Home > Opinion
  print button email button

Friday, July 4, 2003

Does irrelevancy await Japan?

HONOLULU -- Japan-U.S. relations are at a postwar high, "the best they have ever been," report policymakers on both sides of the Pacific and longtime observers of the relationship. Credit growing realism in Japan about security issues, unprecedented decisions in Tokyo and a remarkable personal relationship between the leaders of the two countries. But Japan's current activism is unsustainable. The country has neither the interest nor the resources to continue on its current trajectory.

Both governments need to prepare for that eventual readjustment: Washington must alter its expectations of Japan, and Tokyo needs to articulate more clearly its view of the relationship and how it will share burdens with the United States. Failure on either side could plunge the relationship to lows that mirror the gains of recent months.

Japan-U.S. relations have been transformed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Much of the credit goes to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He has overseen the historic dispatch of Self-Defense Forces to assist the international coalition in the war against terror, has been a staunch supporter of the U.S. in its attempt to rally world opinion against Iraq, and earlier this month secured passage of historic legislation that gives the government expanded powers in times of national emergency.

To be honest, much of the momentum for good relations began in the early 1990s, when Japan recognized the inadequacies of its security policies and began to reassess its security outlook. But the bilateral relationship has been immeasurably strengthened by the close personal relationship Koizumi has forged with U.S. President George W. Bush, a genuine friendship that has eclipsed the "Ron-Yasu" (President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone) relationship of the 1980s.

Although Koizumi favors more activism by Japan, there are political calculations at work, too. Domestically, the government has had to focus on security policies because it has no other accomplishments of note; its economic agenda is dead in the water.

This focus makes sense in the context of relations with the U.S.: Washington has long complained about burden-sharing and the administration is happy to see Tokyo step up on these matters. (Japan gets an additional reward: Action on this front obliges the U.S. to swallow any public criticism it might otherwise direct toward Tokyo for its failure to push through economic reform.)

Alliance hawks applaud these developments, but I am worried that the U.S. will expect Japan to continue on its current course. That's a dangerous assumption. Japan's security thinking has been virtually transformed in recent years, but that's because it was unrealistic from the start.

The 1990s were an eye-opening decade for the Japanese; the tumultuous events put an end to many of their illusions about security policy in Northeast Asia. While the learning curve has been steep, it should flatten out soon. The country is reaching the limit of what it can do under the current Constitution and, given the disposition of the Japanese people, that limit might be reached sooner if the public believes it was hoodwinked about the reasons for the war against Iraq.

The most important factor is Japan's economy. In the mid- to long term, economics will become a powerful constraint on the country's strategic options. Japan won't be able to afford a robust defense posture if its population ages and shrinks, savings evaporate and the country faces the choice of financing health care or a modern military. Even more significant, belt tightening at home will deprive Tokyo of the financial resources -- in particular, its business networks and economic aid -- needed to support its broader foreign-policy agenda.

The U.S. has been a strong supporter of a new, more robust Japanese security profile, but I fear that Washington also takes these changes for granted. On a strategic level, plenty of analysts -- some might call them cynics -- argue that Japan has no choice but to follow the U.S. lead. That claim is not without foundation: Although Koizumi stressed the moral and strategic reasons for supporting the U.S. in Iraq, others asserted that Japan had to step in line if it wanted to retain influence in Northeast Asian affairs. Some of the prime minister's own statements conceded as much.

It should be noted that the U.S. attitude is part of a larger problem. For much of the policy community, Japan is at best an afterthought, at worst an irrelevance. Japan specialists complain that they can't get the attention of policymakers. Discussions appear to take place in a vacuum. At conferences on Asian security, Japan typically rates no more than a question on the agenda -- when it comes up at all. If Japanese policy is addressed, it is usually in relation to the rise of China; Tokyo is the grim counterpoint to Beijing's dynamism.

One of the key strategic questions for Asia is what will happen when Japan reaches the point at which it cannot or will not go further. Will the U.S. adjust its demands, or will it rupture the relationship? The burden rests with Washington, as Tokyo knows it is getting too good a deal on defense. The notion that Japan would choose remilitarization over the alliance is mistaken.

To head off the collision between U.S. expectations and Japan's ability to deliver, the two governments need to start working on a broader strategic agenda that looks realistically at needs and capabilities in the medium to long term. They need to think more creatively about burden-sharing across the entire foreign policy agenda. U.S. military strength, when combined with new technologies, should undercut the need for Japanese participation in conflict so that Japan can best contribute to conflict prevention, peacekeeping and reconstruction. The difficulties in rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq have made plain the significance of the latter role.

It is equally important that Japan shed its passivity, both in relations with the U.S. as well as when policies are put into effect. There are times when Tokyo has to be able to say "no" to Washington with confidence and with good reasons -- just saying no isn't enough.

Tokyo must be able to provide credible alternative policies as well. And while there are good reasons to conduct diplomacy behind the scenes and with more subtlety than the U.S. sometimes seems capable, that should not be an excuse to avoid a hardline policy when it is appropriate. Japan has accumulated significant good will in Asia during the postwar era, but it will be all for nothing if Tokyo refuses to ever draw upon it.

The most important thing Japan must do is get its economy back in shape. Tokyo can't be a strong and reliable partner without that foundation. Yet even the most optimistic forecasts put recovery a decade away. A failure to act will make irrelevance look good in comparison.

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank. He can be reached at bradgpf@hawaii.rr.com

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.