Plunge Pontificates

A place for my thoughts.

email me

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Tough Times for US / Japan alliance?

Recently, lets be honest, for quite a few years now, the ties between the US and Korea have been strained at best. Some in Japan see them headed in a similar direction, unthinkable by many because of just how tight the ties have been lately.

As if Japan-South Korea ties were not troubled enough, Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi made matters worse on May 11 with an astonishing gaffe during a meeting with a delegation of South Korean National Assembly members visiting Tokyo. Yachi told the delegation that although the United States shares a wide range of intelligence information with Japan, Tokyo cannot relay that intelligence to South Korea because Washington does not fully trust Seoul.

The remark was careless not only because it played into South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun's self-fulfilling prophecy of a "diplomatic war" with Japan. It was also careless because it revealed an overconfidence in some circles of Japanese officialdom regarding their close partnership with the United States. However pervasive this sentiment is, it is foolish to assume that the good times in Japan-U.S. alliance relations will last forever or can be flaunted in front of other allies. It may only be a matter of time when Japan is no longer the apple of Washington's eye.

These remarks seem to be causing more problems than I ever thought they would. At first, it seemed like so much tit-for-tat in the recent verbal battles.

It is not just Washington that has unrealistic expectations of the alliance. Statements by some Diet members and other Japanese decision-makers suggest an implicit expectation that Washington now owes Japan for its contributions to Iraq and the war on terrorism. In other words, there is a view in some Tokyo circles that there is an unwritten quid pro quo, and that it is now Washington's turn to concede to Japan on the Status of Forces Agreement, to be more sympathetic toward constitutional restrictions on future SDF deployments, and to provide unequivocal support for Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

While many Japanese may see this as a natural conclusion, it is certainly not shared by the United States. Washington has never seen Japan's assistance in Iraq or elsewhere as anything but the responsibility of an ally in a time of need. On the contrary, Japan's contributions have only created the impression in Washington that Japan is no longer taking a "free ride" on its security obligations. The United States therefore seems destined to disappoint those Japanese who regard their nation's recent military contributions as a reciprocal arrangement and expect U.S. acquiescence on a range of alliance issues.

Unrealistically high expectations are a concern for the long-term health of the Japan-U.S alliance, but they are also a sign of the success the alliance has enjoyed over the past several years. Officials on both sides of the Pacific must take a cautious approach not to overestimate the recent momentum in cooperation and take the alliance for granted. Much work--perhaps the hardest and most complex yet--is left to be done in order to advance bilateral cooperation to the next level. A dose of modesty will help officials on both sides navigate the alliance through rough seas rather than just the calm ones.

This is the part that I found interesting. Is Japan and the US headed for problems? Does Japan have an unrealistic expectation of the future of the alliance? It will be interesting to watch it play out.