The Chinese media exhaustively covered Obama’s visit to Japan on 23–25 April. There were references to the exorbitant cost of the Abe–Obama sushidinner and the ¥25 million worth of entertainment laid on by Prime Minister Abe. But it was Obama’s verbal guarantees regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that attracted the most attention.
Obama stated that US commitments under the US–Japan security treaty ‘extend to all the territories under the administration of Japan, including the Senkaku Islands’ and that the United States ‘opposes any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands’. He also supported Japan’s consideration of exercising the right to collective self-defence.
These commitments were roundly condemned in several quarters throughout China. The most concerted attacks focused on the US–Japan Security Treaty. For instance, Yuanhai Liu argued that the title of the Joint Statement ‘The United States and Japan: Shaping the Future of the Asia-Pacific and Beyond’ clearly demonstrates a ‘great ambition [to] proactively … participate in international security affairs [that goes] well beyond the traditional scope of the US–Japan Security Treaty’. In reality, the treaty truly is global in its reach: the 1960 version obliges both Parties to settle any international disputes by peaceful means and to contribute to the development of peaceful and friendly international relations, while both the 1952 and 1960 versions refer to the maintenance not only of Japanese security but also ‘international peace and security in the Far East’.
Other criticisms suggested that the US–Japan alliance is a Cold War relic. A senior official of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang, stated that the security treaty was a product of the Cold War era and urged the United States and Japan to abandon their Cold War mindset in order to avoid disturbing regional peace and stability even further. The Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, made similar comments at an event at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Cui pointed out that the US–Japan alliance originated in the Cold War years and questioned whether it had appropriately adapted to the challenges of the 21st century.
It is historically accurate to describe the US–Japan alliance as a product of the Cold War: the major strategic purpose of the alliance when it was signed and re-signed in 1952 and 1960 was to contain the Soviet threat and defend against the spread of communism in East Asia.
Beyond this, there are interesting questions about why alliances endure beyond the original purpose for which they were established. Alliances will not persist if they no longer serve the interests of members. When the specific threat on which an alliance is predicated disappears, alliances are unlikely to survive. What, therefore, has kept the US–Japan alliance strategically relevant? Yumi Hiwatari argues that growing concerns over a rising China and nuclear developments in North Korea are ‘Cold War-type security concerns and threats’. In other words, the Cold War is over but the type of traditional security threat that it represents is not.
Stephen Walt contends that a state poses a threat when it has the intention and capability to attack or invade another country — or to coerce them to adopt policies contrary to their national interests. By this definition, whether China and North Korea pose a ‘threat’ to Japan and the United States is a legitimate question. Both China and North Korea have and are acquiring military forces that could be used to attack the United States and Japan, or used to coerce them into adopting policies that they would argue are contrary to their national interests. China and North Korea also have governments that are unconstrained by internal democratic processes or by the external pressures that alliance partners can bring to bear. And both use nationalism to buttress government legitimacy. The core function of defence and deterrence in the US–Japan security treaty therefore remains relevant today.
Alliances also remain relevant in the absence of direct threats. A state’s security can be at risk if its surrounding region is plagued by instability. Although these conditions do not threaten the political or territorial integrity of a state directly, they can escalate, creating military and political problems that have the same security-diminishing effects as traditional threats. In 1996, the ‘Japan–US Joint Declaration on Security: Alliance for the 21st Century’ was made in response to such threats. The declaration embraced the concept of ‘regional cooperation…to achieve a more peaceful and stable security environment in the Asia-Pacific region’. It paved the way for Japan to undertake greater defence cooperation with the United States.
Since then, the stability of Japan’s security environment has deteriorated even further as territorial disputes have intensified in the South China Sea. Japan’s principal security interests in this area are twofold: first, the potential disruption to the regional sea lanes and secondly, the undermining of existing international legal norms. In fact, Japan’s territorial disputes with China and those between China and South East Asian states have, to a significant extent, combined to diminish Japan’s security in both the traditional and non-traditional senses.
Alliances also tend to endure when they are supported by other major powers and regional states for helping to maintain peace and stability in particular areas of the globe. US forces stationed in Japan have long been considered providers of a public good because of their contributions to regional stability and prosperity through the deterrence of conflict.
Finally, allies may use specific political assets such as joint policies, statements and commitments to strengthen deterrence. The Joint Statement that resulted from the Obama visit to Japan represents exactly this kind of political asset. The targeted verbal attacks on the US–Japan alliance from China following Obama’s visit serve to underline its strategic interest in unravelling the US–Japan security relationship. Yet ironically, Chinese actions and statements have served to cement the alliance rather than undermine it.
Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the University of New South Wales, Canberra