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Thick as Thieves: President Obama's Japan Centric Pivot

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By Donald L. Sassano
Special Contributor to In Homeland Security

Over the last year, the United States and Japan have sought to conclude an updated “Defense Cooperation Guideline” intended to strengthen the two nations’ military cooperation in the Western Pacific. Its completion was announced by Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe in the course of his historic address to Congress April 29th and released to the public last week.

Obama Japan China Shinzo Abe
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaking earlier this year in Washington. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Lack of a collective defense organization similar to that of NATO in Europe has meant pursuing Asian security with discrete partners via U.S. “hub and spoke” diplomacy. Now, President Barack Obama has chosen to double down on the most important of those relationships in order to pursue larger U.S. geostrategic goals, not least of which is responding to a militarily rising China and maintaining U.S. command of the global commons. What will the new framework mean for the U.S. and Japan? And what will be China’s likely response?

First and foremost (and rarely commented upon) the guideline and the nascent Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement (if ultimately completed) will cement Japan’s position within an American-engineered balancing tent. Under Abe Japan has sought, albeit cautiously, to minimize what historian Kenneth Pyle has described as its post-World War II realist proclivities. These include employment of a grand strategy rooted in overarching pragmatism, pursuit of a narrow national purpose, and an almost non-existent commitment to liberal universal ideals.

Given this attention to power and history of adaptation and accommodation, the Obama administration has been correct to forestall even the possibility of a key ally bandwagoning with an ambitious and possibly hegemonic Chinese colossus. Indeed, the Prime Minister took pains throughout his address to highlight the two country’s shared values, including a commitment to freedom and democracy and a peaceful Asian order. Therefore, the new policy unambiguously reinforces Japan’s commitment to regional autonomy, rank and honor, and commitment to the West.

Moreover, the agreement appears to offload some measure of U.S. maritime defense burdens to Japan and increases the geographical limits of its participation. If so, this should be music to the ears of those that urge the U.S. adopt strategies that deter “cheap riding” among allies in an era of ever escalating global commitments and declining U.S. defense budgets. For decades, Japan has reacted to U.S. pressure to shoulder more of its own security responsibilities with meager concessions in order to maintain its alliance standing, and excusing its foot dragging by invoking the language of Article 9 contained within its pacifist constitution.

Despite the last week’s fanfare, many will assert that Japan will not meaningfully step up until the U.S. tangibly reduces its commitments, including removal of U.S. bases from Japanese territory. Moreover, Libertarians see the new guidelines as likely to entrap the U.S. into hair trigger military confrontations with the Chinese over strategically inconsequential Sino-Japanese territorial disputes that should be shelved and left for future negotiation.

However, the language of the agreement points to a paradigm shift in Japan’s policies, including a willingness to significantly bind itself to alliance goals (even absent Chinese aggression) against the Japanese homeland or far flung island possessions. If indeed this proves to be the case, even doubters may warm to a rejiggered alliance that moves beyond the narrow confines of Japanese territorial defense that will likely be provided by the American Navy and U.S. taxpayers.

China, not surprisingly, has criticized the new understanding, and no doubt views the guidelines as yet another stage in its attempted encirclement by those who wish to deny its great power status. Among other concerns, the Chinese have suggested any military alliance in the Pacific is a relic of the Cold War, and that given past Japanese militarism and Abe’s obtuse non-apologies, Japan cannot be trusted. Despite this, Chinese President Xi Jinping has twice met with Abe since late last year, and there are indications that both sides are open to a renewed security dialog.

Theorist John Ikenberry describes America’s long-standing liberal strategy in Asia as “rule through relationships.” History also indicates the U.S. is rarely tolerant of rising peer competitors in other key regions, and at some point is likely to engage and deter a rising tide of Chinese provocations.

Unless we are willing to abandon both this enduring structure and history, the U.S. should commit to reforming and rejuvenating our strategic relationships in Asia. The new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines is a welcome step in this direction.

 

 

 

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