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Land of the Rising Gun By: Robert T. McLean
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 26, 2006

With the 1921 to 1922 Washington Conference, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes successfully labored to ensure that the Imperial Japanese Navy would not acquire the capability to defeat the United States in a battle for the Pacific.  Hughes established a quota for the number of advanced naval ships the United States, Great Britain, and Japan could produce and deploy.  Neglect by ensuing administrations of the United States Navy and the region destroyed a treaty which would have likely averted war in the Pacific. While the Bush administration has not achieved the diplomatic triumph on the scale of the Washington Conference, it has responsibly avoided a similar neglect for the region and has remained committed to preserving American primacy in Asia.

An Isolated Japan


A principal contributor to the continued overwhelming United States presence in Asia and the Pacific has been Japan. Tokyo has become increasingly isolated as of late and has found close ties to Washington to be progressively more important.  China and Japan are historic enemies who have traditionally clashed over regional primacy.  Japan’s World War Two atrocities against the Chinese remain an issue of contention, and reports have recently surfaced that indicate that Beijing has been engaged in a concerted effort to ensure the victory of a pro-China candidate after Prime Minister Junichiro Kiozumi steps down in September.  Willy Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, has reported that the People’s Republic of China is courting Japanese business leaders who maintain strong economic interests in China in an attempt to ensure that a member of Kiozumi’s cabinet does not succeed the Prime Minister and continue the current policy of pervasive suspicion of Beijing. 


The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has steered its media to reflect their campaign to discredit Japanese ties to the United States and stir up domestic anti-Japanese sentiment.  The PRC owned Ta Kung Pao claimed earlier this month that the effort from the Bush administration and their counterparts in Tokyo to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation to maintain security in the region “is merely a lie to deceive people.”  The realignment of American forces in the Pacific is also chastised: “The scheme by the United States and Japan, who want to encircle China, leaps out at once.”  


It is clear that press reports from Japan’s neighbors are stirring regional apprehensions about Tokyo’s growing ties with Washington, and China is not alone.  KCNA, North Korea’s official news agency, warned on May 16 of Japan’s “militarist expansion overseas.”  The commentary proclaimed: “The real intention of Japan talking about [a] ‘threat’ from the DPRK and China is to find a pretext for beefing up its military muscle, deter China from strengthening its national power and present itself as the leader of Asia.” 


The communist hermit kingdom of North Korea is not the only Northeast Asian country witnessing growing anti-Japanese sentiment in the media.  Tensions between the Japanese and South Koreans are high over the disputed Dokdo islets, and the enmity towards Tokyo was recently illustrated in two major South Korean publications.  The Korean Times stated that “China looks to be following a ‘peaceful rise,” while Japan “is again pursuing a policy of aggression.”  Thus, many South Koreans astoundingly view Tokyo as greater threat than the dictators in Beijing.


A column in the Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo further revealed the local perceptions as it noted: “the future of South Korea-Japan relations seems utterly desolate” as Tokyo “continues to glorify its wrongdoings in the past and claim territorial rights on the basis of that past ‘glory.”  The author of the column was not surprised by what he considers a policy reminiscent of that of Imperial Japan as the country’s three leading politicians, Prime Minister Kiozumi, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinjo Abe, are “the descendents of major war figures [and] may have been born with the genes of fascism and nationalism.”


Japan’s Benevolent Reengagement


Interestingly enough, regional leaders and media organizations have sought to place the increased tensions on Kiozumi and his administration and many American leftists such as the Japan Policy Research Institute’s Chalmers Johnson tend to concur.  However, any objective observer – that would be one not cozying up to the communist dictators in China and North Korea as well as one who does not despise Japan because of its strong relationship with the United States – should soon realize that much of the tension between Tokyo and its neighbors derives from internal forces and rarely from Japan.


