U.S.' ability to control Japan has abated

2015-05-05 08:49China Daily Editor: Si Huan

Because of bitter historical memories, China has long been wary about a Japanese military revival. Indeed, even during the chilliest days of the Cold War, China provided mixed signals about the U.S. military presence in East Asia.

Although Washington's motive to contain communist (including Chinese communist) influence was evident, and therefore resented, Chinese leaders also seemed to believe that America's supervision restrained Tokyo and prevented its rise as a strong, independent military power.

In recent years, U.S. leaders have gradually become increasingly receptive to Japan playing a more active security role. The previous ambivalence faded noticeably during the George W. Bush's administration, and that trend has continued throughout the Barack Obama years. The implicit focus of the rebalancing strategy and other elements of U.S. policy in East Asia is to contain China's growing power and influence.

Washington has looked on benignly as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government developed military systems with power projection capabilities, such as the new helicopter carrier, signed arms sale agreements with other countries, and "reinterpreted" Article 9 of Japan's pacifist Constitution to permit military missions beyond situations of strict self-defense.

The American public, however, remains decidedly ambivalent about Japan playing a more extensive security role. A recent Pew Institute survey found that 47 percent would welcome such a change, in part to alleviate the financial and logistical burdens on the United States, but 43 percent believed that, given Japan's history of aggression in the 20th century, it should strictly limit its military role.

The Abe government's recent actions are not likely to reduce the uneasiness in the U.S., China or other countries. Tokyo has adopted an uncompromising stance on two contentious territorial issues.

Actions by Abe and some close associates reinforce such suspicions. Measures that have been especially unhelpful include the Japanese prime minister's visits to Yasukuni Shrine (even though individuals honored there include World War II war criminals), continued reluctance to accept historical responsibility for "comfort women" - women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military personnel during WWII, and Abe's indiscreet comments suggesting that Japan was something other than a blatant aggressor before and during WWII. Some of those incidents have dismayed even usually supportive U.S. officials.

Although there is virtually no danger that Japan will embark on another aggressively expansionist binge, these actions taken together indicate that it is pursuing an increasingly bold, nationalist agenda. That development is likely to make China, South Korea and other neighbors nervous. It also may cause mixed emotions in Washington. U.S. leaders no doubt like the concept of a more robust and capable ally in East Asia.

However, Japan's assertiveness can also entangle the U.S. in problems it would prefer to avoid. For example, Tokyo's uncompromising attitude on the Diaoyu Islands (called Senkaku Islands in Japan) issue places Washington in an uncomfortable position. Japanese pressure virtually forced the Obama administration to confirm that the bilateral mutual defense treaty covers those islands - even though their legal status remains very much in dispute. Any armed incident between China and Japan over that issue would create an immediate crisis for the U.S..

The regional strategic dynamic has changed in a fundamental fashion. Japan is becoming a far more capable military ally than in previous decades, but U.S. leaders must accept the corresponding reality that Japan also will be a much more independent-minded power with its own policy agenda. Tokyo's goals may sometimes conflict with Washington's policy preferences or even important U.S. interests. China and other East Asian powers likewise need to realize that the U.S.' ability to control Japan's actions in the security arena has already diminished and is likely to fade further in the coming years.

The author Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Courtesy: China&US Focus

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