American presidential elections are predominantly won or lost on economic issues.
Their report, ‘The US–Japan Alliance: Anchoring Stability in Asia’, advances some controversial themes. First, Japan must decide if it will remain a ‘tier-one nation’ with ‘significant economic weight, capable military forces, global vision, and demonstrated leadership on international concerns’. Japan’s aging population and declining birth rate, its high debt-to-GDP ratio and continued political lethargy has generated a sense of pessimism among Japanese youth. Japan still suffers from the ‘triple disaster’ of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown in 2011. The authors insist, however, that Japan is overcoming these challenges as it continues to field the world’s third-largest economy — Japan remains a ‘maritime lynchpin to a stable, strategic equilibrium in the Asia-Pacific’.
Second, the report asserts that while no longer confronting a Soviet threat, but facing a ‘rising China’, and dependent on Middle East oil, Japan must reorient its strategic planning and capabilities to the south ‘and a great deal west — as far as the Middle East’. It will need to change its current prohibition of collective self-defence and adopt a more flexible interpretation of its ‘Peace Constitution’.
Third, the report argues that ‘Seoul and Tokyo should reexamine their bilateral ties through a realpolitik lens’ to achieve alliance interoperability against North Korean missile threats and growing Chinese naval strength. In this context, it must implement greater US–Japan–South Korea strategic defence cooperation.
All these points make perfect sense in a rational world in which US alliance politics are seamless and East Asia’s regional security dilemmas remain low-key. Unfortunately, the pace of strategic change in the region combines with domestic political problems in the US and allied countries to render this version of the Nye–Armitage report peripheral to factors shaping East Asian security dilemmas.
Above all, the report appears to be partisan after all. Apart from Nye, most of the other study-group participants who contributed to the report are veterans of past Republican administrations. The one other exception, apart from Nye, advised the US Senate’s Democratic leadership on China trade policy during the 1980s but he hardly appears influential in Democratic Party circles nor with the Obama administration. This may explain why the Obama administration’s re-balancing initiative (more popularly known as the ‘pivot strategy’) received little or no attention in this document. It is clearly a blueprint for a Romney administration should one materialise after the November 2012 election in the US.
The prospects for any Japanese government in the near term of modifying Japan’s collective self-defence constraints are dim. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has recently pressed for his country to reinterpret its collective self-defence prerogatives: more specifically, to exercise the right to counter-attack in the event an ally is attacked. He has been stymied by members of his own Democratic Party of Japan who suspect that Noda has become too close to the opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
This lack of Japanese domestic consensus can be linked to the opposition of China and South Korea to any expansion of Japan’s military role. The unfortunate reality is that Japan, Washington’s ‘lynchpin’ for implementing its alliance strategies in Asia, remains disliked and largely distrusted by its neighbours. Thus, the strategic collaboration between Japan and South Korea envisioned by Nye–Armitage is largely wishful thinking. The hard reality of Japan–South Korea animosity undermines the report’s recommendation that Tokyo should prioritise engagement with ‘democratic partners’ in regional security planning.
The report’s analysis of future Chinese uncertainties is more plausible and a refreshing change from those who insist that China’s future growth and its intensification of hegemonic behaviour are inevitable. But there is no specific policy recommendation in any of the report’s conclusions about how the US–Japan alliance should respond to Chinese military power.
The report’s potential policy significance should not be doubted. It is the major assessment by conservative forces in the US of their country’s most important security treaty in Asia. Points it raises in such areas as extended deterrence, technology cooperation and cyber security are well considered. Others, however, such as Japan sending minesweepers to the Persian Gulf ‘at the first … indication of Iran’s intention to close the Strait of Hormuz’, are fanciful. A second Obama administration or its Republican alternative would do well to ponder the report’s recommendations but should do so without necessarily endorsing its across-the-board practicality.
William Tow is Professor of International Relations at the College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.