Saturday, November 29, 2014

Equality or Estrangement

TOKYO – Those whom the gods would destroy, they grant their wishes. Will that bit of ancient wisdom now hold for the United States and Japan?

For a half-century, the US, which wrote Japan’s postwar “peace” constitution, has pressed the Japanese to play a greater role in maintaining Asian and global stability. But now that Japan finally has a leader who agrees, the US is getting nervous, with Secretary of State John Kerry supposedly calling Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “unpredictable.”

These strains in the US-Japan relationship – surely the foundation stone of Asian stability – first became noticeable in December, when Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which houses the “souls” of (among others) Class A war criminals from the Pacific War. The US has always criticized Japanese officials’ visits to the shrine, but through diplomatic channels. This time, America voiced its displeasure openly.

The US is rightly concerned about the negative impact of such pilgrimages on Japan’s relations with its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea. But the harsh tone publicly adopted by President Barack Obama’s administration raised serious concerns among some in Abe’s government who question Obama’s commitment to the alliance and suspect that he was using the Yasukuni issue as a pretext to signal a weakening of America’s defense commitment.

Such suspicions were sharpened after China declared its new Air Defense Identification Zone, which overlaps Japanese sovereign territory. The US tried to have it both ways: though the Obama administration sent US bombers through the new ADIZ to demonstrate its refusal to recognize China’s move, it also told US commercial airliners to acknowledge the zone and report their flight plans to the Chinese authorities.

Likewise, US acquiescence in China’s de facto ouster of the Philippines from the Scarborough Shoal (a disputed outcropping in the South China Sea) raised questions in Japan about the two countries’ supposed harmony of interests. In fact, although the US extols the virtues of its partnership with Japan, successive American presidents have been vague about the details. Ultimately, the idea always seemed to be that Japan would pay more for defense, but the US would set the partnership’s objectives.

Abe’s conception of the US-Japan partnership presupposes much greater equality. After all, a society like Japan, trying to escape two decades of economic malaise, cannot feel completely comfortable outsourcing its national-security strategy, even to an ally that is as respected and reliable as the US.

Far from being based on chest-thumping nationalism, Abe’s national-security strategy reflects, above all, a deep awareness of how a lost generation of economic growth has affected the Japanese. His bravura diplomatic performances sometimes give the impression that a self-confident Japan has been a normal feature of the global landscape. Strangely, it is all but forgotten – particularly by the Chinese – that for two decades Japan has watched China’s rise quietly from the sidelines (even supportively, to the extent that Japanese investors have poured in billions of dollars in the three decades since Deng Xiaoping opened the economy).

Indeed, Abe has succeeded so well in returning Japan to the world stage that his US and Asian critics act as if the only problem now is to moderate Japanese self-confidence – a notion that would have been laughable just two years ago. But the fact remains that one of Abe’s primary worries is the spiritual malaise that accompanied Japan’s long economic stagnation. Those who see in his patriotic rhetoric a desire to whitewash history miss his real concern: economic revival is meaningless if it does not secure Japan’s position as a leading Asian power.

The US, however, regards Abe’s worries about Japan’s spirit as peripheral to its efforts to forge a lasting relationship with China and overhaul its strategic presence in the Pacific. For example, the US views the Trans-Pacific Partnership – the huge trade agreement involving it, Japan, and 10 other leading Pacific Rim countries – as a technical scheme that will bring economic benefits through greater trade. But, for Abe, the TPP’s value for Japan’s sense of identity – that it is now a more outward-looking nation – is just as important.

In Abe’s view, Japan needs to regain, wherever possible, the right of independent decision-making if it is to manage successfully the challenge posed to it by China. This does not mean that Abe’s Japan will become an ally like France under Jacques Chirac, spurning US leadership for the sake of it; instead, Abe seeks a policy of cooperation with the US that reflects the alliance's voluntary nature. He believes that, given the new balance of power in Asia, the alliance will be meaningful only if each partner has a real choice, and the wherewithal, to act autonomously or with regional allies.

Fortunately, Japanese and American analyses of Chinese trends are not very different. Both generally view China as having embarked on a probing strategy in search of weak spots where it can expand its geopolitical reach. And both believe that only when China is convinced that such probes will yield no lasting benefit can serious negotiations about a comprehensive security structure for Asia take place.

But even here, there is a difference. The US, convinced of the importance of intentions in the conduct of foreign policy, believes that once China recognizes the limits to its power, a structure of peace will follow naturally. Abe, by contrast, believes that only a favorable balance of power can be relied upon, and he is determined that Japan play its part in constructing that balance.