Prime Minister Kiozumi has drawn spectacular ire for his visits to the Yasukuni shrine – fourteen World War II era Class-A war criminals are honored at the site – and this has led to widespread protest in the region.  However, much of the popular concern has derived from nefarious motivations from regional leaders and their media outlets.   Additionally, while the Chinese regime’s control of the internet is among the tightest in the world, an online petition calling for the rejection of Japan’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council was permitted to remain online so that it could allegedly gather the signatures of 24 million Chinese citizens. 


The Economist appropriately noted earlier this month that despite the reservations held in Beijing and Seoul towards Japanese efforts to gradually “normalize,” and thus build its military capability, “the shriller China and South Korea become … the more inclined are ordinary Japanese to thumb their nose at the complaints.”  This is illustrated by the fact that, although nearly four out of five Japanese would like to see better relations with China, 70 percent now hold an unfavorable view towards their western neighbor. 


Does this suggest that the Japanese may become increasingly nationalistic and come to present a threat to the security of the region?  This is highly unlikely.  Japan’s population is aging and its numbers are in decline, which will likely result in issues such as social security and medical care coming to dominate future concerns.  As for the outcries from China, South Korea, and others that the Japanese are refusing to fully recognize the destruction caused by Tokyo’s World War II militarism by implementing a textbook for Japanese schools that fails to illustrate the atrocities of the Imperial Japanese forces, it should be noted that the textbooks in question have only been adopted by 0.4 percent of Japanese schools.  As Hikari Agakimi wrote for the Japan Institute for International Affairs, it is as if “over half a century of Japanese pacifism is somehow not to be believed.” 


Advantages for the U.S. and the Region


The Bush administration is rightfully confident that Japan poses no risks to the United States, our allies, or its region.  While the negative consequences of Tokyo’s new diplomatic and military assertiveness appear negligible, the potential benefits for the United States are outstanding.  The United States Pacific Command has already commenced a realignment of forces in the region redeploying significant numbers to Guam.  For the first time since the Second World War, Japan has placed its army, navy, and air force under a unified command, and U.S. and Japanese cooperation in missile defense systems has reached an all-time high.


While it should be apparent that this alliance is a force for peace and stability, there are those who remain convinced that its effects will counter those intentions.  Chalmers Johnson wrote last spring that a Japanese rearmament could have devastating unintended consequences for the United States and stated: “It is unclear whether the ideologues and war lovers of Washington understand what they are unleashing – a possible confrontation between the world’s fastest growing industrial economy, China, and … Japan, one which the United States would have both caused and in which it might well be consumed.”  This line of thinking has some traction in those who subscribe to the view that proactive defense and containment measures by the United States to counter a perceived threat transcend into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  


Johnson sees this as a “conflict the United States would almost surely lose” as he emphasizes the strengths of the Beijing.  He points out that the CIA National Intelligence Council has estimated that China’s GDP will equal that of the United States by 2042, the country has a population that should reach 1.4 billion people with a heavy ratio tilted towards males while Japan’s population is in decline, it possesses the world’s largest army, and currently holds hundreds of billions in American hard currency and Treasury bonds.  Thus, the United States would be best served, according to this line of thought, to begin its appeasement of Beijing and avoid any policies aimed to strengthen America’s hand as that may prove counterproductive in the long-run.


Mitsuru Kitano, the minister of public affairs for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, wrote earlier this year in the International Herald Tribune that Japan will no longer engage in its “former passive diplomacy,” but the country’s “path is one of close cooperation with the United States and strengthening the international community.”  The difference in this minister’s statement from so many others that may sound similar is that his words are not empty rhetoric, and his country is not engaged in duplicitous diplomacy.   While China is perhaps the largest subscriber to such diplomatic doctrine, traditional American allies have also entered the game. 


A significant factor in Washington’s calculations to encourage Japan’s emergence into international diplomatic and military prominence has been China’s emerging influence in Asia.  Outside of Britain and some of the Central and Eastern European states, the United States’ traditional Western allies have become unreliable and inconsequential were a conflict to erupt in the East.  In fact, some may likely come down on the opposite side in such an event.  French President Jacques Chirac made his intentions perfectly transparent when he noted in late 2004 that Paris and Beijing maintain “a common view of the world – a multipolar world,” and the lifting of the European arms embargo on Beijing would “mark a significant milestone: a moment when Europe had to make a choice between the strategic interests of America and China – and chose China.” 


