The Asianist

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My Piece on the Future of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

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Much of the attention over the last two days has been on the huge setback suffered by Japan’s ruling party in Sunday’s midterm elections.

Yet this is only the most recent manifestation of the chronic instability characterizing Japanese politics in recent times, with Japan having five prime ministers in just the past five years. Other trends, like the increasing power of local governments over the central government, efforts to place foreign policy in the hands of politicians instead of experienced bureaucrats, and Tokyo’s demographic troubles, will not only make Japanese domestic politics more complex, but make its foreign policy more difficult to manage in the future.

What does all this mean for the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance, a vital relationship for both nations as well as for Asia more generally? Despite commemorating its 50th anniversary last month, the alliance had come under strain in recent months, particularly under the leadership of former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama. Here are some excerpts of the long-term recommendations I advocated for the alliance  in a recent piece for World Politics Review:

These challenges are by no means inevitable or insurmountable, and some of them will sort themselves out as Japan evolves. For all its strains, uncertainty about China, North Korea and transnational threats will probably continue to drive cooperation between Washington and Tokyo in the near future. Yet even if Japanese politics remain in a state of flux, there are some tangible steps that the United States and Japan can take now in order to navigate through the challenges ahead.

Much of the focus should be on overcoming the perception that the alliance is “structurally strong but operationally weak,” as Yoichi Funabashi, the editor-in-chief of Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, put it at a recent Center for a New American Security conference. Japan currently ranks 149th in the world in terms of military expenditures as a percentage of GDP, despite repeated North Korean provocations and China’s blistering military modernization. Even if the country’s consensus 1 percent ceiling prevents dramatic increases in defense spending, Tokyo can maximize scarce resources focusing on procurement reform, and ease political constraints by passing fresh defense legislation that gives it more latitude in deploying its Self-Defense Forces. Meanwhile, the United States should lead efforts to conduct an overall bilateral threat assessment and strengthen discussions on extended deterrence, in order to reaffirm the importance of the alliance and to reassure Japan about its security concerns.

Yet while traditional security gets much of the press, it is only one part of a complex and deep bilateral relationship. More focus must be placed in other spheres like development cooperation, climate change and human security, where Japan can play a sustained and significant leadership role. More discussion is also needed about how both countries can help shape the emerging regional architecture in Asia, both bilaterally as well as with India, Australia and key ASEAN countries. Finally, equal attention needs to be given to revitalizing bilateral economic cooperation, including moving towards an eventual bilateral free-trade agreement, as Japan hands Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye have counseled (.pdf).

You can read the full piece here.

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