„Crises”, „challenges”, „indecision” – Japan’s „decline” and what does it mean for Asia-Pacific

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PAWE? BIE?KOWSKI, Asian Programme

Oshima Island, Japan, April 7 2011

The latest report by Richard L. Armitage and Joseph S. Nye titled The U.S.-Japan Alliance: Anchoring Stability in Asia is yet another review of US-Japan strategic relationship undergone from Nye’s initiative since 1995. The document, widely understood as the most up-to-date guideline for Washington’s policy towards Tokyo, has always included a more general dimension of American foreign and security policy towards Asia-Pacific. This year’s edition raises a number of questions, ambiguities and dilemmas, which start to constitute a source of concern both for the US and for the region itself.

The 2012 publication by Center for Strategic and International Studies differs significantly from optimistic and confidence-driven 1995 and 2007 editions. 17 years ago Nye, known worldwide for introducing a concept of soft power, advocated that America should permanently station 100 000 troops in East Asia in order to maintain its leadership in the region. The re-rise of China and effects of Iraq and Afghan conflicts have nevertheless made themselves increasingly visible in 2007, when Nye claimed that US unipolar pursuit is widely unattainable and the future of East Asia is the one of US-China condominium, or more precisely, a US-Japan-China strategic triangle, supplemented with newly emerging subregional powers such as Vietnam. This sense of decreasing strategic weight of Japan continued into the August 2012 report, describing a „drift in the relationship” between Washington and Tokyo. The authors explicitly define Japan’s contemporary dilemma: Does Japan still constitute a tier-one nation or is it drifting into tier-two status?

Armitage and Nye are unequivocal in answering in favour of Japan’s privileged position in its relations with the US, but nevertheless refrain from underestimating the weight of Japanese problems and challenges. During the last six years, six different prime ministers have served the country. Economy continues to struggle, whereas the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown have all added to an overall sense of calamity the nation faces. The report’s central thesis is the one of Japan’s continuous importance to the US, though. As advised, this importance requires strengthening of the alliance and its particular elements, such as energy security, economics and trade, regional policies and hard security.

The keyword for renewed US-Japan energy cooperation should now be, according to CSIS experts, natural gas. With extensive new deposits soon to be developed on a wider scale in America, Japan is defined as one of the primary recipients of this fossil fuel. For this to be realised, Japan requires extended access to American market. Therefore, combined issues of US-Japanese FTA, the Comprehensive Economic, Energy and Security Agreement (CEESA – now in statu nascendi between USA, Canada, Mexico and Japan) as well as the grandiose project of Trans-Pacific Partnership all reappear. The case is therefore made for Japan’s closer ties with American economy, which was once very much afraid of cheap Japanese exports and reluctant to engage in such fundamental trade-facilitating instrument as an FTA. Last November, Tokyo has also started preliminary talks on its accession into the newly formed TPP.

Asia AD 2012 poses yet even more challenges in the security arena. It is just now when Sino-Japanese territorial dispute over Senkaku-Diaoyu islands caused both countries relationship’s descent into its worst condition since years. China’s increasingly fierce claims to vast areas of South China Sea constitute a serious threat to security of fundamental regional trade and energy commons. The report therefore argues for enhanced allied interoperability of forces, realised not only in the sphere of hardware, but also tactics. Accordingly, the US wishes to utilise its new operational concepts of Air Sea Battle, Joint Operational Access Concept and „dynamic defense” together with its closest East Asian ally. Whereas, close operational cooperation between US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force is already a reality, similar level of interoperability needs to be introduced in the remaining force branches. Authors also argue for establishment of joint R&D efforts, unified stance against cyber threats and strengthening the credibility of US extended nuclear deterrence.

The basic message of the report, anyway, is that the primary responsibility for the future of the alliance rests upon Japan more than ever before. Armitage and Nye argue that it is all about Japan’s will and commitment, and readiness to contribute to the fight against external security challenges. This, however, needs to be viewed in light of the previous report, as well as the notion of Obama’s 2011 „Pacific pivot” and current developments in East Asia security dynamics. The three-tier strategic shift to Asia-Pacific, unveiled by Obama administration last year, comprises of construction of world’s largest trading bloc: the TPP, development of Marine base in Darwin, Australia, and new political engagement with ASEAN and East Asia Summit. According to Hillary Clinton, the „six key lanes of action” embrace strengthening of bilateral security alliances, deepening working relations with emerging powers, utilisation of multilateral initiatives, enhancement of trade and investments, maintenance of broad based military presence and promotion of democracy and human rights (here, the case is increasingly being made about Burma/Myanmar). There is, or at least should not be, any doubt about Japan’s expected role in the new strategic concept as America’s primary ally in East Asia. Especially that, as argued in 2007 report, US influence in the region is likely to diminish over time.

