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Foreign Policy

The Obama Visit to Japan: Appearance and Reality in U.S.-Japan-China Relations

May 07 , 2014

Whether President Obama would even include Japan in his Asian trip kept Japanese officials in suspense for months. When, after offering a “state visit”–the first one for a U.S. president in nearly two decades–Obama’s advisors finally consented, there was undisguised glee in Tokyo.    

Stephen Harner

Still, the visit had many quirks. First, the short duration, only one full day. Second, Obama’s   rude rejection of all requests by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo for private, one-on-one talks.   

Billed as a “private” Abe-Obama dinner, the Tokyo “sushi summit” on April 23 found Obama trailing his National Security Council advisor, Susan Rice (considered by Tokyo to be hostile to Abe), other NSC officials, State Department officials, and U.S. ambassador Caroline Kennedy.  Clearly, in this gaggle, nothing substantive could have been, or was, discussed.  

The next day, the opportunity–and Abe’s teams repeated pleas–to let the two men walk and talk together in front of the pack during Obama’s visit to the Meiji Shire was similarly rebuffed.  

What, we may wonder, it really going on in U.S.-Japan relations? 

Understanding the U.S.-Japan relationship and interpreting the Obama visit requires grasping a critical reality: Despite is long history and apparent strength, the U.S.-Japan present geopolitical and strategic relationship is fraught, unstable, and, ultimately, unsustainable. 

Hugh White, Australian National University professor of strategic studies, in his 2012 book The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, presents the situation like this: 

“As long as Japan’s alliance with America remains the centerpiece of its strategic policy, it will depend almost completely on Washington to protect it from Chinese pressure.  The problem is that the more powerful China becomes, the less Japan can depend on the United States. 

“The risk of abandonment by Washington will grow if the United States and China reach an understanding about their respective roles in Asia. 

“Escalating rivalry between Washington and Beijing would be disastrous for Japan, but so too would friendship and cooperation.” 

White’s conclusion (with which I agree):  “The only clear way for Japan to get out of this predicament is to stop relying on America for protection from China. Instead it would have to build forces of its own capable of resisting Chinese pressure.” 

White’s analysis (with which I agree) helps us interpret the Obama visit, and how we should understand what will follow. 

First, the Obama “pledge” regarding U.S. defense of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.  The triumph felt by the Abe government in getting Obama to state the islands are covered by the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty (USJMDT) is perhaps the most glaring evidence of Tokyo’s insecurity and doubt about the alliance, particularly as it relates to U.S. relations with China.  

And despite the positive spin put on Obama’s statement, Japanese government officials cannot have taken any real comfort that the U.S. expects to or would ever actually confront China over the islands. Obama’s statement was both qualified and weak, seemingly placing the greatest burden for resolving the crisis on Japan.  

He was careful to match all statements that might be interpreted as challenging China with assurances that the United States welcomes China’s rise, will continue working to develop constructive relations, and in no way is seeking to challenge or contain China. 

“We don’t take a position on the final sovereignty determinations with respect to the Senkakus, but historically they have been administered by Japan and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally…. this is no a new position, this is a consistent one. 

“I emphasized with Prime Minister Abe the importance of resolving the issue peacefully–not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions, and trying to determine how both Japan and China can work cooperatively together. 

“…I’ve said directly to the Prime Minister that it would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue rather than dialogue and confidence-building measures between Japan and China.  And we’re going to do everything we can to encourage that diplomatically.” 

This is, for Japan, the strategic dilemma outlined by Professor White.  What we observe are highly disparate strategic interests and signs of an inevitable divergence.  For Japan, in particular, the status quo is strategically untenable. 

On the Japanese side, Prime Minister Abe strategy must be to prepare for Japan’s emergence from U.S. protection under the U.S.-Japan alliance (i.e., for effective termination of the alliance).  On the U.S. side, it is to create conditions allowing for an effective abrogation of the USJMDT and U.S. obligations to defend Japan.  This would mean facilitating Japan’s development of a full self-defense capability. 

It should be evident that were Japan to develop a full, independent defense capability, the justification for a U.S.-Japan alliance would largely evaporate. This would be especially true if Japan’s politics and popular opinion (as well as Japanese military doctrine) continued to be informed, as it is today, with the spirit, if not necessarily the precise letter, of the pacifism of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution. 

This is why the Prime Minister Abe is pushing it so hard–and effectively violating Article 9–to adopt a “collective security” doctrine. Such a doctrine will allow Japan’s forces to augment offensive capabilities essential to Japan’s military self-sufficiency. 

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who dreams of Japan again being a “normal country,” is taking the opportunity of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” to prepare for an independent Japanese foreign policy and security future.  

President Obama’s state visit was trumpeted as an affirmation of a permanent U.S.-Japan alliance and a “united front” against China.  In reality it was almost the opposite. 

Stephen M. Harner is a 30 year career U.S. Foreign Service Officer, banker, and consultant in Japan and China.  He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). 

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