It's time to overhaul the Japan-U.S. alliance

By Jitsuro Terashima, Asahi Shimbun, 30 May 2002

This year not only marks the 30th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and China, but also the 50th anniversary of coming into effect the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. The two decades that lie between these two landmark events in Japan's postwar diplomatic history have a significant meaning in today's Japan's international relations. They were also a period that saw a vacuum in Washington's Asian policy.

In 1949, the People's Republic of China was established under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung. It was a great shock to members of the U.S. China lobby, which had been actively supporting Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang government since before World War II with an anti-Japanese pro-Chinese stance. The Korean War that followed also drove home to the United States the threat of advancing communization of Asia.

Pressured by the pro-Chinese group, which turned into Taiwan supporters, the United States started exploring a scenario to have Japan return to international society as an anti-communist stronghold of the Western camp. The result was the San Francisco Peace Conference, which marked Japan's comeback to international society only six years after its defeat and the signing of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

Irony of historyHad Chiang Kai-shek conquered the Chinese mainland, Japan's postwar reconstruction would have been pushed back by more than 30 years, historians say. This is because postwar East Asia would have conceivably been dominated by the United States and China, the victors, and U.S. aid and investment would have been directed mostly at China. It is ironic that China's split with Taiwan provided an opportunity for postwar Japan to follow the path of reconstruction and growth with the full backing of the United States.

Postwar Japanese have gotten so used to the Japan-U.S. alliance that they tend to forget the presence of China between the two allies. We need to calmly remember that the Japan-U.S. relationship is more than a purely bilateral relationship, and can never be complete without China standing in the background. This is a basic structure that has remained consistent not only after the war but throughout modern Japanese history.

If I were to sum up Japan's international position in the 20th century, I would call it an Asian country that has lived as part of bilateral alliances with Anglo-Saxon countries for three-quarters of the century. For 20 years starting in 1902, it was part of the Japan-Britain alliance. In the 55 years following its defeat in World War II, it has remained a partner of the Japan-U.S. alliance. Furthermore, also because the 25 years between the two periods were an unfortunate period of war, many Japanese recognize the alliances with the Anglo-Saxon countries as successful.

During the age of the Japan-Britain alliance, Japan, a small country in the Far East, boosted its presence as a victor in the period between the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. The Japanese also remember the postwar age of the Japan-U.S. alliance as a time of glory in which their country achieved miraculous reconstruction and growth.

At the same time, however, this awareness may be responsible for the increasingly rigid way in which the Japanese view the world. The Japanese tend to believe their safety in the 21st century is assured so long as they firmly stand by the Japan-U.S. alliance. However, depending on the rise of China, U.S. basic policy toward Asia could change. The United States regards China as a major 21st century economic power with an attractive market. It also sees the country, which is building up its military, as a threat. In both senses, U.S. interest in China is growing. As a result, the United States is beginning to regard both China and Japan with equal importance. The China element, which had remained hidden in the half century of the Japan-U.S. alliance, is about to make its presence felt.

Japan has no choice but to live the 21st century sandwiched between the United States and China-two major powers that emanate self-confident values. It is characteristic of the United States to strongly advocate the philosophy of a multi-ethnic society. In terms of politics, it pushes democracy. As for the economy, its message to the world is the market economy.

As for China, it cannot part with its Sinocentric vision of itself as the center of civilization and culture.

Moreover, the peoples of these two countries are attracted to each other with what can be described as mutual admiration. Americans see China as the center of profound Asian civilization, while the Chinese regard the United States with awe as a country to marvel at and envied. Subconsciously, they see each other as an important partner to be made much of.

Therefore, even if U.S.-China relations seem cool, they are supported by a dynamic that will prevent serious confrontation. This is also apparent in the changing attitude of the United States. When the administration of President George W. Bush took off, it took a hard-line stance against China, calling it a strategic competitor. The softening in Washington's attitude can be seen in the way it welcomed Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao during his recent U.S. visit.

Active exchanges between younger Americans and Chinese are also worth noting. During my recent visits to China, I could not help but notice the advancement of young people to positions of leadership in politics and business. People who hold important posts in the bureaucracy are also unexpectedly young. Most people in managerial positions in Beijing's Zhongguancun high-tech park, which is likened to China's Silicon Valley, are in their 40s. Many of them went to school in the United States and do not have the hard feelings toward Japan that some older Chinese do. At the same time, young Chinese executives have no particular interest in Japan, either.

Meanwhile, Japan has yet to improve its system and attract more Chinese students. The situation is so poor that few Chinese students can land jobs in Japan when they finish their studies. Under such circumstances, the estimate that 50,000 students will go to the United States a year to study sounds plausible. The more excellent the student, the more likely he or she will go to the United States, it is said.

Japan-U.S.-China triangleJapan may be part of the Japan-U.S.-China triangle. But to remain an active player, it needs to show initiative and strategic thinking. Unless it makes an effort to plant seeds for the future on its own initiative, it cannot expect to reap what it has sown.

We have become too accustomed to viewing the world through the filter called the United States. To depart from this perception is the theme we must tackle from now on.

Debate on emergency legislation is currently under way in the Diet. The main point is seen as the establishment of emergency powers allowing the state to cope with military attacks. But the greatest question is whether Japan has the ability to discern emergencies on its own. In other words, when the United States takes military action to cope with an emergency, there is fear that Japan could be actually dragged into war whether the emergency concerns the Middle East or East Asia.

It is time we re-examine the Japan-U.S. security system, which was designed to cope with the Cold War situation, based on the viewpoint of re-establishing Japan's independence. Redesigning Japan-U.S. cooperation in the 21st century must be the basis of argument in discussing emergency legislation.