While Chirac’s visions of an isolated and weakened United States have fizzled with the collapse of the European Union’s constitution and the continued European arms embargo on China, Beijing has come to understand that their rapidly expanding diplomatic clout has the potential to attract not only American allies, but also the leaders in Washington.  Chinese leaders hope Japan will not only be forced to adopt a more acquiescent policy towards the PRC, but, according to Willy Lam, “Chinese diplomats and strategists who think Beijing could exploit the ever-changing dynamics in the China-U.S.-Japan triangle to their advantage have cited developments in the equally intriguing China-U.S.-Taiwan triangle.”  In other words, China’s growing strength, some Chinese officials see, should create a situation where Washington and Tokyo act as insurance that neither partner draws the other into a conflict with the increasing powerful China. 


The reality stands, however, that both the United States and Japan need each other to protect their interests in the region.  While Tokyo is building the Japanese armed forces, Washington remains its protector.  Japanese strategists – many educated in American and British graduate schools – understand the advantages of America acting as the “world benign hegemon.”  Additionally, as Keio University professor Naoyuki Agawa noted, “Japan is separated by the sea from the continent, a little bit different from the rest of Asia,” and therefore, “always had the ability to maneuver versus China.”  As a result, becoming a “part of the Chinese sphere would go against that tradition.”


For the United States an alliance with Japan in which Tokyo assumes a degree of military responsibility and engages in diplomatic muscle flexing has myriad advantages.  The Japanese have become important partners of the United States and Southeast Asian countries in combating terror, and recent efforts have been made to amend Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution of Japan which guarantees Japanese pacifism.  Prime Minister Koizumi became the first leader of his country to deploy his nation’s forces abroad without a UN mandate since World War II when he sent approximately 1,000 Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq in 2004.  Such a move by Tokyo, according to Japan Institute of International Affairs commentary editor Masaru Tamamoto, “is not unrelated to the Japanese calculation of the rise of China; the American insurance premium has gone up.”  Put simply, with an increasingly powerful China, Japan realizes its vulnerability and is ready to raise the stakes in the U.S.-Japan alliance. 




Encouraging a strong and confident Japan is not shortsighted; it is in America’s long term interests.  Chalmers Johnson concluded in his aforementioned piece that “it is probably too late for the Bush administration to do much more than delay the arrival of a China-dominated East Asian community, particularly because of declining American economic and financial strength.”  As much as he would like to see American power checked by a communist dictatorship in Asia, it would be wise to place your wagers on Uncle Sam.  The United States will not make the same mistake twice and once again neglect the United States Navy and the Asia-Pacific region. 


In 1920 Senate Democrats forced through a bill that crippled American expenditures on its navy.  Despite these isolationist and domestic oriented efforts, Secretary Hughes’s Naval Armaments Treaty miraculously limited the total tonnage of Japanese capital ships to 60 percent of that allowed by both the United States and Great Britain.  The Secretary, however, faced many of the same problems the Bush administration faces today when he emphasized, “we cannot protect our own interests and enjoy the prestige and influence which we should in the world if we are thus betrayed in our own homes.” 


In strikingly parallel circumstances to those in which Asia is currently witnessing with the rise of China, Secretary Hughes warned in October, 1922: “It is essential that we maintain the relative naval strength of the United States.  That, in my judgment, is the way to peace and security … it would be a folly to undermine our position.”  Auspiciously, with the current expanding military cooperation between Washington and Tokyo, the administration is ensuring that the United States’ position will not be undermined again.  Disregard of a rising Asian power resulted in a direct military challenge the last time it occurred, and the encouragement of a friendly Japan to strengthen its position will make it all the more likely that the past does not find a way of repeating itself.


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Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.

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