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.