The growing dynamics of Japan-US relations | By Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi


The growing dynamics of Japan-US relations

DESPITE being a strategic US ally, Japan is pragmatically recalibrating its relationship with the US because of the emerging regional and global dynamics.

Tokyo seems to value for its independent security via its own military, a notion that gets no lease by the policy makers in Washington.

So far, nothing remains more important for the United States as that of the revitalization of the QUAD dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region.

For the new Biden Administration, to reset the scope of US-Japan relations yet remains a priority agenda, albeit this relationship between Washington and Tokyo faces some challenges in gray-areas.

Rapid globalization and geopolitical transformation of the world mounts a great impact in “Northeast Asia.” In the post-Cold War period, Washington has been enjoying a geopolitical advantage over “Northeast Asian” countries.

The direct security of the US homeland is, on one hand, absolutely safe from any occurrence that remains confined within the region and, on the other hand, it still remains a US-driven agenda of projecting its power across borders and regions to protect its interests not only in “Northeast Asia” but also elsewhere in the world at a moment’s notice.

For the first time since World War-II, Japan considers whether the strategic reality in its region could evolve in a direction not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.

Such a shift would require Japan to rethink how it sees itself and its role in the world. Nothing may change. But if reconciliation happens, Japan may not have time to create the military force it will need to defend its interests.

Japan cannot wait until there is clarity, nor can it proceed without a political crisis. Japan is trapped between a new reality and its old strategy.

A Japanese strategy began to go off the rails recently with an attempt at rapprochement between North and South Korea.

In its pre-World War-II strategy, Japan had long viewed the Korean Peninsula as a buffer between itself and the mainland. The Japanese occupied the peninsula to ensure that this buffer continues to exist.

After the war, the division of the peninsula and the American presence in the south guaranteed the buffer.

For the Japanese perspective, if the US would accept an understanding between the North and South Korea, and if that understanding included the withdrawal of some or even all U.S. troops from Korea, then the strategic balance would shift.

While the United States’ view of China has evolved from believing China can be a responsible stakeholder in the international system to viewing China as a strategic competitor, Japan’s close historical, cultural and geographic connections with China have led its decision makers to approach China on its own terms rather than as an abstraction.

Japanese decision makers have long accepted that China’s economy and military will outpace that of Japan’s and do not see their countries in a strategic competition – but remain determined to resist Chinese pressure and not to back down against China’s influence, yet this seems an idealist scenario as Chinese power influence is undeniably expanding.

Geoeconomically speaking, the US-China relationship is already approaching close to a new Cold War.

Both Japan and the US are facing geoeconomic threats — the decoupling of China from global supply chains for 5G telecommunication networks and semiconductors, China’s military-civilian integration aimed at utilizing technology for geopolitical ambitions and its leapfrogging strategy to use digital yuan to overcome the dollar hegemony — which could endanger the foundation of their economic technology.

Japan reinterpreted Article 9 from an absolute prohibition on military force to an absolute prohibition on an offensive military force.

Then, as its military force developed, Japan redefined the meaning of an offensive force to focus not on the nature of the force but on the nature of its utilization.

A destroyer or fighter plane is by its nature an offensive weapon, but Japan decided that so long as such weapons were not used offensively, their existence was constitutional.

Using this logic, Japan has developed a substantial military force that it withholds from any offensive operation, although it has used it in some peacekeeping operations.

Japan has therefore avoided operational deployment in US wars, from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same time, it has developed a significant naval and air force, and it is capable of becoming a nuclear power at will, given that it has one of the most sophisticated civilian nuclear programs in the world.

One joke goes that Japan does not have a nuclear weapon because a single screw needed to enable it has not been tightened.

That may overstate the hurdles but it captures the principle. The limit of Japanese military power is Japan’s will.

Meanwhile, the issue of Japan’s independent security is being debated in Japan. It is a good time to harmonize interpretations of such rights as are embodied in the Japanese Constitution, the US-Japan Treaty and the UN Charter.

An assertion of the right of collective self-defence—presumably through a reinterpretation of the Constitution—would (1) permit Japan to tackle wider responsibilities in UN peacekeeping operations, thereby enhancing its claim to a Security Council seat, and (2) strengthen the alliance by permitting wider cooperation in the defence of common interests in a crisis.

To be sure, the affirmation of such rights would not compel Japan to cooperate with the US; it would merely enable such decisions to be made on policy rather than constitutional grounds.

Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, API’s predecessor, issued a report in 2013 simulating worst-case scenarios for nine potential national crises such as a military clash around the Senkaku Islands, a cyber terrorist attack, the collapse of North Korea and nuclear terrorism.

The Asia Pacific Initiative think-tank has made assessments of these crises and made proposals based on precious lessons drawn from the incidents.

But has the nation itself made good use of such lessons? Perhaps to a degree, but it is necessary to review the nation’s risk management system under the worst case scenario and build a national consensus on how to utilize the SDF in such cases.

—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.