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Foreign Policy

U.S.-Japan Alliance Enters a Historic Phase

Apr 30 , 2015

Many Japanese Prime Ministers have come to Washington since the end of WWII.  While most of these trips were routine diplomatic affairs, the state visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week will be remembered as a historic event.

The significance of Mr. Abe’s visit can be seen both symbolically and substantively.  One way of gauging the value given to a particular alliance by the American political establishment is whether the leader of the allied country is invited to address a joint session of Congress.  This honor has been extended to only a small number of nations.  In the case of Japan, no Japanese Prime Minister has ever been invited to address a joint session of Congress.  The symbolic significance of Mr. Abe’s address alone is enough to signal to the rest of the world that U.S.-Japan relationship has been elevated to a new level.

However, Mr. Abe’s visit to the U.S. is not just about symbolism.  Even more important is the dramatic substantive strengthening of U.S.-Japan alliance because of the new U.S.-Japan Joint Defense Guidelines that Washington and Tokyo have recently agreed upon and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade deal that the two countries are expected to sign soon.

The new U.S.-Japan Joint Defense Guidelines, based on the details disclosed to the public, must be considered a revolutionary document.  The new security pact will greatly expand the military cooperation between the two countries, both with formidable air and naval capabilities.  While the new guidelines emphasize Japan’s future participation by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) in specific joint activities such as peace-keeping, disaster relief, and missile defense, the most consequential – and controversial – change in the U.S.-Japan military alliance is the removal of the limits on geographical areas of operation by the JSDF.  Under previous joint U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, the participation of the JSDF was limited to only “areas surrounding Japan”.  The new guidelines will permit the JSDF to operate around the world with the U.S. military after such specific missions receive formal approval by the Japanese parliament.

The breakthrough in U.S.-Japan security cooperation is about to be accompanied by an equally momentous improvement in U.S.-Japan economic relationship.  Much progress has been made in recent days in admitting Japan into the U.S.-led TPP.  The U.S. Congress has taken key steps to grant President Barack Obama authority that will enable him to conclude trade deals more easily.  Despite opposition from members of his own party, President Obama is almost guaranteed to receive the so-called Trade Promotion Authority from Congress, thus ensuring a speedy conclusion of TPP negotiations with Japan.  During the joint Obama-Abe news conference at the White House on April 28, President Obama declared that the two countries would reach a “swift and successful conclusion” to their TPP negotiations.

While there is little doubt that the dramatic upgrading of U.S.-Japan relations is widely supported by the political establishments and publics alike in both countries and seen as beneficial to American and Japanese national interests, this development is has also incurred serious long-term geopolitical costs for Washington and Tokyo.  The most unfortunate aspect of the latest effort to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance is that this step is unnecessarily hyped up as a strategic move to counter-balance China.  For example, in trying to sell the TPP to a skeptical Democratic Party, President Obama explicitly invoked the specter of a China-dominated Asia as the dominant rationale for pushing a free trade treaty that will soon include Japan.  Similarly, the new joint defense guidelines are described, although less explicitly by Japanese and American officials, as a necessary step to deter Chinese aggression.

Of course, hard-nosed realists know that Japan’s membership in the TPP and its more active military role in East Asia will have the effect of balancing against China’s economic and military power.  But it would be more judicious not to add insult to injury.  In other words, neither Washington nor Tokyo should explicitly link a more robust U.S.-Japan relationship with deterrence against China.  Doing otherwise would simply deepen the strategic paranoia in Beijing and inadvertently help the ruling Chinese Communist Party to use this development as the latest evidence as America’s anti-China containment to fuel xenophobia at home.

Another cost of the latest improvement in U.S.-Japan ties is its impact on U.S. relations with South Korea.  While Seoul is not as allergic to warmth between Washington and Tokyo as Beijing is, Mr. Abe’s nationalist stance on a wide range of controversial issues (most prominently that of the “comfort women”) has outraged South Korean political elites and ordinary people.  By rewarding Mr. Abe with unprecedented honor and substantive upgrading of bilateral relationship, the U.S. risks being perceived in South Korea as insensitive and hypocritical.

Fortunately, on this issue the U.S. perhaps has some leverage and there is still an opportunity for Mr. Abe to extend an olive branch to Seoul.  If the Obama Administration can persuade Mr. Abe that it would better serve Japan’s national interests for him to tone down his rhetoric on the history issue, the U.S. may be able to assuage the concerns and anger of the South Koreans.

In light of Mr. Abe’s historic achievement in solidifying U.S.-Japan ties, one should hope that this would be a relatively easy task for Mr. Obama to perform.

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