Japan’s Search for a More Equal Alliance

Why would Japanese leaders risk jeopardizing the U.S.-Japan alliance by seeking a stronger relationship with China?

alliance-japan-united-statesScholarship on Japanese foreign policy and grand strategy over the past decade or so has tended to argue that Japan is “hedging” between China and the United States and closing the political gap between itself and China while distancing itself from its American ally.

Many different explanations and justifications of this “hedge” have been put forward. Some scholars argue that it is a balance between hard and soft power approaches to shaping Chinese behavior. Others make the point that there are both economic and security aspects involved, in which Japan depends for its economic well-being on China’s economic growth and for its security on the United States and the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Some claim that it is Japan’s way of avoiding the classic “alliance security dilemma” of abandonment-entrapment by its ally. Still others believe that it consists of a mixture of (primarily economic) engagement and (military) containment; or even multiple hedges—a hedge against U.S. decline and Chinese aggression, a hedge against the alliance security dilemma, and a hedge against predation and protectionism in economic affairs.

All serious scholarship asserts that the Japanese do not seek to abandon their American ally; neither realignment with China nor a completely autonomous Japan free of its alliance partner appears more appealing to Japanese leaders and statesmen than the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Instead, some scholars have asserted that Japan is seeking a sweet spot of sorts, keeping its ally relatively close while maneuvering itself into a comfortable position between the United States and China. These arguments, however, beg the question: why would Japanese leaders, so intent on keeping their alliance with the United States on solid footing, simultaneously risk jeopardizing the U.S.-Japan alliance by seeking a stronger relationship with China? Something at some point has to give.

There exists a conceptual framework that could both simplify the discourse on Japan’s foreign policy and grand strategy while subsuming most of the best scholarly understandings of that strategy. A framework that both appears able to explain Japanese motivations for seeking closer relations with China (with all the aforementioned side benefits) while also keeping its essential alliance with the United States intact.

Such a strategy, certainly not new to foreign policy and diplomacy, both enhances Japanese autonomy and demonstrates its commitment to its ally. In short, Japan appears to be searching for viable potential alliance alternatives by which it can leverage a more equal partnership with the United States.

Previous Japanese attempts at strengthening its autonomy both within and outside the framework of the U.S.-Japan alliance have been, on the whole, rather lackluster.

Efforts at economic, technological, and military autonomy have, to varying degrees, been rather unsuccessful. Most efforts at creating alternative alliance partners—other U.S. allies, non-U.S. allies, or multilateral constructs—to dilute U.S. control and influence over Japan’s foreign policy decision-making have, although not completely unsuccessful, paled in comparison to the United States’ ability to use the alliance to influence Japanese foreign policy decision-making. This is because the alliance itself is highly asymmetrical and because very few viable alternatives seem to exist.

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The very asymmetry of the alliance, moreover, sheds light on Japanese motivations for attempting to locate and cultivate potential and viable alternatives. Simply put, Japan seeks a more equal position within the alliance, one that grants Japan an equal say at the alliance negotiating table with its current senior partner.

Cultivating potential, viable alternatives enhances Japan’s bargaining power because it creates the perception that it has the ability to realign and even potentially dissolve the alliance should its current ally prove unsatisfactory for whatever reason. Japanese leaders understand that if Japan were to take internal measures, such as develop purely indigenous military platforms or an independent nuclear deterrent, it would jeopardize Japan’s domestic political unity, financial health, and its tenuous diplomatic and economically lucrative relations with many of its neighbors.

Hence, an external lever needs to be found; and a rising China, with whom Japan already has strong economic ties, may provide just such a potential lever—depending on its viability as a potential alternative.

What is most interesting about this approach is the fact that Japan’s potential alternatives need only appear viable. As Henry Kissinger once wrote, “The bargaining position of a country depends on the options it is perceived to have” (my emphasis).

Perhaps this explains why few scholars have considered the possibility that, instead of seriously risking the potential loss of its only ally, Japan may instead be seeking ways to bolster its intra-alliance bargaining position vis-à-vis its ally.

Japanese statesmen may actually want U.S. leaders and scholars to believe Japan is willing to risk jeopardizing its alliance when Japanese leaders are rather looking for, albeit lucrative, viable alternatives by which Japan can enhance its place within the alliance. True, searching for viable alternatives for whatever reason may indeed yield viable alternatives; but once again this assumes that Japanese leaders are groping for a way to abandon Japan’s lone ally.

