Six Challenges for US–Japan Cooperation in Asia

Author: Hitoshi Tanaka, JCIE

In 2016, the regional order in East Asia will continue to be characterised by a sense of instability. A key question as 2016 progresses will be: how best to focus US–Japan cooperation to address both the challenges and opportunities that accompany the rise of China? There are six thorny issues that carry the potential to undermine US–Japan cooperation. Close, careful US–Japan consultation and cooperation is required to ensure that these issues do not create a wedge in the alliance.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Barack Obama hold talks on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Manila on 19 November 2015. (Photo: AAP).

The first issue relates to the future of US global leadership. The world is watching the US presidential election closely for signs of the foreign policy path the next US president will take. While it is still a long road to the White House, the kind of divisive, and at times xenophobic, debate we have seen so far is damaging to the long-term credibility of US global leadership.

Continued US leadership is critical to maintain and strengthen liberal and free-market values as well as the stability and prosperity of East Asia. The United States, East Asia and the world need a US president with the stomach for strong global leadership based on deep cooperation and consultation with US allies and partners, rather than one who advocates unilateralist or isolationist thinking.

The second is mega-regional trade agreements including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal reached in October 2015. In light of China’s efforts to launch the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, roll out the One Belt, One Road initiative and reach a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with the ASEAN+6 nations, the TPP is critical to the future credibility of US regional leadership. The TPP is not simply a vehicle to facilitate increased trade, but a means to shape 21st-century rules for economic governance and to promote and entrench liberal free-market principles in Asia Pacific.

Indonesia’s decision in September 2015 to choose China over Japan to build a high-speed train line between Jakarta and Bandung is illustrative of what is at stake. The US$5.5 billion Chinese proposal was attractive given that it required neither financing nor a loan guarantee from the Indonesian government. But many questions remain regarding the transparency of the proposal and the ability of China to meet international standards, including on labour and environmental regulations.

It is thus critical that the United States, Japan and the broader international community engage with Chinese-led economic initiatives to help steer China toward a greater embrace of international best practices. The TPP has an open-accession clause to create a clear and transparent process through which other countries — including China, Indonesia and South Korea — can join in the future. The United States and Japan should actively promote the expansion of TPP membership, especially to these countries.

Third is the need to demilitarise the South China Sea. The construction of artificial landfill islands by China in the South China Sea has set back efforts to peacefully negotiate a diplomatic resolution to existing territorial disputes. The potential for the future construction on the artificial islands, as well as high-profile attempts by the People’s Liberation Army Navy to enforce no-fly zones, risks further militarising the South China Sea.

Further military build-up in the South China Sea will undoubtedly feed regional tensions and increase the risk of accidental conflict. Until a diplomatic resolution can be peacefully negotiated between China and the ASEAN countries, it is vital that all parties be alert to China’s incremental changes. At the same time, the United States and Japan must coordinate and cooperate to persuade China that freedom of navigation, in what is a vital sea route for international commerce and the energy security of East Asia, is in the shared interest of all.

The fourth challenge is that of North Korea. On 6 January 2016, North Korea tested a nuclear device for the fourth time — the second under Kim Jong-un’s leadership. This time, the international community must go beyond business-as-usual measures to deal with the North Korean nuclear program.

In order to truly alter North Korea’s behaviour, economic sanctions, including financial sanctions, will need to be strengthened. Beijing has a big role to play. Irrespective of its apparent change in attitude after the third North Korean nuclear test in 2013, China has continued to provide substantive assistance to North Korea. For any form of sanctions to be effective, though, the international community as a whole, including China and Russia, must fully back them.

South Korea, Japan and the United States must deepen cooperation and adopt a unified approach on sanctions policy as well as on joint contingency planning. The three nations also need to consult with China and Russia to form a united front to apply greater pressure on North Korea. An immediate restart of the denuclearisation process under the Six-Party Talks may be difficult, but without the right measures to pressure and isolate North Korea, nothing will be achieved.

Fifth, the United States and Japan should also coordinate their Russia policies. Since Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe both returned to power in 2012, the two leaders have shown a willingness to deal with the issue of the Northern Territories (referred to as the Southern Kuril Islands in Russia). But then Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 and plans were put on hold.

Since then, Japan has stuck to its international obligations and imposed sanctions against Russia. But, if it appears that an acceptable agreement can be reached on the Northern Territories, an issue that has blocked the normalisation of Japan–Russia relations since the end of World War II, Japan will have no choice but to seize the opportunity. It is important that the United States and Japan maintain very close coordination and not allow Russia to utilise the Northern Territories issue to drive a wedge between them. They must also make clear to Russia that any Russo–Japanese cooperation to resolve the Northern Territories dispute will not translate into an acceptance of the annexation of Crimea.

The final key issue facing the US and Japan is that of US military bases in Okinawa. The battle between the Okinawa prefectural government and the Japanese central government regarding the relocation of the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station has reached something of an impasse. While the United States might be happy to leave this to the Japanese government to deal with, ultimately the United States will also have to suffer the consequences of Okinawa’s local opposition.

Deep US–Japan consultations must continue, which should be conducted as part of regularised reviews of the US forward deployment structure and how it relates to US–Japan alliance goals. While a continued US forward deployment presence in Okinawa is critical, if the situation is not handled with due sensitivity for local Okinawan concerns, base protests will continue to be a thorn in the side of alliance relations.

The overall US forward deployment posture in East Asia should be evaluated in light of advances in new military technologies and the need to respond to regional security challenges in a dynamic way. A more evenly rotated distribution of US soldiers across the region would not only help reduce the burden on Okinawa over the long term, but also be strategically desirable in responding to a range of new threats.

The choices made now about how to deal with these six challenges will go a long way toward determining the future regional order. With deep and regularised consultations across all aspects of the alliance — including on security, economic, and diplomatic strategy — not only can the United States and Japan deepen the foundation of their cooperation, but they can also more effectively work together with China to steer its rise in a mutually beneficial direction.

Hitoshi Tanaka is a senior fellow at the Japan Center for International Exchange and chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd. He previously served as Japan’s deputy minister for foreign affairs.

This article is an extract from East Asia Insights Vol. 11 No. 1 February 2016, which is available in full here, and is reprinted with the kind permission of JCIE.