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Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2001

New looks at an enduring alliance

Staff writer
NEW PERSPECTIVES ON U.S.-JAPAN RELATIONS, edited by Gerald Curtis. Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange, 2000, 302 pp., paper.
JAPAN-U.S. ALLIANCE: New Challenges for the 21st Century, edited by Nishihara Masashi. Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange, 2000, 191 pp., paper.

It's a new year, a new century, a new millennium, and a new U.S. administration. In other words, it's time again for a reappraisal of "the most important bilateral relationship, bar none" -- the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Forgive the cynicism, but there is a dreary regularity to such collections that saps the strength of even the most ardent fan of the alliance. Yes, the relationship is vital; yes, circumstances and challenges change. The problem is that the contents of these volumes rarely do. There is far more continuity than change when you look hard at the alliance.

About the only thing that does shift is the perspective and we can thank the end of the Cold War for that. With the Soviet threat gone, the alliance has to find a new raison d'etre, and new perspectives do wonders to explain the dynamics of the bilateral relationship. Is the concern monetary policy, trade policy, the Korean Peninsula, new security threats or the role of international institutions?

"New Perspectives on U.S.-Japan Relations" delivers on the title -- it offers fresh views on the relationship. In fact, it's about as fine a snapshot of where we are as can be had in a single volume.

In his introductory essay, editor Gerald Curtis, one of the most astute observers of Japanese politics, gives former President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, the credit for establishing the way in which the United States has dealt with Japan to this day. Key features include an absence of consultation with Tokyo over policy toward China, regular disputes over trade and economic relations, and continuing efforts to fend off congressional interference in foreign policymaking.

Curtis concludes that the Japan-U.S. relationship is not in crisis, and it does not have to be "fixed." That said, he makes the standard plea for the sustained attention of policy makers and a better understanding among the U.S. public about how relations with Japan continue to be in their country's national interest. In his chapter on the media in Japan-U.S. relations, Masayuki Todoroki, of the National Defense Academy, reinforces that last point and calls for more public diplomacy to stabilize the bilateral relationship. Ominously, he notes that "if one were to only read newspapers and watch television, it would be hard to believe that the people of these two nations across the Pacific are close allies, united by shared values and shared vision."

Values and vision may be shared, but relations will still become more difficult to manage. Blame structural factors for that. Not only has the alliance's glue -- the Soviet threat -- evaporated, but globalization, deregulation and the decentralization of power have increased the number of decision-makers. Foreign affairs was once in the hands of diplomats and economic matters were handled by bureaucrats. That is no longer the case.

For U.S. businesses trying to crack the Japanese market, that is not all bad. Robert Bullock, an assistant professor of government at Cornell University, explains that foreign companies can find allies among Japanese producers looking to break free from inefficient Japanese suppliers. Japanese companies looking for lower cost inputs and components will benefit, too.

But this expanding web of economic relationships will have an impact on policy making. The number of bureaucracies responsible for policy has exploded: The Ministry of Finance was supreme, but now there is the Financial Supervisory Agency, the Bank of Japan and even Cabinet-level administrators and politicians. Jennifer Holt Dwyer of Hunter College argues that as a result, "cooperation in regard to stability-threatening issues will continue and develop further over the next decade. . . . [Yet] cooperation involving agreements with longer-term distributional implications will remain difficult."

Junko Kato of the University of Tokyo anticipates greater stress if Japan's economic woes continue. Her review of bilateral economic relations shows that Tokyo's willingness to accommodate the U.S. has been a function of Japanese economic strength. Weakness means that Japan will be unable to adjust its policies to global economic conditions -- making the government more willing to say "no" -- and other countries will no longer expect Japan to assume such responsibilities.

As always, security concerns cast a shadow over the entire range of Japan-U.S. relations. Akihiko Tanaka, an international affairs expert at the University of Tokyo, argues that international developments in the last decade have pushed the two governments closer together. Even though "the game of major power relations among China, Japan and the United States has been bewildering, and threat perceptions seem to be constantly in flux . . . . Overall tendencies seem to force the two allies to cooperate more rather than to tread divergent courses."

