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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #1: June 11, 2001

On a Tightrope Between the U.S. and China?

John de Boer (University of Tokyo)

Japan has always been a difficult country to read, particularly for those who do not seem to be able to read between the lines. One would think that after using Japan as the corner-stone of its security policy in East Asia for fifty or more years the U.S. would have a better grasp of Japanese concerns and hopes vis-a-vis China. However, instead of seeking to understand, the Bush administration, led by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, is busy breaking its brains deciding how to make Japan a more reliable and useful military ally. East Asia has been identified as the prime security risk zone, and China is at its core. Alliance politics is back and strategists are wondering whether Japan will remain faithful to the U.S.

In his June 9th Japan Times editorial entitled "Is Japan Tilting Toward China," Ted Galen Carpenter (Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute) addresses this very question. His prediction is that the U.S. is in for a surprise, a more assertive Japan will be less subject to U.S. influence on China and chart its own independent course.

Armed with an eccentric and somewhat nationalist Prime Minister, a dangerously extroverted Foreign Minister and a level of public approval rating never enjoyed before, advocates in support of changing Article 9, so as to allow Japan to be more militarily active, are gaining ground. The problem is that no one is clear on where this will lead. Will Japan be the obedient junior partner that the U.S. wants or will it transform into a more forceful defender of its own interests in East Asia?

The reality is that Japan is finding it increasingly difficult to accommodate the U.S. hegemonic agenda at the expense of its relationship with China. It is not only some conservative right-wing politicians who feel this way, a similar sentiment can be heard at the general public opinion level. People in Japan are beginning to question whether the burdens of having U.S. forces on its land are greater than the benefits. The risks posed by U.S. military activities launched from its bases in Japan are increasingly coming to light with the recent spy plane incident as one example. The debate concerning the National Missile Defense system is even more of a concern with the United States seeking to consolidate its alliance under a common security system that in effect increasingly polarizes the positions of allies and non-allies.

This is a dangerous scenario for both Japan and China, two countries that have a mutual interest in cultivating closer relations. Ever since the Nixon Shocks (1970's) Japan has quietly developed independent relationships with several U.S. 'enemy' states so as to prevent its priorities from falling victim to U.S. unilateral actions. This was the case in Japan's relationship with Iran as it sought to secure vital energy resources. Similarly between Japan and China ties have developed quietly behind the scenes. Both countries recognize a certain level of interdependence and realize the need for cooperation as was witnessed by the recent statement by China's foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan who affirmed that China would not make any unreasonable demands from Japan regarding the history textbook issue. Japan already has an independent foreign policy towards China, one that is measured and discrete. A more assertive military posture will not serve to advance its dialogue with China.

Over the past fifty years, Japan has learned the art of balancing interests, benefiting from its alliance with the U.S., while quietly accommodating its own agenda. In an increasingly polarized environment, Japan will surely make full use of this cultivated skill and the U.S. would be wise to encourage the development of an atmosphere conducive to preserving these channels for dialogue, in particular with China.

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