Although Abe has lifted Japan’s sights and self-confidence, he recognizes that Japan faces real limits. The US, too, should recognize that there are limits to the extent of the subordination that it can ask of an ally. Some wishes really are better left unfulfilled.

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    1. CommentedWilliam Grava

      I really like the author’s assertions about Japanese culture and the value of some choices and actions which American diplomacy seems to fail to understand. However, I ask myself whether this fortunate methodology is also being applied with regard to China... So I really get worried when the author says “...only when China is convinced that such probes will yield no lasting benefit...” The fact is: China’s economic growth has changed its role in world and, either one likes it or not, its geopolitical role in the region will change too. Teaching China it must behave is not an option. For this matter, I like the view presented by Prof. Hugh White in the book “The Chine Choice”. America will have to accommodate with China and, consequently, all countries in the region will have to have too. So, let’s start...

    2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      I forgot to say:
      Abe has been doing what has been desired of Japan for a long time, which Japan had been hesitant to do, by the United States and all East Asian counties except, of course, China and probably South Korea.
      This is the job that a Thai newspaper said about fifteen years ago, "We are very thankful to Japan for this but we do hope that Japan will not do it alone. We hope that Japan will continue doing this in full consultation with the United States." Abe has been in full consultation with Washington. He knows like all Japanese that Japan could not do it all alone and on its own.

    3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      Ms. Koike must have had a bad dream on the night before writing this. I do not like some parts in this, such as "The US has always criticized Japanese officials' visit to the shrine," or "the harsh tone publicly adopted by President Obama's administration."

      I could agree, though, if she had in mind some mistaken notions, about Chinese imperial political culture and historical imperial ambition, often conceived by some Americans.

      There is some, though not much, truth in "US critics act as if the only problem now is to moderate Japanese self-confidence." This is the cace of Japan the Never Normal. Prof. Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College said, "For some reason we scholars, policy analysts and journalists seem unable to see Japan as normal. No matter what Japan does, people view it through the lens of extremes (Japan, the Never Normal, Asia Unbound, http://blogs."

      It became public in March 1979 that Tojo and others had been enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine in October the previous year, but no protests were made by China or South Korea. Three Japanese prime ministers made twenty visits to the shrine without incurring any protests from these two countries or from any other countries, until August 1985 when Japanese lefts and , as usual, the Japanese newspaper Asahi started making a big fuss of it.

      A small group of people at Stanford University, such as Prof. Peter Duus and Mr. Scott Snyder, an expert on Korean affairs, compared school history textbooks of Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan and the United States.
      The conclusions were: The Japanese textbook is the most controlled of all, it neither admires the war, nor fuels patriotism. The description in the Japanese history textbooks have perfectly kept in step with Japan's post-war foreign policies that refused to possess military forces as a diplomatic policy.
      The Korean history textbook doesn't mention the main events during the war, which the other counties' textbooks refer to, such as the war that occurred in China in 1937, the Pearl Harbor attack and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead it it focuses entirely on the Koean resistance movement against Japan's colonial administration or their cultural development in literature.
      It is probably the Chinese history textbook that describes the war in the most patriotic way. It is filled with descriptions of heroic military operations, and even suggests that it was China, chiefly the Communist Party of China, that ultimately defeated Japan. There are no references to either the war which took place in the Pacific or the importance of a role that the allied country had played there...It says that the determining factors for ending the war were the general attack against Japan demanded by Mao Tse-tung and the Soviet Union's entry into the war.

    4. CommentedDong-bae Kim

      The author asserts that "Those who see in his (Mr. Abe's) patriotic rhetoric a desire to whitewash history miss his real concern: economic revival is meaningless if it does not secure Japan's position as a leading Asian power".

      I don't buy this assertion. If Japan wishes to redeem itself as a leading Asian power, first thing it should do must be securing trust and reliability from its Asian neighbors, not just holding on to its bilateral ties with the US. What has Japan been doing, then? Exactly the opposite to what is advised for Japan to do.

      The author also argues that Mr. Abe's economic strategy under "Abenomics" is closely interwined with his national security strategy. Certainly, it's up to Mr. Abe which way he decides to steer Japan out of existing conundrums, both economically and security-wise.

      But it is notable that even Abenomics could slip into 'Abegeddon' as Mr. David Pilling, Asia Editor of the Financial Times, aptly pointed out (

      For Japan and Mr. Abe, a trustworthy and reliable start for stand-up again, would come from facing up to history as it was, showing sincere remorse over the past wrongdoings and stopping preposterous remarks by some Japanese politicians and other leading figures.

      Mr. William Faulkner, winner of Nobel Prize in Literature and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, once said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past". Mr. Max Fisher, The Washington Post blogger, tweaked it as "The past is never dead in foreign affairs. It isn't even past."