to China, to which China has no choice but respond.  The alliance has engendered and continues to fuel an arms race and to nurture militarism throughout the region.

The June Xi-Obama Sunnylands Summit and subsequent visits to the U.S. by Chinese defense officials, especially the August 19 meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel and Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, have offered hope for a “new great power relationship.” The paradigm would be bilateral and not involve off-setting or one-sided potentially threatening military alliances. 

For the United States, and for China, there is today no more vital imperative than reaching a constructive, “win-win” U.S.-China relationship.  This imperative is acknowledged by both sides.  The task is to overcome obstacles and prejudices from the past, and to confront vested interests seeking to maintain the status quo, to advance toward a common goal. 

At some point, as the U.S. and China continue to fashion a shared future, it will become undeniable that the U.S.-Japan alliance, with the “forward deployment” of massive U.S. military power on bases in Japan, is “on the wrong side of history.”  Already, many analysts appreciate this fact.  Prime Minister Abe, I believe, is one.

Japan’s National Security Strategy will be a ten year plan.  By the end of its implementation, Japan is likely to have a full non-nuclear self-defense capability. (In another demonstration of independence, Abe sanctioned—over U.S. objections–Japan’s endorsement of a UN declaration renouncing the use of nuclear weapons “under any circumstances.”) 

While its capability will ostensibly be developed to “strengthen” the U.S. alliance, its realization will provide to Japan the option of complete security independence, and to the U.S. the opportunity and justification for downgrading the alliance as a step toward accommodating the legitimate interests of China and forging a stable U.S.-China relationship.

Abe’s actions toward a more independent foreign and security policy are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stephen M. Harner is a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer and banker in Japan and China. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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