25 March 2014
Japan/US Alliance

Japan/US Alliance

Despite some undeniable challenges, US and Japanese relations are actually quite strong, argues Australia's Bree Wellington, who recently studied at Tokyo's Sophia University.

Despite some undeniable challenges, US and Japanese relations are actually quite strong, argues Australia's Bree Wellington, who recently studied at Tokyo's Sophia University.

The Japanese-US alliance is of great importance, having both been leaders of the world political economy for the most extensive period of the 21st century. Hence, whilst their underlying philosophical structures may differ quite dramatically, their cooperation on both economic and political levels remains quite pivotal to the rest of the world.

US-Japanese relations have been most noticeably shaken following the 2008 global financial crisis. Both the US and Japan pose as highly influential states, accounting for more than 40% of the domestic product of the world. Trade relations since 2008 have suffered a noticeable blow in response to the crisis, and hence trade between the two states has naturally fallen in response. The United States has also consequentially fallen into greater deficit with Japan, compromising the US position in relation to Japan much more apparently than has been seen in the past.

This fall in trade has not in itself caused any great tensions between the states. However, their compromised economic positions have certainly reduced the trade that occurs between the states, and therefore weakened the strong trade relationship that underpins the rest of their cooperation. Maintaining cooperation despite a somewhat humbled trade position of both parties remains pivotal not only to the two states, but also to the world. Whilst trade has not suffered an irreparable blow, it is interesting to see how much their diplomatic relations rests on their economic partnership.

The trade alliance of the US and Japan, however, is not the only factor of their economic relationship that is facing challenges.

The funding of Japan-stationed US military has been the undoubted focus of bilateral tensions of late. Costs of maintaining US forces in Japan during 2012 were estimated at $4.8 billion, with Japan contributing about 76% of this. Domestic tensions regarding this rose in 2011, toward the then-government of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whereby it was claimed that Japan’s disproportionate contributions in response to the weakened position of the US was compromising the more desperate Japanese health sector.

These economic military tensions have been exacerbated by disputes over the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which has been a functioning US military airbase since the battle of Okinawa in 1945. The Futenma base has remained an issue of major contention, particularly as the US retains the stance that the base is a vital factor to the Asian security umbrella, particularly as North Korean tensions rise and US power becomes less certain. The Futenma base has been considered for relocation since December 1996, following concerns about noise level, air and ground pollution, and the rape of a 12 year old girl by US marines.

The government of 1996 had proposed that the base be moved to an off-shore location in Henoko Bay, however, this met further protest as the projected site was home to the endangered dugong, as well as other protected marine life and reefs. The Futenma base remains a point of contention as a large portion of Okinawans not only call for Futenma to be shut down but completely moved off Japanese soil. The US continue to claim, however, that it is vital to maintaining its security umbrella over the Asia Pacific, and continue to stress this even more as US power becomes less certain. Hence, although the 2014 relocation plan for Futenma may be put into action, it is unlikely that the US (in its current state) will allow it to be permanently removed in the near future.

US-Japanese diplomatic relations have been similarly tested by certain small, yet significant actions having been undertaken by Japan’s current Prime Minister- Shinzo Abe.

Abe is a much more confident leader than what has been seen in Japan in recent history- he has been quite impressive in undertaking radical measures to reform the fallen Japanese economy- and in this way, he can be seen as quite revolutionary, particularly considering Japan’s general partiality to incremental change. However liberal he appears in this way, he is actually quite conservative in others -- particularly in defending some more questionable actions of Japan’s past.

Recent Japan/US relations were tested as Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine to pay homage to war leaders- and war criminals- named in its erection. This controversial visit has not been undertaken by any Japanese Prime Minister for 7 years out of respect for the nations that suffered under war criminals named under the Shrine. Although the visit was perhaps more offensive towards their Chinese and Koreans neighbours, Japan has been warned by the US to take more caution in undertaking questionable activities.

Japanese-US tensions similarly rose following a speech made by Abe in reference to the ‘comfort women’ used by the Japanese military during the wars. The women- treated fundamentally as ‘sex slaves’ by the military- have been a sensitive subject to Japan upon finally admitting the inhumane treatment of these women, about 20 years ago. Abe has recently made a public comment retracting the regret of Japan in reference to these women, claiming the women had chosen to be in this position. Hilary Clinton specifically expressed displeasure with the Japenese Prime Minister for these comments, further testing the US- Japan relationship.

The US-Japanese alliance has been more convincing, however, within the realm of foreign relations. Both have explicitly expressed concern in balancing a rising China, and have hence adjusted each of their White Papers to reflect such. Whilst this move is again indicative of the US reducing in relative power, it is also reassuring that both states have a likened outlook on the issue. Japan's territorial dispute has also secured the US alliance on matters of foreign issues. Japan's territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, whilst originally regarded by the US as an issue under which it takes no side, now backs Japan under Article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty as “administrators of the Territory”.

US-Japanese support has been even stronger in dealing with issues regarding North Korea. Security cooperation between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have been increasingly strong since the 2012 North Korean missile launches and 2013 North Korean nuclear tests. These tests have proved that Japan is well within range of North Korean missiles, hence spurring on Tokyo's strong military alliance with the US, particularly through an increased investment in ballistic missile defence (BMD) capabilities.

In addition to this, Japan remains continually concerned with the abduction issues it has encountered with North Korea since the 1980s, and continues to push forward with the US in attempting negotiations to reclaim its lost citizens. Overall, whilst North Korea continues to antagonise its neighbours, it has provided an opportunity to further strengthen US-Japanese military alliances, and will continue to do so as its provocative actions continue.

For the Japanese population especially, the most evident action undertaken by the US in proving its continued commitment to Japan was in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake disaster. “Operation Tomodachi” (meaning “friend”), was implemented utilising years of joint military training in order to respond to the crisis. SDF helicopters used US aircraft carriers, vessels and equipment under the direction of the Japanese Army to regain control over the area and assist in a mass evacuation.

Not only did it improve public regard for the US army (particularly following the issues of the Futenma base), but it also highlighted any issues the forces had in working together in the case of future attack. Overall, US response to the 2011 earthquake has reinforced the idea that the US-Japanese alliance continues to be strong despite US decline.

Several challenges have arisen in relation to the Japan-US alliance on the international relations stage. The global economic crisis has naturally unsettled trade between the countries, however by itself, this has not been particularly harmful. What has been more concerning is the diplomatic relations which underpin all other relations.

Small, yet significant activities undertaken by Prime Minister Abe have been particularly testing of US-Japanese relations. Comments regarding the Japanese ‘comfort women’ of the War, as well as Abe’s visit to the Yasakuni Shrine have unsettled the US government and have potential to affect their relationship if not curtailed.

Diplomatic relations have been more seriously affected in reference to the US Futenma base in Okinawa. Although at the close of 2013, it was finally agreed by the US for the base to be relocated, the likelihood of problems regarding the base are unlikely to disappear until Futenma is completey shifted off US soil.

Regardless of this, US and Japanese relations are actually quite strong. Since the War, the alliance has been a key component to the international relations of both countries, and consequently many others. This alliance is made stronger in dealing with other states- particularly North Korea and China- considering the US and Japan, overall, have very similar ideals and values.

Therefore, whilst Japan and the US still have undeniable challenges that they need to address, these are minute in comparison to the goals of both states to remain close allies and therefore to protect each other in crisis, whether economic and political.
Tags: japan, US, Japan/US alliance, yasukuni shrine, shinzo abe, comfort women

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