East Asia after the Pax Americana

Since the end of the Korean War, the American military presence in East Asia has been crucial to maintaining a balance of power in the region and preventing the outbreak of a major war. Now, with China rising and the United States withdrawing, Japan has been left in limbo. Tokyo must now decide how to tackle some daunting challenges.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump at the White House, June 2018
June 7, 2018: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) is known as an adroit Trump handler, but U.S. retrenchment in East Asia has put him in a tight spot. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Since East Asia has no collective security system, Japan relies on the U.S. military
  • Tokyo must manage China’s rise, its own demographic decline and a wayward ally
  • Seizing its opportunity, Beijing is making overtures to pry Tokyo away from Washington

History weighs heavily on East Asia. Unlike France and Germany, China and Japan are still waiting for their historic postwar reconciliation. The cloud of Japanese war crimes during the country’s occupation of China hovers over relations between Beijing and Tokyo. Provocative visits by high-ranking Japanese politicians to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine regularly irritate the Chinese, and the two countries have yet to resolve a dispute over the Senkaku Islands (which are known as the Diaoyu Islands in China).

Russia and Japan never signed a peace treaty after World War II, and their dispute over the Kuril Islands continues to fester. Tensions also linger between Seoul and Tokyo, which have their own territorial dispute and the delicate issue of Korean “comfort women” who were forced into prostitution during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Finally, there is still no peace treaty between the two Koreas.

This abundance of both open and covert disputes should call for a solid regional security structure, serving the same purpose as NATO in Europe. While bilateral treaties exist between South Korea and the United States and between the U.S. and Japan, the region is sorely lacking a comprehensive security architecture.

American footprint

In both South Korea and Japan, most notably in the Okinawa archipelago, American overseas bases are of crucial geopolitical importance. There is no doubt that since the end of the Korean War in 1953, it has been the American military presence that has prevented the outbreak of war in the Far East.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained powerful naval forces in the Pacific, which largely disappeared after the collapse of the Soviet empire. More recently, China has undertaken a massive expansion of its naval capabilities. Particularly in the East and the South China Seas, Beijing is displaying its newly-acquired military muscle.

Just as in the North Atlantic, which was the sea of contention during the Cold War, the U.S. is still the dominant coastal power in the Pacific. That isn’t the case in the Indian Ocean, the other major sea of contention in the 21st century; there, the U.S. depends entirely on treaties and external bases.

An overseas military presence reflects the age-old American policy of avoiding wars fought on its own soil.

The massive and, in many ways, unprecedented U.S. military presence overseas after World War II has been of great benefit to its allies. But it is also the core instrument of the age-old American policy to avoid wars fought on its own soil.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been right to criticize allies in Europe and elsewhere for not living up to their obligations in defense spending, and for taking a free ride on American benevolence. The issue, however, is very complicated. Japan has undoubtedly been paying more for the American security umbrella than, for example, Germany.

Among other steps, Tokyo picked up the bill for a large share of the costs of the first Iraq war. But one must also look at the reasons behind any security treaty or alliance. In Japan’s case, it was clear that the strong American presence and the U.S.-Japan alliance allows Tokyo to renounce nuclear weapons even in the face of a nuclear-armed China. In other words, the bilateral treaty has been a way to reduce tension in the region. Until today, Japan has adhered to the pacifist constitution bequeathed by the U.S. after World War II.

Shifting landscape

While Mr. Trump has a difficult relationship with Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel, he seems to get along well with both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. In many ways, Mr. Abe is an unusual prime minister. He has been in office much longer than most in the long line of Japanese prime ministers who have shuttled in and out of office since the founding of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1955.

Secondly, both in terms of rhetoric and policy, Mr. Abe can be described as one of his country’s most outspoken leaders about Japanese national interests. Most importantly, he officially aspires to remove Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which effectively curtails defense capabilities and prevents the country from becoming a “normal” power.

While it is most likely that a “no” vote would prevail in any referendum on Article 9, which is required to amend the constitution, there can be no doubt that many Japanese are worried about the deteriorating security situation, both external and internal.

