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Shadow Government

U.S. Grand Strategy in Asia: Some No’s and Some Don’t Knows

I have been in Hakone, Japan with a distinguished group of Japanese and American historians, plus a few Shadow Government ne’er-do-wells. Our assignment was to think about Japan’s strategic choices, given the shifting geopolitical winds and, in particular, to think about what an historical perspective might offer to current policymakers. Perhaps I can provoke the ...

Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

I have been in Hakone, Japan with a distinguished group of Japanese and American historians, plus a few Shadow Government ne’er-do-wells. Our assignment was to think about Japan’s strategic choices, given the shifting geopolitical winds and, in particular, to think about what an historical perspective might offer to current policymakers.

Perhaps I can provoke the other Shadow participants into sharing their Hakone reflections by posting my own, which I admit are not as inspiring as a view of Mount Fuji (though given the clouds that obscured our view, they might be just as fleeting).

My remarks consisted of four "no’s" and three "we don’t knows." First, the no’s:

1. There is no viable hedge against a rising China without a strong Japan.

A decade ago, the U.S. might have hoped that India would emerge as our strongest Asian partner in the medium-to-long-run. That looks less and less likely, at least for the medium run. Indeed, in recent years Japan has shown more of the fortitude and strategic thinking that we hoped to see in India.

2. There is no viable strategy for a new Japan without a strong U.S. alliance.

There is no plausible way Japan can emerge as a regional, let alone a global, leader without a close alliance with one of the Asian leading powers — either the United States or China — and something like détente with the other. In the past, some U.S. strategists worried that Japan might ally with China, leaving the United States the odd man out. That doesn’t look plausible now, but there’s a third possible, if remote, scenario that would be a nightmare for Japan: poisonous relations with both China and the United States. I do not think there is a viable path forward for Japan under those circumstances: Japan cannot afford to alienate both China and the United States.

3. There is not much likelihood of a close 21st partnership with Japan if Japanese society is still arguing about 20th century disputes.

This is where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine is so puzzling. He seems to well understand the strategic implications of so many of the geopolitical dynamics in the Asian theater — importantly, he seems to realize that Japan’s emergence depends on an ever-closer partnership with the United States. But he and his advisors seem to think that they can have this partnership while also relitigating the way the world understands 20th century history. This is not a realistic posture. So long as Japan holds on to an idiosyncratic view of the past, it hands a powerful weapon to countries that might wish to keep Japan in its place. It is a paradox, but nonetheless true: the more Japan seeks in a misbegotten way to restore honor in the 20th century, the more it moves further away from a rightful place of honor in the 21st century. The more it chafes at how other countries remember the past, the more Japan is chained to that past.

Japanese policymakers can lament this, but they cannot wish it away. I reminded my Japanese friends of the old American proverb: you may not think you are in a fight with your wife, but if your wife thinks she is in a fight with you, you are in a fight with your wife. Similarly, you may think you’re simply adding perspective and historical nuance to old disputes, but if your Asian partners think you are reviving them, then you are reviving them.

4. Democratization is no panacea; if Japan cannot resolve diplomatic relations with democratic South Korea, it will not be able to resolve diplomatic relations with a democratic China.

Japanese strategists are right that it is in the long-term interests of the region for China to democratize. However, this will not solve all of the problems that mar Sino-Japanese relations, and may even make some, like the islands dispute where national sentiment runs hot, even worse. Japan’s relations with South Korea have been more complicated precisely because South Korea has become more democratic over the past several decades. Similarly, if China’s government were more responsive to populist pressure on foreign policy, it would be even more problematic for Japan.

And then three things I do not know:

1. Is Russia an Asian power, or will it become one? Does Russia factor into Asian grand strategy considerations or is it in terminal decline?

The historical pattern is that Russia has repeatedly disappointed other powers in Asia. It has never fulfilled the stabilizing or balancing role others hoped it would. What if Putin’s Ukraine adventure is a harbinger of an even more troubling chapter in Russia’s Asia saga? What if they go beyond disappointing to something more disturbing?

2. Would more power temper China’s adventurism? Or encourage it?

Asian security experts have gamed out every possible scenario involving Chinese adventures in Asia. But if China becomes as powerful as some scenarios have it, they will have global responsibilities and interests and temptations that we have not anticipated and few security experts have plumbed. How would a China preoccupied with Middle East troubles, Central Asian troubles, and so on, behave in Asia?

3. Finally, and perhaps most ominously, is "no Japanese nuclear arsenal" a prerequisite for a stable strategy in Asia?

That has been the conventional wisdom for a long time, and I have long-articulated that view. A Japanese nuclear arsenal would be disruptive on so many different dimensions, including Japanese domestic politics, Sino-Japanese politics, and U.S.-South Korean relations, and so on.  However, if you assess, as I do, that the United States could be on track to lose the nonproliferation battle with Iran, then you have to ask the question: is it reasonable to expect that Japan will be forever left out of a club that includes the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and Iran? Moreover, do you think U.S. nuclear assurances are more credible or less credible in a post-Crimea world? Of course, the path to a Japanese nuclear arsenal is blocked by formidable domestic sources, and none of the Japanese participants thought a Japanese nuclear option was remotely plausible. But the international systemic pressures pushing Japan towards a nuclear capability are the strongest they have been in decades. It would be prudent for strategists to think through this scenario even if it does not seem very likely right now. The past several years have seen many unlikely scenarios come to pass.

A final reflection: I have had the privilege of meeting with Japanese scholars and strategists multiple times over the past 15 years, but on this visit, I was struck by how optimistic my Japanese interlocutors were about Japan’s global role and yet how pessimistic they were about the strategic challenges Japan faces. The latter fueled the former. Instead of focusing on what the United States could do better, they were focused on what Japan needed to do. And they seemed to think Japan could and would do it.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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