More than ever before – the history stretches back to the 1950 Korean War outbreak and recognition that the Cold War had come to Asia – U.S.-Japan relations are the keystone of American strategy for peace and stability in Asia. .
But tending a vast network of bilateral and multilateral connections in which Japan plays a role is as important as cultivating all the bits and pieces of the bilateral alliance. That’s true even with the alliance’s permanent sore spots such as Okinawa with its local radicals and blackmailers. The recent slightly deemphasis of Okinawa with U.S. troops transfers and power projection to Guam are only a slight modifications of a larger strategic concept.That American Okinawa base along with other Japanese Main Island air and navy installations – particularly the naval base at Yokosuka so close to Tokyo — remain central to the U.S. East Asian strategic interests.
Coaxing Japan — with a significant and potent resistance from those clinging to the old illusion of the radical pacifist constitution written by the American Occupation — is among the most important U.S.’ diplomatic Asian projects. It includes trying to integrate Japan’s potential military power as well as its great economic clout into a multinational alliance.
Unfortunately, perhaps the most crucial link between two American bilateral Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, is constantly butting up against the history of Tokyo’s often embittered occupation of the peninsular. North Korea’s sympathizers and as well as genuine Korean nationalists have a hard time forgetting this past. Beijing, increasingly more pragmatic, has exploited this gaping hole in the U.S. strategy with a campaign of seduction of Seoul. It has done so even at the expense of its relationship with its satellite in Pyongyang but who is increasingly dependent on Beijing for its economic survival. So far Beijing’s ability to balance these two relationships has exceeded expectations in Washington and Tokyo and suggests the enormity of the growing problem of how to deal with China,
However strong the aversion to “creating an enemy” in some American academic and political circles, “the problem of a rising China” is growing. China’s aggressive military expansion into the East China Sea where it challenges traditional Japanese claims and its creation of new bases athwart one of the world’s most important naval highways in the South China Sea have to be a cause of concern. Hopefully, China’s still “developing” economy dependent on its successful trade with the U.S., Japan and other Western industrial states, is a counter to its more chauvinist forces. But the increasing reliance of Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping on the military as he has tried to build a highly personalized regime is a source of concern.
All this, of course, led then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 to announce “a pivot to Asia” for U.S. foreign policy. While the Pentagon dutifully announced readjustment of forces, in fact the Mideast crises have continued to ensnarl the Obama Administration. That’s despite its overall goals of reducing regional military commitments as part of the Obama general retreat by the U.S. from world leadership. The “pivot’ has been furthered encumbered by China’s growing regional economic influence, even among the Southeast Asian states who feel threatened.
The latest example of these complications is the decision by Australia to go to the French – for an advanced design – with a $50-billion submarine program over the next decade. The Australian buildup is an important part of what Washington would like to see as a grand alliance among Japan, the Southeast Asians, India and Australia to curb Chinese military expansion. The Japanese had been favored by the Americans for the contract but lost out, at least in part, because of Tokyo’s amateurism in military equipment export diplomacy – only recently begun by Prime Minister Shinto Abe as the latest in the stretching of Japan’s “no war” constitution. Tokyo is convinced that Australia’s dependence on China for massive raw materials purchases, and Beijing’s opposition to the Japan bid was the main obstacle.
The complexity of the Asian scene will continue to dog the last months of the Obama Administration and leave a legacy of demands for diplomatic expertise of the highest caliber for the next administration.