Since recent North Korean provocations and the September 7, 2010 incident between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese Cost Guard ships, Japanese dependence on the alliance has once again been revealed. To seek to weaken or break its relationship with its only ally would seem absurd—and Japan has not done that. But the desire for an equal position at the alliance bargaining table with the United States will continue; and so will Japan’s search for leverage to make that desire a reality.

Nathan W. Novak is an eight-year resident of southern Taiwan and a Master’s student in the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies and Center for Japanese Studies at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. His scholarly interests include international relations, comparative politics, foreign policy analysis, and security studies. This is a shortened version of a paper Nathan will be presenting at the National SunYat-sen University’s 2013 Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies’ International Conference, to be held on November 7-9. The working paper itself can be found here at Nathan’s blog, http://eastasiaobserver.wordpress.com. Read other articles by Nathan.

  • Justice1215

    Why would Japanese leaders risk jeopardizing the U.S.-Japan alliance by seeking a stronger relationship with China?

    China consumer market is big and will be very very big. But doing business with China does not need to risk jeopardizing the U.S.-Japan alliance.

    Almost 60 percent of US congressional districts exported more to
    China in 2012 than they did to the rest of the world, at a time when US
    global exports declined overall.Released on July 31, 2013, “US Congressional District Exports to China: 2003-2012” shows that the growth in US exports to China was broad based and widely shared among congressional districts around the United States. China imported nearly $110 billion in US goods in 2012 and remained the United States’ third-largest export market.As its economy and middle class continue to expand, China will continue to play a significant role as an export market for a wide selection of US goods. In 2012, US exports to China supported a broad range of American sectors, including crop production, transportation equipment, computers and electronics, and chemicals.
    Every country big and small is doing business with China.

  • I think he didn’t have to spend this term for displaying what he wanted to say at all, maybe taking 3 or 4 sentences would be much enough, as following.

    “What if the Japanese have already noticed that there’s a viable alternative?”
    “How are we going to do if they have?”
    “How can we keep this asymmetorical alliance as it is?”
    “Better turn back to the first query taking care of not mentioning them”

    Don’t worry, our current politicians are not qualified as the author imagines about, and there has been no time for them to afford making such an elaborate strategy through this mess of touch and go Cabinets, or parties.
    And look, they are now jeopardizing a relationship only with China, while weighing up one with US more than anything else, more than their own citizens’ safety, and interests.
    Why would we have accepted Osprey, against and giving suffer to the people of Okinawa.
    Why would we have accepted TPP against Nokyo, or sacrificing many of votes.
    Before TPP coercing, there was also the postal privatisation in Koizumi term, why.
    And why would Abe be getting eager to enable to wage collective self-defense whatsoever, as soon as possible even by reinterpreting the Constitution.
    Overall, our politicians or bureaucrats, any of these are only focusing on not to get abandoned by US, no other appropriate answer I can offer.
    Maybe, some implication would be still available, as whispering “we’re boring”.
    Again, don’t worry, things in Japan are always going to where US citizens like, not to a place where I hope.

  • Nathan W. Novak

    Thanks to both commentators, below. By way of response:

    Michiko: This is a shorter form of a paper I will be presenting at a conference next month, and it therefore must deal with addressing other understandings of the current Sino-U.S.-Japan relationship from which my argument diverges. Hence, a bit of a review of prior understands is needed to set a background for those not as well versed in the discussion. Moreover, this approach is not (at least currently) focused on domestic debate per se as it is on international forces as well as theories of alliance bargaining, asymmetries, and triangular politics. This is not because I wish to cut out domestic debate; it is because space allotments demand that I be focused on particular theoretical aspects of the discussion. I assume, for example, that the Hatoyama administration did a disservice to the overall approach, which was stated specifically, by stating it specifically; however, this game is being played structurally whether domestic audiences are aware of it or not.

    Justice1215: Your comment is one that my theory subsumes, not one it contradicts. If you visit my blog, where the full working edition of the paper itself is posted (and I encourage you to do so), you’ll see that I deal with this (rather common) explanation as a mere facet of a triangular relationship. However, since the article itself is focused on international political (and, to some degree, diplomatic) strategy as well as theories of alliance politics and alliance management, it has to be somewhat more robust in accounting for all of these things–some of which you’ve mentioned. Finally, the Sino-U.S. and Sino-Japan business/trade/financial relationships you mention are common knowledge to this debate (see the notes to Samuels et al. at my blog); however, I doubt that such ties will lead to a full-blown realignment with China by either the United States or Japan. Of course, I do not have a crystal ball, but trends do not appear positive in that light.

    Again, you are both more than welcome to visit my blog (linked at the bottom of the article posted above) for any clarifications and/or further commentary–all of which, again, is very much welcomed.