It's Time to Strengthen U.S.-Japan Relations

The United States has an opportunity to show the world that America is a steadfast supporter of its friends.

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Japan's Liberal Democratic Party President Shinzo Abe smiles during a question and answer during a press conference at the party headquarters in Tokyo Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, a day after the party's landslide victory over the ruling Democratic Party of Japan led by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in parliamentary elections. Abe stressed Monday that the road ahead will not be easy as he tries to revive Japan's sputtering economy and bolster its national security amid deteriorating relations with China.

Dr. Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of Politics at Ripon College, recent Fulbright Scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books. You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.

In December this column discussed the issue of alliances, focusing in particular on Great Britain. This is the second column of this series, focused on Japan. In an age of promoting "burden sharing" and perceived American decline, the importance of alliances cannot be overstated. This deterioration of American leadership has often led to a neglect, or even abuse of our closest friends. As stark was the case concerning the United Kingdom, so too is the situation with Japan.

The "pivot to Asia", as yet both undefined and undetermined, is nothing new. From the early 20th century onward, the United States has maintained four clear grand strategy goals in the Pacific: encourage market economies and democratic political systems, assure U.S. access and influence, encourage regional peace, and maintain stability and balance of power. The saga of U.S.-Japan relations began in 1853 in archetypical gunboat diplomacy, with four American warships backing a diplomatic mission to open the country to American influence, trade, and ports of safety. This created the terms for a complex and symbiotic relationship. If our closest ally overall is Great Britain, a relationship born of revolution and two wars, our relationship with our most trusted partner in Asia was born of cannon and shot.

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The irony of Pearl Harbor is not lost on those students of history. Since the Second World War, Japan has been engaged in the role as America's unsinkable aircraft carrier, and key to America's entire strategy in Asia and the Pacific. There is simply no more important relationship to American national security in northeast Asia than Japan. In partnership with Australia, South Korea, and Taiwan, the United States is able to fulfill all four grand strategic goals. The Mutual Security Treaty system makes clear to any enemy of Japan, that an attack upon Japan is an attack upon the United States. Japan, criticized by many in the media, may not reciprocate until she changes Article 9 of her American engineered constitution.

The Cold War ensured that the relationship between the United States and Japan remained fixed. However, since 1991 the wind of change has been blowing. President Clinton prior and President Obama currently have devalued the relationship at a very critical time. Japan has been placed in a situation of anxiety over our hot and cold relationship with China, and our ambiguity regarding North Korea and Taiwan. This has been exacerbated by talk of American declinism and an inability to fully articulate what the "pivot to Asia" means in real terms.  

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The election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe re-opens a window for U.S.-Japan relations. Abe campaigned on a platform that stressed the alliance with America. The recent dust up over the Senkaku Islands where Japan recently scrambled F-15 fighters to reassert sovereignty after Chinese air and maritime incursions could be used to solidify U.S.-Japan relations. Japan established sovereignty in 1895, and China, notably, did not object to the islands falling under American control when the United States established the occupation of Japan and its territories. It was not until the 1970s, when oil was suspected, did China began to make claims.

Many believe that the renewed aggression toward Japan is the first major attempt, with many more to come, to bully the Japanese. The Communist Party of China always believes it can utilize anti-Japanese feeling for their own ends, but should be mindful that their ideologically bankrupt state can overcook nationalism (as they did with the Belgrade embassy bombing of 1999) to the point that it boils over into anti-government resentment. The Obama administration, which has delayed a request by the Japanese Prime Minister for an official visit, wants Japan to play a more active role in the stabilization of Asia. There has been increasing incidents of Chinese military assets shadowing American military aircraft in the region. If China is making an opening gambit to assert regional primacy, then the United States must take this window of opportunity to meet it head on. This should not be done with pale and weak language about "recognizing Japanese administration", but with an assertive declaration that the United States will not tolerate any attempt to coerce an American friend. The United States should make the following crystal clear:

  1. The United States views the Mutual Security System with Japan as unshakable.
  2. The United States actively supports and promotes a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with Japan.
  3. The United States recognizes the sovereignty of Japan over the Senkaku islands.
  4. The United States should act as a mediator in establishing a diplomatic understanding between Japan and Taiwan over the Senkaku islands and the resources thereof.
  5. The United States will extend any National Missile Defense with a Theatre Missile Defense to protect Japan, and our other Asia-Pacific allies.
  6. The United States views any provocation by North Korea against Japan as a provocation against the United States.
  7. [Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Congress Interfere with China's Currency Policies?]

    The vagaries of the territorial dispute are no longer relevant. Similar to the case of the Falkland Islands (see article on Dec. 20, 2012), the United States has an opportunity to show the world that America is a steadfast supporter of its friends, and an adamant enemy of those who seek to undermine them. The United States has no interest in a sequel to the 1895 Sino-Japanese war, nor does it have an interest in rewarding Chinese neo-imperialism.

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