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February 12, 2010
Why Japan is Important to the West
by Michael J. Green1
In the summer of 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry pulled his naval squadron out of Shanghai and set sail for Edo Bay, where he intended to carry out his orders of opening the Tokugawa Shogunate to commerce and friendly relations with the United States. He later said that, “the Japanese are a rational people... who would be more open to conviction than their neighbors the Chinese, over whom in almost every essential they hold a vast superiority.” Left behind in a furious rage was the U.S. Commissioner to China, Marshall Humphrey, who had briefly commandeered several of Perry’s warships to display the flag and protect American merchants during the Taiping Rebellion. Shortly before the Navy pulled out, Humphrey had sent a report to the U.S. Secretary of State arguing that the United States had the “highest interests” in “sustaining China,” lest the Celestial Kingdom “become the theatre of widespread anarchy, and ultimately the prey of European ambition.” America’s destiny in Asia, he pleaded, was with China. It would not be the last time that military and diplomatic leaders would clash over Asia policy—nor the last time that American strategy would swing in emphasis between Japan and China. Fifteen years after the clash between Perry and Marshall, the Meij-era political philosopher, Nakae Chomin, published A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government, a fictional debate on Japanese foreign policy between “a gentleman of Western learning” who wore a bowler hat and extolled the virtues of democracy and economic modernization, and a “traditionalist” who still wore samurai swords and called for a strategy of military expansion and autarky in Asia. A Discourse by Three Drunkards foreshadowed 150 years of debate in Japan about whether the nation’s destiny ultimately lay with the West or with Asia, or whether Japan could—as the early 20th century modernizer, Inazo Nitobe, urged— become a “bridge across the Pacific.”
Summary: Just as the United States has gone back-and-forth on the strategic importance of Japan, Tokyo has debated the nature of its role in the international system. The resulting oscillation by both states necessitates a careful examination of Japan’s importance. The U.S.-Japan security alliance enables strategic stability in Asia, and Japan remains both a potent economic force and a democratic anchor in the region. Both the United States and its European allies must consequently step up strategic dialogue and cooperation with Japan.
The dangers of a drifting alliance
The American strategic pendulum continues to swing between Japan and China—just as Japan’s sense of identity hovers between Asia and the West. Today, the Japanese government frets about American “Japan passing” because the Obama administration argues that none of the world’s major challenges can be solved without China (seemingly consigning Japan to a secondary role). Meanwhile, the Obama administration
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Michael J. Green is senior advisor and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He served on the National Security Council staff from 2001 through 2005, finishing as special assistant to the President and Senior Director for Asia. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
is pushing back against Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s proposal for an East Asia Community that his supporters argue would help Japan reduce its “dependence” on the United States. Most of the rest of Asia watches these swings in American and Japanese orientation with some consternation, because from their perspective one thing is obvious: a strong U.S.-Japan alliance actually strengthens each partner’s relations with the rest of Asia. The Bush administration unapologetically put Japan at the center of its Asia strategy and the U.S.-China relationship became stronger and more stable than ever—not in spite of the first seat for Japan, but because of it. Prime Minister Junichiro Kozuimi used to argue that his strong partnership with the United States enhanced Japan’s diplomatic position in Asia, and except for perennial difficulties with China and the populist left-wing government of Roh Moo-hyun in South Korea (and some self-inflicted wounds caused by the Prime Minister’s visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine), Japan’s position in Asia was strong under Koizumi. The 2008 survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on “soft power” in Asia found that Japan tracked ahead of China and behind only the United States across the region in terms of perceived influence. Other polls by Gallup demonstrated Japan well ahead of any other Asian nation in the esteem of South and Southeast Asians. In contrast, most Asian leaders have reacted with concern at Hatoyama’s East Asia Community proposal—not because of the idea itself, which many had previously endorsed, but because it appeared aimed at weakening the U.S.-Japan alliance. Both Obama and Hatoyama have come to recognize the pitfalls of any drifts in the bilateral relationship. In his November 14, 2009 speech, in Tokyo, President Obama reiterated that Japan would remain “the cornerstone” of U.S. policy in Asia, and Hatoyama used his summit meeting with Obama that day to reassure the public that he believes the United States has an “indispensable role” in the Asia-Pacific region. Rediscovering Japan’s importance Reassuring words on the occasion of a bilateral summit will only go so far, however. The important thing will be for both leaders to demonstrate with actions the priority they place on the alliance. And for that purpose, it is critical to remind ourselves why Japan is important to the West and should remain the cornerstone of U.S. (and one would hope all democratic nations’) strategies toward Asia. First, Japan’s alliance with the United States serves as the single most important element in maintaining a stable strategic equilibrium in Asia at a time of profound power shifts that might otherwise heighten insecurity, rivalry, and conflict. The U.S.