America and Japan: Five questions for a future US president

America is gearing up for a presidential election. After the hopeless foreign policy of Obama, will the candidates that aim for the White House recognise the vital importance of Japan? Five questions to concentrate the mind

Japan is much more than a pretty picture for the West
Michael Auslin
On 6 March 2015 19:06

While Asia seems largely peaceful compared to Eastern Europe and the Middle East, it is, in fact, a region of growing risk. The balance of power in the region appears to be shifting towards China, while America’s alliances remain in need of upgrading to focus on new threats.

North Korea’s missile and nuclear program continues apace, and Sino-Russian relations grow ever closer on issues ranging from energy to diplomacy. Demographic changes and economic slowdown also plague every nation in the region.

In order for the United States to successfully maintain its presence and influence, as well as to mitigate growing risk, working with its allies is more important than ever. At the top of that list is Japan, Asia’s most powerful democracy.

Yet Japan continues to struggle with economic reform and is attempting to forge closer relations with its Asian neighbors. Given Japan’s importance to Asia’s future path, the following are some of the top questions every presidential candidate should be asked.

1. Do you support a quick conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks?

Japan’s economy has languished for over 20 years, yet current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (pronounced “ah-bay”) is shaking things up with his economic reform plan, colloquially known as “Abenomics.” A cornerstone of his reform approach is to conclude a free trade agreement with the United States and other Pacific partners.

Yet the TPP, as it is known, has proved difficult to conclude, particularly due to American opposition to Japanese autos and Japanese intransigence on agricultural issues. President Obama, however, has put little personal effort into pushing the TPP, taking away some of the momentum behind it.

A new president will have to lean in on free trade, not least because it will help Japan return to economic vitality.

2. How will you protect Japan from North Korea’s nuclear and missile program?

For over 20 years, America has failed to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear capability as well as a ballistic missile program. Japan’s military modernization can in many ways be dated back to 1998, when Pyongyang launched a ballistic missile over the Japanese homeland.

As North Korea becomes a de facto nuclear power, how will Washington assure Tokyo that extended deterrence is still credible? If Tokyo begins to doubt that its ultimate safety can be assured by the United States, then talk of an independent nuclear program will become more likely, leading to further strain between Japan and its allies.

3. What will you do to try and improve Japan-South Korean relations?

Although 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of relations between Japan and South Korea after World War II, ties between Tokyo and Seoul are at their lowest perhaps since 1965.

Given that Japan and South Korea are America’s two closest Asian allies, and that any US intervention on the Korean peninsula in the case of a crisis would likely entail support from Japan, the parlous state of affairs between them hinders US alliance planning with both countries.

While an improvement in Japan-South Korea ties ultimately must come from the countries themselves, an American president has enormous influence to wield to improve relations. With South Korea drifting towards China in recent years, Japan will feel increasingly isolated in Northeast Asia, unless it can improve ties with its neighbor democracy.

4. How will you ensure that US military capacity in Asia remains sufficient to protect Japan under the terms of the US-Japan alliance?

Japan’s great concern over the next generation is the growth of China’s military strength, combined with a more assertive, if not aggressive attitude. Relations between the two are as frosty as those with South Korea, and the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku Islands continues to contain the potential for miscalculation or accident that could result in a military clash, likely drawing America in, due to alliance commitments.

The so-called Obama “pivot” to Asia, while commendable in theory, remains at risk of being underfunded and overtaken by events elsewhere. Given the continued threat of sequestration, the aging of America’s military equipment, and the need to deal with crises in the Middle East and Europe, a credible plan to ensure American military dominance in Asia will be central to ensuring that Japan remains a steadfast ally, confident of our ability to maintain stability.

5. How will you work with Japan to promote and develop liberal norms in Asia?

Japan remains Asia’s oldest and most stable democracy, despite economic stagnation and political paralysis in the last decade. It is a model for many Asian nations who envy its level of development, social stability, rule of law, standard of living, and the like.

It is not a perfect model, but it offers an alternative to China’s authoritarian approach, and is especially appealing to many Asian nations that either have liberalized or are attempting to do so.

Working together more explicitly, America could partner with Japan to help spread and encourage liberal trends in civil society and regional cooperation, thereby further creating a liberal community of interests in Asia.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues. Before joining AEI, Auslin was an associate professor of history at Yale University. His articles can be read here

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