He applauds the two governments' reconfirmation of the importance of the alliance in 1996 and efforts that followed to strengthen it. "The belief that the two countries share more or less identical security interests has prevented the fissures in the economic realm from damaging the overall relationship."

As descriptive work, "New Perspectives" is a joy to read: great history, good analysis. But when we move from description to prescription, the terrain looks awfully familiar: more consultation and cooperation, or a new coordinating mechanism is in order.

From Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia and all points in between, the Japanese contributors to "The Japan-U.S. Alliance" call for stepped-up talks between the two allies and other interested parties, whether the issue is China, South Korea, weapons of mass destruction or ASEAN.

To their credit, the contributors don't shy away from tough questions. Michishita Narushige, a research associate at the National Institute for Defense Studies, argues that both the Japan-U.S. alliance and the U.S.-South Korea alliance should continue after Korean unification. They provide regional and global security and reassurance, all of which will be just as important after unification as before. He doesn't believe that the two alliances should be integrated, however, a trilateral forum should be established to coordinate them.

Sueo Sudo, a professor of international relations at Nanzan University in Nagoya, argues that Southeast Asia must be a higher priority in Japan-U.S. policy. He notes that China is doing everything possible to extend its influence over the region, and Tokyo and Washington have to check Beijing's bid for leadership. That sounds good, but even though ASEAN welcomes the U.S. presence as a check against Chinese ambitions, some member governments are concerned about U.S. influence as well. Others worry about Japan's assumption of a higher regional profile.

Myanmar is an interesting test case. While there is agreement that the regime in Yangon is pretty odious, there is no consensus on a strategy to bring about change. Japan prefers the carrot, the U.S. favors the stick. That would seem to call for the "good cop, bad cop" routine and that is what has emerged. Such a strategy requires intensive consultation and coordination, however, if the public differences are not to result in acrimony and tension between the two governments.

That sort of burden-sharing is what the alliance needs. But that begs the question: What sort of partnership do the two countries want?

This is not an alliance of equals. The U.S. is big brother, Japan, the junior partner. Both sides may claim to want a more balanced alliance, but that is pure rhetoric. The U.S. isn't willing to trade its freedom of action. President-elect George W. Bush's talk about being less arrogant is another way of saying that his administration doesn't want to get dragged into other countries' problems. Similarly, the U.S. doesn't trust its partners, whether they be Japan or the Europeans -- at least not in the crunch.

On the other side, Japan may want more status, but it's unclear whether it is ready to pay the price. Some observers and policymakers understand the risks and obligations involved, but there is no sign of a public consensus on the issue, no matter whether the question is a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council or the revision of Article 9 of the Peace Constitution.

Koji Murata provides some reason to hope. In his chapter in the Nishihara volume, Murata, associate professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto, believes that the defense guidelines have helped institutionalize military-to-military consultations between the two countries, have altered the balance of power between the Defense Agency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and shifted burdens within the alliance.

Each of those developments is important, but he also concedes that "it might be time for Japanese to change their interpretation of the right to collective defense. . . . Discussions on the collective defense issue are needed." Those are ultimately political questions, and here the weakness is manifest.

Yoshifumi Nakai of the Institute of Developing Economies makes the case plain in his chapter on Taiwan in the same book. He writes that during the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, "the government realized that to recognize the crisis as a threat to Japan's security might have required it to clear a psychological hurdle, in that this would have raised questions about Japan's commitment to U.S. military operations." As a result, Japan downplayed the crisis. That may make political sense, but it is not the foundation of an enduring alliance.

In his chapter in "New Perspectives," Michael Green, senior fellow for Asian security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is more optimistic. Tokyo and Washington may have different approaches to security concerns -- such as the emphasis placed on dialogue and multilateral forums -- but they should not be mistaken for actual differences in interests.

Green also sees growing realism in Japanese security thinking. While that offers a chance to strengthen bilateral security cooperation, it also means that there is a real risk when the U.S. fails to respond to Japanese national-security concerns.

Green is a realist himself. He acknowledges "the undertow of pacifism in Japan is strong and the region's acceptance of a larger Japanese security role is only just taking root." In other words, any changes in the Japan-U.S. alliance will be incremental. Realism, incrementalism: so much for new perspectives.

Brad Glosserman can be contacted at brad@japantimes.co.jp.

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