Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Absent Japan?

Jun Okumura raises a justifiable complaint: in all of these discussions about the future of international relations, where is Japan? At the trans-Atlantic editors' roundtable, at the sessions I attended, China and India were mentioned in several contexts but Japan came up only once: in a discussion about energy security.

Japan is still the world's second largest holder of dollars (after China but before Russia, in the third position) but it remains taken for granted in Washington that Japan will use its dollar reserves to support U.S. objectives--whereas one must be more concerned about Beijing's (or Moscow's) intentions. There is also an assumption that, in strategic terms, Japan has "nowhere else to go" other than to remain in Washington's tight embrace, especially when faced with an unpredictable North Korea and a rising China.

The last major piece in The National Interest on Japan was Chris Preble's A Plea for Normalcy which appeared in the September/October 2006 issue. I've reproduced below the concluding paragraphs. Is this the direction of U.S. - Japan relations for the future?

Japanese military power might prove instrumental for dealing with future, more serious challenges to the regional security order. Japan's lingering hostility toward and suspicion of North Korea in the near term pales in comparison with its medium- to long-term concerns of a rising China. The trajectory of China's rise to regional prominence threatens to collide with both Japanese and American interests. The open question is whether all three countries will be able to establish a new strategic balance or whether competition for influence in East Asia will lead to a clash that could threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of people on both sides of the Pacific.

Common economic interests within Asia may lead to China's peaceful integration into the region. Or China could turn away from its current course of political and economic liberalization and revert to economic autarchy imposed by military force. It is even possible that China could become a revisionist power, no longer content to accept regional security configurations in their present form. That could occur even if the PRC holds to a course of economic reform.

Against those unlikely but dangerous possibilities, Japan's neighbors should welcome a potential counterweight to a rising China. Many already do. Attitudes toward Japan vary widely, with Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Filipinos and Malays much more favorably disposed than are Koreans to the notion of a wider security role for Japan. These attitudes could evolve further if China's behavior grows more threatening.

The decades-long U.S.-Japan strategic partnership is changing. Americans are becoming increasingly anxious about the costs and risks of our permanent global military presence. We welcome changes that will allow the U.S. military to step back from its role as the world's policeman, and are looking for ways to devolve security responsibilities and reduce our risk exposure. The Japanese--while retaining a strong anti-militarist disposition--are willing to play a more assertive role. They are anxious for their country to behave, and to be treated as a normal country, that is, as a country responsible for defending its interests. Japanese Self-Defense Forces are already highly capable, and Japanese military capabilities could quickly expand if the security environment grows more threatening.

Japan is a stable and mature democracy. The pre-World War II era, when an imperial Japan attempted to secure an exclusive economic sphere for itself, is long past. The ghosts of World War II cannot be allowed to forever dictate the shape and character of U.S.-Japan relations. Americans and Japanese should welcome a transition away from a patron-client relationship, to one based on shared interests, mutual trust and understanding.

Those conclusions seem to be the direction in which many Americans who want to see a more engaged Japan are pointing. However, I don't see much happening there for the time being.

On the security front, the structural problem in Japan is that the ruling coalition is roughly divided into LDP members who want greater overseas projection of Japanese forces and also happen to be suspicious of China and other LDP members and the junior coalition partner Komeito who want as little of this as possible and not by happenstance also pro-China. The opposition, many by ideological inclination and at least with a dash of political calculation, tend implicitly or explicitly to side with the latter here. The result is a policy stalemate, freezing Japan's security policy into the status quo and taking Japan out of the debate.

Japan doesn't come out looking good on the economic side of the international debate either.

Looking at international finance, Japanese financial firms tend to leave overseas political risk taking to public institutions and trading companies. Manufacturers, natural resource businesses, and non-financial services rely on these actors, or assume the risks on their own. This means that important Japanese actors won't be at the table or are government types. This is not conducive to active participation in the maintenance and improvement of the global financial architecture.

As for the WTO, it's all agriculture for us. As a result, we have been virtually sidelined in the negotiations while the US and the EU slug it out with India and Brazil. It won't be the end of the world for Japan if the Doha Round falls through, but it's still disconcerting to see us lose our seat at the main table.

Having raised the question in the first place, I'm a little ashamed that, instead of coming up with ideas for moving on, I have to conclude that the neglect is very much self-inflected.

I haven't done any reasearch that would allow me to call this anything more than an impressionistic sketch, but I think a lot of people will agree with me.
Japan, like Germany & South Korea, is still an occupied country & semi-sovereign. Her foreign policy is made in DC and not in Tokyo.

Moreover, US does not want Japan to become more prominent. Consider the Japanese idea of an "Asian World Bank" that was floated during the 1997 economic crisis in Asia - US considered it a triumph of the politicking to have killed it.
Dear Nikolas:

My compliments on your well-written and informative post. I believe that it is certainly time for the relationship between the United States and Japan to more appropriately reflect the maturity of Japan's economy, as well as to give effect to the world's changing view of Japan.

I truly enjoyed your post.


Douglas Castle
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