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Although written in classic bureaucratese, the revised U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines released today as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the United States represent a genuinely historic event. Books should and will be written on the subject, and of course the full longer-term implications are anyone’s guess. But it’s not too early to conclude that the entire bilateral relationship has just been fundamentally altered, and to wonder whether President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal (TPP) will be among the first major American policy initiatives affected.

But first, some context. The guidelines seem to bring to an end decades of official U.S. ambiguity about Japan’s place in American national security planning and in world politics itself. As I’ve written, as has been the case with World War II’s other big loser, Germany, American policy toward Japan has been torn between a determination to prevent these formidable economic powers from returning to war-like ways, and by a perceived need to enlist their resources in fighting the Cold War. Under Democratic and Republican presidents alike, Washington decided to square the circle through what I’ve called a “smothering strategy.”

The United States literally undertook to solve all of the international problems that could possibly induce the Germans and Japanese to conduct independent foreign policies to begin with. It ensured their security by offering defense from conventional military and nuclear threats (to the point of promising to commit national suicide to keep them free). And America ensured their prosperity. After providing mammoth post-war reconstruction aid, the United States opened its markets to German and Japanese exports much wider than their markets opened to U.S.-origin goods and services.

Initially, as they focused on rebuilding, Germany and Japan were generally content with Washington’s control of their diplomacy and leadership of new security arrangements they joined. For its part, the United States valued the contributions made to free world security by Bonn and Tokyo, even though both capitols greatly preferred to help out financially than in terms of building near-world class militaries.

Not that the U.S. approaches to Germany and Japan were identical. Because it was thought realistic to embed the former in a series of pacifying and profitable regional institutions, American leaders were more comfortable with relatively larger German armed forces. They also insisted that Germany shoulder the same kinds of legal obligations to defend the United States (at least legally) that America had assumed to defend Germany (in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty). Creating regional networks of cooperation looked much more difficult in East Asia, whose countries were much more diverse; therefore, the policy focus was primarily on Japan. Tokyo was never pressed to promise to help defend the United States or its interests. In other words, the U.S.-Japan military relationship was entirely one way.

Once Germany and Japan (and neighboring countries) recovered economically, and the Soviet Union erased American superiority in nuclear weapons, both the trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific security systems came under major strains. The U.S. nuclear guarantee became less credible, and therefore all of America’s European and Asian allies felt freer to hedge their bets by periodically defying Washington’s foreign policy writs – even as their skimping on military spending became more irritating to the United States. Americans, meanwhile, (especially the public) began grumbling more loudly about German and Japanese trade protectionism and its economic costs. (For a history of decades worth of NATO “burden sharing” quarrels, see this article.) As a result, by the mid-1980s at the latest, the U.S. leaders found themselves in the exquisitely awkward position of insisting that their major allies contribute more to the common defense, while remaining as smothered – i.e., subordinate to America – as ever.

The Soviet Union’s demise relieved much of this pressure on U.S.-German and U.S.-Japan relations (especially on the security side), but the emergence of post-Soviet Russian revanchism and the rise of China as a possible challenger to America’s preeminence in East Asia have returned them to the spotlight.

And this is where the historic nature of the new U.S.-Japan guidelines becomes clear. Although U.S.-led security structures are basically unchanged, the new guidelines take an unprecedented step in turning the security relationship with Japan into a genuine alliance. This biggest change was announced in the section stipulating,

When the United States and Japan each decides to take actions involving the use of force in accordance with international law, including full respect for sovereignty, and with their respective Constitutions and laws to respond to an armed attack against the United States or a third country, and Japan has not come under armed attack, they will cooperate closely to respond to the armed attack and to deter further attacks.”

Previously, Japan’s only defense obligations under the security relationship were in Japan’s immediate neighborhood (though the definition of that neighborhood has been steadily expanded), and entailed direct attacks on Japan itself. In fact, Japan was not required to shoot down nearby missiles heading for the United States or even to defend American warships engaged in missile defense in its own vicinity. Although many operational details apparently remain to be worked out, Japan has clearly decided to assume more of not only its own security burden, but that of the rest of the world. And rather than simply reflecting unilateral Japanese decisions that in principle could be reversed at any time (specifically, an Abe government decision to interpret Japan’s American-imposed “peace constitution” with unprecedented latitude – which still needs to be ratified by the Japanese parliament), Tokyo’s new posture is now part of a formal agreement with the United States.

Several huge questions remain to be answered. For example, will Japan demand a greater say in planning security strategy now that it’s finally significantly expanding the risks it will run and the expenses it will incur? Will the new agreement embolden Japan to respond more forcefully to Chinese muscle-flexing in East Asia? And how will China and the rest of the region react? Even before the guidelines were announced, the press in Korea – a former longtime Japanese colony that’s also involved in some territorial disputes with Tokyo – was nervously asking whether the Abe visit to Washington would result in the United States “centralizing its Asia policies on Japan.”

And don’t forget the economic angle! Most important, given America’s historic policy of assigning its security interests in East Asia over its economic interests, Japan now appears in a much better position to persuade the Obama administration to cave to its TPP-related demands to keep its own key agricultural markets substantially closed, and to open U.S. automotive markets further without any reciprocity.

In my view, such a quid pro quo would be a major mistake – if only because it must be assumed that Japan is raising its security game to promote its own interests, not as a favor to America. But U.S. leaders long have been convinced that America needs its allies much more than vice versa, and Abe would scarcely be the first foreign leader to take full advantage.

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