-Japan alliance deters North Korea from using force against its neighbors or China from using force against Taiwan. U.S. bases in Japan are indispensable to the ability of the American military to maintain a forward presence in the Western Pacific and to project power as necessary across the entire hemisphere as far as the Gulf and Southwest Asia. For the rest of Japan’s neighbors, the alliance allows muted defense spending and a focus instead on economic development and regional integration. Take away Japan as an ally of the United States and the West, and the rest of Asia takes a darker turn. Second, Japan remains the second largest economy in the world in exchange rate terms, and the second leading contributor to all of the critical international institutions that uphold the neoliberal order, from the United Nations to the International Monetary Fund and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Perhaps more importantly, Japan is arguably the world’s leader in advanced technologies, from robotics to smart grids and hybrid engines, that will be critical to creating a “green” economy in the 21st century. Japan’s economy is maturing and slowing down, to be sure, but the woes of the Japanese economy today are being overplayed by the media just as the strengths of Japan’s economy were exaggerated in the 1980s and early 1990s. Japan is a rich, high-technology country and will remain so for the indefinite future. Third, Japan anchors a growing number of successful democracies within Asia. While Japanese leaders continually debate their identity, on the ground Japanese governments of all stripes are doing more than ever before to reinforce democracy, human rights, rule of law, and good governance as Asian and not just “Western” norms. Since at least 2004, conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) governments argued in East Asian forums where no Westerners were present that the region must do more to advance democratic principles. The liberal-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government has eschewed some of this “neocon”-sounding rhetoric on democracy, but the new government is also much closer to Japan’s small NGO community than the LDP, and has consequently been far more outspoken about human rights violations in China and other authoritarian states. South Korea, India, Indonesia, and other Asian democracies continue to champion their own democratic brands vis-à-vis a rising China, even as they debate how much
to “interfere” in the affairs of other states. But as that discussion continues in the region, Japan can serve as a bulwark against the dangerous notion that there are shared “Asian values” that somehow privilege authority over human dignity. A middle power? It is not only important for the United States and the West to appreciate why Japan is essential to sustaining a liberal and prosperous international order, but also for Japanese themselves to make this assessment. In between the debate over Japan’s Western and Asian identities is a small but growing school of thought arguing that the nation should be less ambitious and seek instead the role of a “middle power.” Some of the academic proponents of this view mean that Japan should have a more activist international role akin to Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, which would not be a bad model. But for not a few politicians in Japan, the middle powers that seem most appealing are idealized versions of Sweden and Switzerland, where national resources might be spent on creating a welfare state and international relations involve more neutrality and less risk. It was this illusion that led many leading DPJ politicians to argue during their transition to power that Japan’s role in Afghanistan should be to serve as a “neutral broker” that could mediate between NATO and the Taliban—a role that would have badly undermined the West’s goals in Afghanistan and befuddled, if not encouraged, the enemy. Japanese leaders will have to make the arguments to the Japanese people about why their nation is so crucial to the international order, but the United States can help by stepping up strategic dialogue with Japan in the wake of the 50th anniversary of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 2010—a good occasion for crafting a fresh vision for the alliance. NATO and the European Union should also encourage higher-level strategic dialogue and cooperation with Japan. Indeed, the EU will find that its China policy will improve markedly once Brussels demonstrates the diversity and intensity of its other partnerships in Asia.
About GMF’s Asia Program
The German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program addresses the implications of Asia’s rise for the West—in particular, how Asia’s resurgence will impact the foreign policy, economic, and domestic challenges and choices facing the transatlantic allies—through a combination of convening, writing, strategic grants, study tours, fellowships, partnerships with other GMF programs, and partnerships with other institutions. Led by Senior Fellow for Asia Daniel Twining and Transatlantic Fellow Andrew Small, the program’s initiatives include the Stockholm China Forum and India Forum, seminars and other activities in Japan, a Japanese fellowship program, Asia-related panels at GMF’s flagship events at Brussels and Halifax, and a paper series on transatlantic approaches to wider Asia and on deepening cooperation between democratic Asia and the West. For more information see http://www.gmfus.org/asia.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.