The US and Japan: An Unbreakable Alliance?



On April 26, the Japanese prime minister is heading to the U.S. for a weeklong visit. During the trip, he will give a speech to a joint session of Congress. Washington typically honors its close friends with such invitations; however, not one Japanese leader was considered worthy of this honor until Shinzo Abe. At first glance, this appears strange in light of the close Japan-U.S. alliance. The answer probably lies in the constant trade friction which is an integral part of the relationship, the fears of the 1970s and 1980s that the “Japanese miracle” would eclipse the U.S. economically, and in recent years, the frequent changes of leadership in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed confidence that Abe’s visit “will show the world how strong the Japan-U.S. alliance is.” However, these words feel tinged with the desire to dispel doubts (and not just those abroad) about the absolute reliability of the alliance. After all, in Japan itself there are fears that its American patron might cast off its ward in favor of establishing relations with the more promising China, and establishing a new global system of international relations directed by a Sino-American duumvirate.*

Meanwhile, the U.S.-Japan military tandem, with Washington in the front seat, is gaining momentum under cries from both riders about the “growing Chinese threat.” This very “threat” is one of the chief motives for the “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) announced by President Obama. Uncle Sam, relying on his trusty Japanese squire there (the most powerful U.S. force abroad is stationed in Japan), plans to lock up the Chinese dragon in his coastal waters. Beijing certainly doesn’t want this, and building up its military muscle, it’s answering Washington with its own vocabulary: “back down or else.”

During the visit, Abe and Obama will sign updated basic defense cooperation guidelines for the two countries. The document is being revised for the first time in 18 years, due to the Japanese prime minister’s desire to strengthen the international role of its Self-Defense Force by weakening constitutional limits, like the use of the right to collective self-defense. Japan and the U.S. are trying to strengthen military cooperation without setting any geographic limits, including the sphere of missile defense. In particular, the U.S. expects Japan to deepen Japan-U.S. cooperation in regard to patrolling and observation in the South China Sea, where China is stepping up its naval activity.

The bundle of security laws planned by the Abe administration to be adopted by the current session of the National Diet doesn’t set clear limits on the activities of the Self-Defense Forces abroad, and leaves much up to the administration’s discretion. Thus, in Abe’s opinion, they can participate in mine-clearing operations in the Strait of Hormuz, since a halt in crude oil shipments from the Middle East could have serious consequences for Japan.

The updated guidelines provide for strengthened cooperation in space, which is more and more often being called “the fourth battlefield” after land, sea and air. This means the integration of Japanese and American armed forces on a qualitatively new basis. The measures indicated are once again directed foremost against China, which is strengthening its presence in space, including with regard to the development of anti-satellite weaponry. However, by the look of it, not only China, but other countries in the region as well, aren’t happy with the new international role of the Japanese armed forces.

The strengthening of Japan-U.S. military cooperation, including missile defense, can’t help causing concern in Russia. It will be a big step forward for the creation of a global missile-defense system by Washington and its allies, which in Moscow’s opinion is directed against Russia.

The paradox of Japan-U.S. relations lies in the fact that while of one accord regarding military matters, Tokyo and Washington often find themselves on opposite sides of the economic front. Currently the greatest source of discord between Tokyo and Washington remains the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pushed by the U.S. in the Pacific region. This project is an essential part of America’s “pivot” to Asia, and has an anti-Chinese rationale. Significant progress toward its implementation is considered an important result of Abe’s visit to the United States. The 12 countries involved in negotiations on its formation account for 40 percent of the global gross domestic product. They would like to reach an agreement by the end of spring, but the outcome of the negotiations remains uncertain, mainly because of continuing disagreements between the U.S. and Japan, which account for 80 percent of total GDP generated by the members of the organization.

Access to Japanese markets for American agricultural projects is a critical issue. Under the circumstances, its ally’s closed market can’t help irritating the U.S. when, for example, in 2014 the trade deficit with Japan was a considerable sum at $67 billion. For its part, Japan demands the removal of tariff barriers on its auto exports to the United States.

Driven by the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, Japan and America, feeling China breathing down their necks with its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiative, held intensive talks for several days before Abe’s visit. However, they failed to achieve a compromise regarding rice imports to Japan and vehicle parts to the U.S.

In early April the U.S. asked Japan about the likelihood of its participation in the AIIB. Washington is concerned that its allies, including the U.K., Australia and South Korea, have applied to become founding members of this globally-significant financial structure. So far Tokyo is refusing this opportunity. However, an internal government document received by Kyodo News shows that Tokyo isn’t ruling out joining the AIIB, and has prepared a $1.5 billion deposit just in case. Since the AIIB is considered a challenger to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which are traditionally dominated by the U.S. and Japan, the development of the two countries’ position regarding the new multilateral bank will be one of the main items on the agenda for the Washington visit.

Conceived as a triumph, the AIIB matter will be overshadowed until the resolution of the heightened issue of the U.S. Air Station Futenma on Okinawa. The relocation of Futenma from downtown Ginowan to Henoko Bay on the northern shore of the island, agreed to by Japan and the U.S. in 1996, was supposed to reduce the burden of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa. The Okinawa prefecture, making up less than 1 percent of the country’s territory, contains 75 percent of American bases in Japan, making it a major U.S. foothold in Asia.

The government of Japan attaches great importance to the presence of American forces on Okinawa, since the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands contested by China are part of the prefecture. However, residents of the prefecture led by Gov. Takeshi Onaga strongly opposed the construction of a new base that would damage the island’s unique fauna.

On April 17, Abe all of a sudden met with Onaga personally. Apparently, the Japanese prime minister wanted to demonstrate that he is doing everything possible to resolve the Futenma relocation issue on the eve of his trip to the United States. However, the negotiations did not lead either party to change its position; Abe’s impartial conversation with Onaga boiled down to the governor’s requesting that Abe convey to Obama the “clear opposition” of Okinawa residents to the construction of an American base on the coast.

Meanwhile China, in an effort to counterbalance Abe’s visit to the U.S., is already exploring the possibility of Xi Jinping appearing before both houses of Congress in September. If this happens, then it’s possible the Chinese leader will lay out his vision for a “new type of major-power relationship.”

*Editor’s note: A duumvirate is an alliance between two equally powerful political or military leaders.

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