Japan's 'profound' new American military links are all about China: Q&A

Japan scholar Gerald Curtis says Prime Minister Shinzo Abe oversold the scale of his proposed security changes in Washington and undersold them at home.

Yuya Shino/Reuters
Antiwar protesters in Tokyo demonstrate against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's controversial security bill in front of parliament on Thursday.

Japan's parliament in the early hours of Sept. 19 passed the most sweeping changes to Japan's defense policy since World War II. The new legislation works around or "reinterprets" Japan's pacifist constitution. Yet such changes are proving deeply emotional for the Japanese public. Fights broke out Thursday in the Diet as lawmakers sought to delay, though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition has had the votes for some time, as Columbia University's Gerald Curtis points out. 

Prof. Curtis is the former director of Columbia's Weatherhead East Asian Institute and the author of numerous books on Japan and Japanese politics. The Monitor caught up with him at Harvard University's Belfer Center, where he spoke last week, and asked him to discuss the meaning and purpose of the laws now enacted. 

QUESTION: You say Japan's new security laws are the most significant in 50-plus years. That’s quite a statement.

ANSWER: The legislation introduces an element of reciprocity, of mutual obligation, in the US-Japan alliance that has not existed before. A decision to engage in collective defense, coming to the assistance of the US in war in a situation where Japan is not attacked, is something new and profound and changes the nature of the alliance. The guidelines were signed in April when Prime Minister Abe visited the United States and they replace guidelines in place for two decades.

Q: What is at the heart of this change?

A: Abe and other leaders in Tokyo recognize that Japan cannot expect the US to put its young men in harm's way, and help protect Japan, while Japan only says “thank you,” and doesn’t make a contribution of its own.

More broadly, the old US­-Japan security treaty has been based on a grand bargain by which Japan agreed to provide bases for the US to project its power into the rest of Asia, and beyond, in return for an American guarantee of Japan’s security. The new security legislation and defense guidelines recognize that this postwar grand bargain no longer suffices, and Japan must do more.

Q: In Washington, Abe promised a new security deal so powerful that Pentagon officials said Japan is ready to defend US territory. Yet in Tokyo, Abe has told lawmakers in the Diet that Japan’s policy isn’t changing one iota.

A: Abe lavishly oversold the deal in the US and undersold it at home. That creates a wide gap in perception and something of a problem. He generated enthusiasm in Washington and concern at home. He is trying to walk a very narrow path between convincing the US side that Japan is preparing to do more, but not spooking the Japanese public that continues under the trauma of a war that ended 70 years ago, and is scared to death of the Japanese military getting involved in overseas military operations that will drag Japan into the vortex of violent world politics.

Abe continues to be surprised by the depth of Japanese pacifism and public opinion opposed to this.

Those in the know in Washington understand the political game he has to play. When the legislation passes, professionals in the Japanese and US forces will begin to integrate their activities.

Q: Chinese leader Xi Jinping just hosted a huge military parade in Beijing seen as quite anti-Japanese in tone. How much do Japanese concerns about China play out in this new law?

A: Abe should be writing a thank-you note to Xi Jinping. The Chinese have been doing everything in their power to strengthen the right-wing in Japan, to convince Japanese that China is a threat, whether it is in the Senkaku Islands or offensive actions in the air defense zone declared by China. They are bashing the Japanese left and right, trying to get British and US allies lined up in criticism against Japan. All of this has undermined any support and positive attitudes about China in Japan.

Q: Is China driving Japan closer to the US? 

A: Japan’s overall position is quite conflicted. There is a strong economic dependence on China. Yet there is real fear in Tokyo that China will continue to grow stronger, the US will be relatively weaker, and this creates a dangerous security situation for Japan. But one consequence of the China security threat is agreement in Japan that no security policy is available that does not involve an intimate alliance with the United States.

When Abe says that no country can defend itself by itself, he is giving voice to the now widely held view in Japan that the only way to maintain a balance of power in East Asia, which means to balance China’s growing power and regional ambitions, is for Japanese security policy to be joined at the hip with the United States.

Q: We often hear that Mr. Abe is the driving force behind the new security laws. Is he?

A: Abe is determined to get it done. He is a man in a hurry. He has pushed the envelope on this consistently, further and faster than anyone else.

But it would be a mistake to see this new policy as primarily a result of Abe having become prime minister. The driving force behind this evolution in Japanese policy is not Abe. It is the structural changes in the international system. Abe could resign tomorrow and there would not be fundamental change in Japanese security policy, no matter who replaced him.

Q: Which structural changes are we talking about?

A: In the bipolar cold war you either lined up with the Soviets or the US. Today we have an evolving, uncertain, unstable and amorphous multi-polar system in Asia in which all kinds of coalitions are possible. In the cold war the Japanese didn’t worry whether the US would come to their aid. That has changed. While it is likely that the US would come to Japan’s aid in a conflict in the Senkaku Islands, it is no longer 100 percent. Especially if there is uncertainty over how the conflict was provoked. Was it the Chinese or the Japanese? If the Japanese provoked it, will the US go to war with China over some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea?

Japan wants to reinforce the US alliance by offering to do more. It is a response to the fear of being abandoned by the US, or a fear that China might think that the US is not coming to the defense of Japan, a miscalculation that creates a war.

Q: China plays the central role here?

The default button right now for everything about the US relationship with Japan is China. What are we going to do about China? And what do we want the Japanese to do?

The concern in Japan is that the US won’t see things in Asia the way the Japanese do. And also that the US will find a way to get along with the Chinese, which will make Japan much less important for the US. 

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