The disconcerting role Japan will increasingly play as key US ally in East Asia
The United States needs a partner in the Western Pacific, but Japan is the only nation volunteering for that role. Despite the potential for pushback by other nations in the region, Washington is encouraging an enthusiastic Tokyo to join it in pursuing common goals in East Asia.
With South Korea very publicly declining to join the United States and Japan in a trilateral military relationship to counter both North Korea and China in Northeast Asia, Washington is compelled to rely more on Tokyo. That suits Japan just fine, though it is upsetting for other nations in Asia because of issues with Japan left over since World War II that have not been properly resolved.
Of necessity as much as by intent, South Korea is becoming an independently minded middle power. Situated next to China and unwilling to deepen political relations with Japan, Seoul is cozying up to Beijing to increase its exports: It cannot afford to alienate its largest trading partner. Therefore, it will not side with Washington to counter China’s irredentist and expansionist moves in the East China Sea.
Moreover, South Korean policy toward its arch-rival North Korea has moved to one of engagement and reconciliation. While Seoul certainly appreciates the security of Washington’s nuclear umbrella and the presence of US military forces in-country, it is subtly distancing itself from the hawkish views of its main protector. South Korea does not support any pre-emptive or preventive military action against the North.
With North Korea now having – or soon to have – nuclear weapons capable of being reliably delivered to the American mainland, the US has belatedly realized that diplomacy has not deterred Pyongyang from its goal of becoming a nuclear power with ICBM capabilities. For this and other reasons, Washington wants a partner in Northeast Asia should military action against either China or North Korea become necessary.
Tokyo is more than willing to meet that need, even as other nations in the region view Japan’s eagerness for more geopolitical responsibility as a resurgence of Japan’s Meiji Restoration in 1868 – a development that led to Japanese imperialism and brutish behavior during World War II.
Tokyo’s revitalized nationalism – often seen as thinly disguised militarism – is partly a result of the ancestry of Japan’s current prime minister, Shinzo Abe. His maternal grandfather was an accused and imprisoned – though purposefully not prosecuted by the Allies – Class A war criminal whose conservative and nationalistic political leanings were most likely passed down through Abe’s mother to him.
Thus Abe has a disturbing giri, a Japanese word for which there is no adequate English definition but can be translated as a strong duty or intense obligation, often felt unconsciously. In the present context, it means not to speak ill of or even acknowledge the wrongdoings of Imperial Japan in which his ancestor played so great a role. Abe is culturally and politically destined to a path that Japan’s Asian neighbors find repugnant.
Tokyo finds itself under direct threat of North Korea by virtue of permitting US military bases on Japanese soil. As a consequence, Tokyo has even more reason to side with Washington in doing what it can to counter the threat from Pyongyang
Furthermore, despite the limits imposed by Article 9 of Japan’s postwar constitution that prohibits war as well as having a military force, its language over the years has been ever more broadly interpreted. Tokyo now unmistakably and unapologetically has an air force, an army, and an increasingly formidable navy. These military forces are quite willing to challenge Chinese incursions into Japanese territorial waters and claimed airspace, and to assist US forces on other forays in ferreting out sanctions violations by China and Russia.
Additionally, Tokyo finds itself nowadays under direct threat of North Korea by virtue of permitting US military bases – considerable ones, at that – on Japanese soil. As a consequence, Tokyo has even more reason to side with Washington in doing what it can to counter the threat from Pyongyang.
Toward that end, Japan is increasing the number of its own missiles and intends to install Washington’s Aegis ballistic-missile defense system to counter North Korea’s short- and intermediate-range missiles. Currently, there are no plans to install the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, since there are THAAD batteries already installed in South Korea.
Little of this sits well with either China, which has its own issues – such as the Rape of Nanking – stemming from the days of Imperial Japan, or South Korea, which is dissatisfied with the hastily arranged agreement in between Seoul and Tokyo to resolve the comfort-women issue.
Japan has never accepted legal responsibility for its role in the appropriation of sex slaves and its operation of Imperial brothels. Though much documentation on Imperial Japan’s sex-slave activity is thought to have been destroyed by Tokyo as the war ended, enough evidence did survive – and more comes to light every month, it seems – that there can be little doubt the Japanese government was directly involved.
To be sure, apologies and regrets have been expressed by various Japanese administrations on a number of occasions, but that is not the same as an admission of guilt. That admission of responsibility – beyond mere remorse or sorrow – is precisely what South Korea and its surviving comfort women need to hear for closure. The lack of that prevents the wounds of World War II from completely healing over – a significant reason Seoul and Tokyo will not cooperate against the common threat posed by Pyongyang.
The upshot is that, for a number of reasons, Washington is left with only one real military ally in Northeast Asia. Without regard for the sensitivities of other nations in East Asia, the US welcomes Japan standing shoulder to shoulder alongside it to preserve regional peace and stability in the Western Pacific. That presents significant diplomatic and political challenges for Washington as it continues to engage in Asia.