Shadow Government

Chrysanthemum or Samurai?

In a thoughtful essay in today’s Financial Times, Gideon Rachman asks whether Japan may now be tilting towards China after 60 years of aligning itself with the United States. This question is interesting on multiple dimensions — including with regard to the future of U.S. primacy in Asia, the impact of China’s rise on its ...

Jason Lee-Pool/Getty Images
Jason Lee-Pool/Getty Images

In a thoughtful essay in today’s Financial Times, Gideon Rachman asks whether Japan may now be tilting towards China after 60 years of aligning itself with the United States. This question is interesting on multiple dimensions — including with regard to the future of U.S. primacy in Asia, the impact of China’s rise on its neighbors, the nature of Japanese politics and identity, and our understanding of the deep structure of international relations at a time of systemic power shifts. Indeed, Japan is a critical case study for assessing how the developed world will respond to the rise of dynamic new power centers in Asia — and what the implications will be for American leadership in the international system.

The ascent of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) after nearly six decades of unbroken rule by the conservative, U.S.-oriented Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has convulsed not only Japanese politics but also its foreign policy.  Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has mused about constructing a pan-Asian fraternal community based on "solidarity" — not with Tokyo’s closest alliance partner across the Pacific but with its near neighbors, led by China. What should have been little more than a tactical skirmish about the terms of the realignment of U.S. forces in Okinawa has become, through mismanagement on both sides, a strategic headache for both Washington and the inexperienced government in Tokyo, raising unnecessary tensions within the alliance. DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, the power behind the throne of the Hatoyama administration, recently led a delegation of 143 parliamentarians and hundreds of businessmen to Beijing, reviving in form if not substance the tributary delegations from China’s neighbors that, in pre-modern times, ritually visited the Chinese court to acknowledge its suzerainty as Asia’s "Middle Kingdom." 

These and other moves, unthinkable during the Cold War heyday of the U.S.-Japan alliance, suggest a striking shift in Japan’s geopolitical alignment as the Pacific century dawns. Despite the fact that Japan was never part of "the Chinese world order" in traditional Asia, some analysts believe a Japanese tilt toward a resurgent China would be in keeping with the country’s foreign policy traditions. As Gideon writes:

Some western observers in Tokyo muse that perhaps Japan is once again following its historic policy of adapting to shifts in global politics by aligning itself with great powers. Before the first world war the country had a special relationship with Britain. In the inter-war period Japan allied itself with Germany. Since 1945, it has stuck closely to America. Perhaps the ground is being prepared for a new "special relationship" with China?

In this reading of Japanese history since the Meiji restoration, the country has repeatedly aligned itself with the international system’s preeminent power — Britain in the early 20th century, Nazi Germany until 1945, and the United States since then. If Japan really is edging away from the United States to align itself with China today, that is a compelling indicator that the future belongs to Beijing, and that America’s best days as the world’s indispensable nation are behind it.

Yet this judgment is, if anything, premature — and may simply be wrong. Imperial Britain, Nazi Germany, and America during the Cold War were actual or aspiring hegemons from outside Asia; Japan’s alliance with each of them cemented its own role as Asia’s dominant power.  Japan was not aligning with each of these powers to bandwagon with them, subordinating its power and interests to theirs. It allied with these Western states to facilitate its own pursuit of national power and leadership in Asia. 

This is true even of Japan’s Cold War alliance with the United States, when post-war leaders in Tokyo pursued a conscious strategy of developing Japan’s economic and technological dynamism within the cocoon of American military protection. In a systematic and self-interested manner, these leaders took advantage of the security umbrella provided by the United States to modernize Japan’s economy and build strength with an eye on a long-term objective of moving beyond the constraints imposed by the U.S. alliance as Japan grew into a leading economic and technological power. The DPJ’s new independence vis-à-vis Washington reflects this evolution, and the only surprise is that more Japan hands in the West didn’t see it coming.

Historically, Japan has shown a striking ability to rapidly transform itself in response to international conditions, as seen in the Meiji break from isolation, the rise to great power in the twentieth century, the descent into militarism, and renewal as a dynamic trading state.  Only a few years ago, excellent books and articles with titles like Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose, Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia, and "Japan is Back: Why Tokyo’s New Assertiveness is Good for Washington" framed the country as a resurgent Asian great power. Since 2001, successive Japanese prime ministers have articulated unprecedented ambitions for Japanese grand strategy.  These have included  casting Japan as the "thought leader of Asia," forging new bilateral alliances with India and Australia, cooperating with these and other democratic powers in an "Arc of Freedom and Prosperity," formalizing security cooperation with NATO, constructing a Pacific community around an "inland sea" centered on Japan as the hub of the international economic and political order, and building a new East Asian community with Japan at its center. These developments reflect the churning domestic debate in Japan about its future as a world power and model for its region, trends catalyzed by China’s explosive rise.

Japan’s strategic future remains uncertain in light of the country’s churning domestic politics and troubling economic and demographic trends. Yet there is no question that military modernization in China and North Korea has spurred a new Japanese search for security and identity that has moved Tokyo decisively beyond the constraints that structured its foreign policy for fifty years following defeat in the Pacific war. The ascent of the DPJ, with its calls for a more equal U.S.-Japan alliance and greater Japanese autonomy in security and diplomacy, is another step forward in Japan’s transformation into what DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa famously called a "normal country." Enjoying a normal relationship with China, as the DPJ intends to do, is part of that process. But so will be a continuing partnership with the United States.

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