A new US-Japan alliance in the making

Author: Tobias Harris, MIT

Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya has arrived in Hawaii for a Tuesday morning meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Following weeks of bilateral acrimony, the two will discuss negotiations to strengthen bilateral cooperation on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the US-Japan mutual security treaty, signed fifty years ago this month.

For the moment it appears that the US will — not without displeasure — set Futenma aside while a defence ministry team considers possible alternatives for building a replacement facility at Henoko Bay. In advance of her meeting with Okada, Clinton said, echoing a recent New York Times op-ed by Joseph Nye (more on this in a moment), that the alliance is more important than Futenma, and that she and Okada will discuss ways to improve cooperation instead of dwelling on the contentious base issue.

It is about time that the Obama administration stepped back from the brink. The administration ought to have known better. It is one thing to state that the US government understands the Hatoyama government’s political constraints; it is another to act on the basis of this recognition and play it cool, recognising that perhaps there is something unseemly about the US government’s leaning heavily on the first Japanese government headed by a party other than the (long-time US client) LDP to abandon a campaign promise within weeks of taking power.

Nye’s counsel of patience is well-timed and appropriate — as is his admonition that ‘a victory on Futenma could prove Pyrrhic’ if it comes about through a heavy-handed approach to the Hatoyama government. Also appropriate is his reminder that the bilateral relationship is about China, as it was when Nye was at the Pentagon spearheading the review of the alliance in 1995. ‘Integrate, but hedge,’ writes Nye.

The problem, however, is that 2010 is not 1995. Japanese leaders and the Japanese public remain concerned about China’s rise, but Japan’s economy is far more dependent on China’s than it was in 1996 when the US and Japan reaffirmed their security relationship. If anything, the idea of a threatening rise seemed clearer in 1996, when China was menacing Taiwan, than today, with China – its economy growing even as the developed economies struggle to recover from the global financial crisis – continuing to modernise its armed forces. Today China is an indispensable participant in global meetings but also, perhaps, a hegemony-in-waiting in East Asia. At the same time, the value of the US-Japan alliance as a security relationship may be less valuable today than in 1995. It would only be sensible for Japanese officials to wonder about the value of the US deterrent after what Stephen Cohen and Brad DeLong call ‘the end of influence.’ As they write in their new book by that title:

‘As money alters power relations, the United States is not simply becoming dependent — but it is no longer independent, either. That is a major change. And China is no longer helpless and cowed in face of the superpower hegemon; it has got a grip on it. Indeed, while the world peeks in, the two countries are realizing that they have thrown themselves into an intimate economic embrace with, to say the least, very mixed feelings.’

The alliance is by no means valueless, but the terms certainly have changed. Japan can no longer afford to be wholly dependent on the alliance as its hedge against a violent turn in China’s rise, because the US commitment may be less than ironclad. Even politically, Japan has plenty of reasons to desire good relations not just with China — as it watches the US develop the bilateral relationship described by its current secretary of state as the world’s most important — but with other countries in the region that eye China warily even as they profit from its rise. The Futenma feud has, to a certain extent, drawn attention away from the Hatoyama government’s other initiatives: the prime minister’s multilateral diplomacy, but, more importantly, his visit to India, his government’s first negotiations with Russia over the Northern territories (of particular importance to Hatoyama as the grandson of Ichiro, who restored Japan’s relations with the Soviet Union in 1956), and the possibility of a rejuvenated partnership with South Korea.

Analysts who see Japan’s foreign policy decision as a dichotomous choice — the US or China — are missing the reality that Japan prefers to be dependent on neither, or rather prefers good relations with both (a ‘dual hedge’) and moreover, close relations with other countries in the region as a hedge against US-China competition and cooperation. It will take time for these diplomatic initiatives to bear fruit, but the Hatoyama government is moving forward with a clear vision. It recognises the need to enhance Japan’s influence in the region, and by signalling a renewed willingness to make amends for Japan’s wartime past and a desire to deepen Japan’s economic ties within the region (an important theme of the government’s new growth strategy), the Hatoyama government is developing an Asia-centred foreign policy.

The question for the US and Japan going forward is what role the alliance can play in this more fluid regional environment. The hope that the US and Japan, along with other democracies, could present a united front tasked with integrating China peacefully has proven unrealistic. Instead the most salient division in the region may be that separating the US and China from the region’s middle and small powers. Accordingly, the security relationship will be scaled back (as discussed here), making the dispute over Futenma that much more of a distraction. The future of the US-Japan relationship may be a hard security core linked to the defence of Japan and some form of US forward presence in Japan (in the same way that Singapore has facilitated the US forward presence in the region), looser political and economic cooperation in the region, and closer cooperation on global issues like climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, and the like.

What remains to be answered is how long the US will be willing and able to maintain forces in the region — and how much of the cost of basing them in Japan will Tokyo be willing to bear. The answer to these questions remains to be seen, but in time Ozawa Ichiro’s offhand remarks last year about the US forward presence one day being reduced to the Seventh Fleet (and air force elements, as he later added) could prove accurate.

These changes will take years to unfold, and they are not foreordained: exogenous shocks of one form or another could take the region and its major players in different directions than that outlined here.

But the dream of 1996 has passed. The US-Japan relationship will be looser and less security-centred than alliance managers had hoped following the 1996 security declaration, the 1997 guidelines, and the Koizumi government’s support for the Bush administration in Western and Central Asia.