Here, strategic tenets meet highly dynamic reality of Asia-Pacific. Apart from above mentioned territorial disputes, East and Southeast Asia is now highly exposed to multidimensional re-rise of China, especially in military domain. Traditionally weak (as referred to in classical writing of Sun Zi), only now China starts to feel its strengths when it comes to foreign policy and power projection. Chinese navy, still much weaker than its Japanese counterpart, has just introduced its new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, into operational service. While development of carrier aviation in China is underway, the region should prepare for even more proactive Chinese foreign and security policy. What is more, 2012-13 is extraordinarily a period of leadership change throughout the region. Eighth of November will see a kick-start of long-awaited Chinese Communist Party Congress which will hail new leadership apparatus with Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. In 2013 Japan will hold general elections most likely to be won by the Liberal Democratic Party, coming back to power after disappointing term of Democratic Party of Japan’s rule. What is important here, according to early reports, the man likely to lead LDP into the win might be Shinzo Abe, a nationalistic prime minister of 2006-7. Since Xi Jinping is also considered a foreign policy hardliner, the relations between the two countries might find themselves potentially in even bigger trouble. Provided, of course, that China manages to deal with its tremendous internal shortcomings. Further north, presidential election is expected this December in South Korea, while the DPRK still struggles with an incumbent new leader, whose policy initiatives raise more questions than answers. Finally, this Autumn will bring presidential elections in the US, what adds up to the overall political uncertainty regarding the directions in which the policies of key regional players will go in the nearest future.

Under these circumstances, it is indeed hard to imagine that US-Japan alliance could be replaced with anything more reliable from the point of view of America’s interests in the Asia-Pacific. Even though more is now required from Japan, so is from the US side, especially when it comes to trade negotiations and settling down such issues as Futenma Marine base or V-22 Osprey aircraft deployment. Sino-Japanese tensions are also a factor contributing to enhancement of Tokyo-Washington alliance. In the US, Japan is unceasingly considered a crucial maritime lynchpin without which America’s forward military presence in the region would simply be rendered impossible. Even before or soon after the completion of all leadership changes, both partners will need to redefine their complex relationship in view of better responding to even more complex future contingencies.

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Paweł Bieńkowski

Absolwent Instytutu Stosunków Międzynarodowych UW (2011), studiował również na University of Kent w Canterbury (2008-9). Odbywał staż w brukselskim Egmont – The Royal Institute for International Relations, gdzie prowadził badania dotyczące współpracy UE z jej partnerami strategicznymi w dziedzinie zwalczania zagrożeń transnarodowych (2011). Reprezentant Polski na obchodach EU-China Year of Youth 2011 w Brukseli i Shenzhen. Praktykant w Ambasadzie RP w Pekinie (2010). Prezes Koła Wschodniego UW (2007-2009). Działa na rzecz popularyzacji idei Azji w środowisku akademickim. Członek Centrum Inicjatyw Międzynarodowych w latach 2010-2013.

1 komentarz on "„Crises”, „challenges”, „indecision” – Japan’s „decline” and what does it mean for Asia-Pacific"

  1. Military and economic cooperation with Japan is crucial for the US interest in East Asia. However, Washington should aknowlege the implications it carries for the territorial and maritime boundary disputes between Japan and her neighbours, especially China. The case of Senkaku/Diaoyu ownership issue shows, that any shifts in the balance of power between China and Japan might be an escalating factor. Also the US-Japanese natural gas cooperation might reduce the pressure for Japan to involve in joint development and cooperation on the disputed areas of the East China Sea. Although the United States should not directly interfere in bilateral disputes between Tokio and neighbouring states, military and energy cooperation with Japan should be linked with increased pressure on the japanese government to seek reconciliation and building confidence in relations with Beijing. The US responsibility in this matter consists in the fact, that Washington has got alliance treaty obligations towards Japan. A possible clash between the two neighbours in the East Cjhina Sea could drag Washington into an unwanted conflict with Beijing to protect the interests of its ally.

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