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Is Japan Tilting toward China?

April 8, 2010

CREDIT: David G. Steadman (CC).

By Bhubhindar Singh.

Some observers have recently suggested Japan is tilting toward China under the Hatoyama administration. While China-Japan relations have improved, the United States will continue to remain at the core of Japanese foreign policy.

A dominant pattern of Japan's international relations has been its tendency to ally with a great power, usually the strongest power in the international system—China during the Sinocentric Order, Great Britain during the imperial period, Germany during World War II, and the United States in the post-war period. The current debates center around the future of Japan-U.S. and Japan-China relations. Gideon Rachman, a columnist with the Financial Times, recently raised the proposition that Japan is beginning to edge toward China, suggesting a weakening of its special relationship with the United States. I disagree. But what are the implications of the recent warming of Japan-China relations and the concomitant deterioration of Japan-U.S. relations under the new Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government?

DPJ's Approach to China and the United States

Since its electoral victory over the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in August 2009, the DPJ, under the leadership of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, has reaffirmed its traditional pro-China policy platform. It has endeavored to strengthen not only the existing strong Japan-China economic relationship but also its political links. Ichiro Ozawa, DPJ's Secretary-General, in December led a 650-strong delegation including 143 DPJ lawmakers to Beijing. Not only were they met by the Chinese authorities with warm hospitality, the Japanese were also given access to the top leadership in China with Ozawa meeting President Hu Jintao. The Japan-China relationship received a further boost during the Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's visit to Japan in December 2009. His meeting with the Japanese Emperor was reportedly pushed by the top Japanese leadership even though the arrangements broke standard Japanese protocol. This move was met with severe criticism within Japan with some accusing Japan of "kowtowing" to China.

In contrast to its relations with China, the Japan-U.S. relationship under the DPJ has been in a stalemate. Since coming to power, the DPJ government announced that it favored a foreign policy with a stronger Asia focus and less dependence on the United States. To this end, Hatoyama pushed for the creation of an East Asian Community—a proposal based on the concept of yuai or fraternity. While the concept calls for the strengthening of relations between East Asian states, it remains vague about U.S. participation.

Hatoyama and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada have expressed conflicting views on this arrangement, creating a perception that Japan is distancing itself from the United States. This view is further fueled by Japan's perceived confusion regarding relocation of the Futenma Base in Okinawa. The tussle between the governments has resulted in an exchange of firm statements with both sides indicating their respective rigid positions. Though the Japanese government is expected to announce their final proposal by May this year, it would be safe to say that this proposal will differ from the 2006 bilateral agreement. This could extend the deadlock on the issue and further aggravate the stalemate in the relationship.

Is Japan tilting toward China?

Despite these problems, Japan is not tilting toward China. The U.S.-Japan relationship is still very strong politically, economically, and, increasingly, in strategic terms as well. On this 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan security alliance, the relationship continues to display strong shared objectives and interests, which are institutionalized in many ways. All relationships suffer from ups and downs, and the U.S.-Japan relationship is no different. The nature of the relationship is strong enough to weather occasional disagreements, which are necessary to recalibrate the way the relationship functions. The important point to note here is that strategic military issues will increasingly become sources of tension as the bilateral security relationship matures.

Japan sees the value of a strong bilateral relationship with the United States. The United States has successfully provided security cover for Japan since the onset of the post-war period. This function has become even more pronounced in light of Japan's main security challenges today—North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile program and China's economic, political, and military rise. Moreover, Japan has made significant strides toward assuming a more active security role in international affairs. Much of this development has materialized through the active support of the United States. The continued support of Washington for Japan's bigger security role is essential for Tokyo, as well as its neighbors who harbor suspicion and mistrust against Japan stemming from their colonial history.

Finally, even China would not support the weakening of the U.S.-Japan security relationship. A strong U.S.-Japan relationship serves China in many important ways. For example, the presence of the United States ensures the peace and stability of East Asia—a condition that is essential for China's goal of achieving continued economic growth and development. In addition, the presence of the United States serves to deter Japan's military rise, a development China would like to prevent.

Managing U.S.-Japan Relations

How then to explain Japan's present behavior? The DPJ government is still finding its feet. Since displacing LDP last year, the DPJ has been struggling with issues of governance, balancing interests between groups at home and abroad, and advancing its own political, economic, and security agenda. At the same time, the DPJ government is attempting to distance itself from the previous LDP governments as demonstrated by the Futenma base issue, the uncovering of the LDP's secret nuclear pact with the United States, the withdrawal of the Japanese military mission from Afghanistan, and the push for stronger foreign relations with China and East Asia.

The DPJ government has repeated its commitment to maintaining a strong partnership with the United States. But it is clear that the DPJ lacks experience managing this partnership—an experience the LDP governments cultivated for half a century. After the present difficulties are overcome, Japan and the United States will learn to manage the relationship in the post-LDP era. Its importance to the United States, Japan and the rest of East Asia will also be reinforced. Indeed, the United States will continue to remain at the core of Japanese foreign policy for many years to come.

Bhubhindar Singh is Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article was republished with kind permission from RSIS.

© 2010 RSIS. Republished with kind permission.

Read More: Democracy, Diplomacy, Economy, Governance, Security, China, Japan, United States, Americas, Asia

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