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Japan Dreams of Syria

TOKYO — On Sept. 5, President Barack Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. Obama wants Japanese support for his decision to strike the Assad regime, but Abe has only publicly offered comments on how he’s looking forward to further discussing Syria. The foreign policy community ...

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TOKYO — On Sept. 5, President Barack Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. Obama wants Japanese support for his decision to strike the Assad regime, but Abe has only publicly offered comments on how he’s looking forward to further discussing Syria. The foreign policy community here is debating whether Japan should provide support to the United States; to communicate approval; or to merely offer "understanding." 

While this may seem like an almost absurd display of hairsplitting, Japan’s opinion, and the nuanced way it decides to present it, matters. The United Kingdom withdrew its support in late August, leaving France alone among the traditional major powers willing to join the United States — and French opposition leaders are criticizing President François Hollande for planning to act unilaterally.

Tokyo could provide some of the most significant diplomatic cover for the United States. The world’s third largest economy and the U.S.’s most important ally in Asia, Japan is also the only developed country to have suffered a nerve gas attack over the last several decades: in 1995, the cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin on the Tokyo subway, killing 13 people. The diplomatic signals Abe decides to send to Obama, both publically and behind closed doors, will carry a lot of weight, as the world debates how to deal with Syria’s chemical attacks.

So what will Tokyo do? The decision hinges on how much Abe decides to trust Obama. The precedent for trusting U.S. intelligence, at least, is not heartening. Just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, then-Japanese President Junichiro Koizumi pledged support for President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq; from January 2004 until Japan decided to remove them in June 2006, roughly 600 Japanese troops were based in the relatively quiet Iraqi province of Muthana. While the decision drew the two leaders closer together, and the Japanese stationed there suffered no casualties, the faulty intelligence on which Bush based his decision to invade Iraq is a factor in Abe’s thinking.

"I know a lot of people are cautious before reaching conclusions in troubled places like Syria, because of what happened in Iraq," said Tomohiko Taniguchi, an advisor to Abe, in an interview. While U.S. intelligence seems more likely to be accurate in this case, if Japan were to support an attack it would be doing so without the cover of the U.N. Security Council.

I’m in Japan this week as part of a fellowship with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, a non-profit that brought me and three other journalists to Tokyo and Kyoto, and arranged meetings with roughly a dozen policymakers, journalists, and diet members. Japan’s response to Syria repeatedly came up in conversation, both because of its awkward resonance with Iraq, but also because of the worrying precedent of inaction. 

If the United States doesn’t act, as John Kerry warned Congress on Sep. 3, people in Pyongyang, Tehran, and Damascus "will stand up and celebrate." While hyperbolic, the message that non-intervention would send to Pyongyang is a key point for Japan.

Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Libya, Syria appears to be a key ally of North Korea’s, and North Korea and Syria are among the handful of countries that haven’t signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which banned the production and use of chemical weapons. In the first half of this year, when Pyongyang ratcheted up tensions with the United States, it also threatened to attack "major targets" in Japan. North Koreans are still force-fed reminders of the atrocities the Japanese committed on the Korean peninsula during World War II. A North Korean missile strike on Japan is more likely than one aimed at the United States, and Japanese military planners are planning for that contingency. By supporting the United States, Japan increases the likelihood of the United States acting to constrain Syria, thus increasing the likelihood that North Korea won’t be empowered by Syria’s boldness.

The trust issue runs both ways. Japan wants the United States’ support in case China decides to seize the disputed islands in the East China Sea, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu, and the Japanese, who administer them, call the Senkakus. If Japan doesn’t stand with the United States now, that might factor into the decision-making of how much the United States should get involved in a China-Japan standoff.

It appears that Japan benefits from a U.S. attack on Syria; the question remains what role Japan will play. While we’re waiting for answer, here’s Taniguchi again, with a case for Japanese approval — or perhaps even support: "The United States is the only nation that stands up and says, hey, nerve gas can’t happen, so we’re ready to attack Syria. That righteousness is part of the global common good, which Japan better not spoil."

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish
Tag: Syria

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