The first, of course, is the historic rise of China. Some years ago, the Japanese were shocked when they discovered that the People’s Republic of China had replaced Japan as the world’s largest owner of foreign exchange reserves. Later, the Chinese replaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. Most recently it has become obvious that the rise of China to world power status will not produce a socioeconomic renaissance. China proudly (and sometimes arrogantly) claims its age-old role as the Middle Kingdom, the hegemon of Asia and beyond.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews naval maneuvers in April 2018 Asia collective security structure
China’s rise as a regional hegemon is the biggest challenge to Japan, but President Xi Jinping (L) has shrewdly made conciliatory gestures as Tokyo grows more uncertain about its partners in Washington. © dpa

Security matters in East Asia are further complicated by Japan’s rapid demographic decline. For some time, there has been concern about the aging of Japan’s population and the ensuing shrinking of the entire populace. Young Japanese women are increasingly less willing to raise families, and the country does not want immigration on a large scale.

The prospects are stark: today, Japan has a population of some 127 million. By 2030, that figure will have shrunk to 117 million and by 2050 to some 97 million. It is highly unlikely that these forecasts will be changed substantially by some dramatic demographic shift. Such population shrinkage is unprecedented in recent times and places a huge burden on the Japanese social security system and the labor market.

But the demographic issue also has important geopolitical and security implications. A society that is not only getting older but actually dying out will reflect itself in the prevailing mood and political attitudes. The population will become more conservative and more fearful of the future. That is already reflected in the fact that despite low approval ratings for Mr. Abe, the ruling LDP is firmly in power, and faces a splintered and incompetent opposition that is not seen as a credible alternative to the present government.

On top of all these internal and external uncertainties looms a new shadow — an American president in the habit of being unpredictable, irritable and volatile.

A new question

The future of the region is highly uncertain, but Sino-Japanese relations will surely be pivotal to whatever unfolds. That relationship has been frosty for most of Mr. Abe’s second term as prime minister, which began in 2012. More recently, though, the atmosphere seems friendlier.

President Xi, having consolidated his power both at the 19th Party Congress last November and at the National People’s Congress in March, has made some overtures toward Japan, mainly through diplomatic gestures but also in economic relations and trade. As a new uncertainty has crept into U.S.-Japan relations, China sees the opportunity to use a more conciliatory approach.

Beijing is trying to use Japanese uncertainty over Mr. Trump’s intentions to alienate Tokyo from Washington.

Whatever happens will be deeply shaped by speculation about and reactions to the policies pursued in Washington. Even if an outright trade war between the U.S. and China has been avoided, Beijing is today more aware of the potential economic synergies with its neighbor Japan. In many ways, the Japanese and the Chinese economies are so complementary that conflicts between the two countries can seem utterly nonsensical.

Many analysts do not recognize any real thaw in relations and see ulterior political motives in China’s more accommodating approach. Happy to exploit an opportunity to alienate Japan from the U.S., Beijing is using Japanese uncertainty over Mr. Trump’s intentions and plans to present itself as a more reliable power in regional and global politics.

Japan is still the only country against which nuclear weapons have been used, and the devastation in Nagasaki and Hiroshima has been a powerful argument against acquiring nuclear weapons. A strong commitment from the U.S. has made it possible for Japan to renounce nuclear weapons, even though China and North Korea had acquired them.

But what happens if there are doubts about the U.S. resolve to side with Japan in times of war? Is Washington willing to risk the destruction of Los Angeles or San Francisco for the sake of defending Japan in a war that threatens to go nuclear? In the past, this question was simply not asked — but things may be different under a president who adheres to an “America First” policy.

For a time, Japan had been reassured by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a key element of the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific strategy. Despite political resistance, Washington eventually managed to sign on to the agreement. A key argument in promoting TPP was that it was much more than a trade agreement; most importantly, it was supposed to help contain China.

Then, having barely taken office, Mr. Trump rescinded the TPP and left Japan in limbo. The image of a triumphant President Trump signing the abrogation of the deal was an insult to America’s most important ally in Asia. Tokyo has continued to press for TPP, even one without the Americans. All involved realize that a TPP without the U.S. is futile, because it cannot be a credible tool to fight China’s hegemonic ambitions. Vague speculation that Washington might reverse course on the deal is of little use.

Japan knows that it faces a future when its ability to rely on the U.S. is curtailed. The world is waiting to see how Tokyo will deal with this new challenge.

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