Japan-U.S. Alliance a Guarantee for Peace

October 23rd, 2005


Boisterous debates arose for a while on TV shows and elsewhere about the pros and cons of the Japan-U.S. alliance following the 2003 occupation of Iraq by U.S.-led forces and subsequent dispatch of Ground Self-Defense Force troops to the country in 2004.

Those debates are now on the wane.

This is natural. Even in the midst of the debates, nobody was blatantly opposed to the actual existence of the bilateral alliance, even among those who championed an anti-U.S. position.

The commitment made in June 1994 by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who hailed from the left wing of the Japan Socialist Party, to “upholding fast to maintain” the Japan-U.S. security pact meant that forces opposing the Japan-U.S. alliance had ceased to exist as ones capable of affecting national politics.

There still remain some remnants of the emotional anti-U.S. line of argument. Given that virtually nobody denies the wisdom of the Japan-U.S. alliance as fundamental to national strategy, anti-U.S. argument today, if any, can do no harm, just like a light spring snowfall.

Key questions left unanswered

Nevertheless, a few questions of key significance were raised in the process of the Japan-U.S. alliance debates:

“Even if Japan wants to see its alliance with the United States kept intact, will the United States continue to think so, too?”

“Won’t the United States shift away from Japan someday in favor of China?”

In addition to these questions, fears still linger that the severe Japan-bashing that occurred in the United States in the first half of the 1990s might be repeated in the future.

All these can safely be said to be groundless apprehensions at this point in time. No definite answers, however, have yet been given when it comes to the question of whether this country can place its destiny in the hands of the Japan-U.S. alliance in the distant future.

As for the Japanese public, the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance can be explained simply by looking back at history.

Ever since it made its mark on world politics at the beginning of the 20th century, Japan has enjoyed full security, prosperity and freedom during two periods: the combined 30 years of the 1902-1923 Anglo-Japanese Alliance and the 1924-1931 Taisho democracy, and the half century of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Japan is an island nation. As long as Japan is allied with the Anglo-American world that dominates the oceans of the world, Japan can enjoy national security.

Japan’s alliance with Britain was undoubtedly the best among all military pacts this country concluded with another nation. The naval forces of Japan and Britain combined were unrivaled in the world in those days. As there were no air forces, nothing threatened the security of Japan, so this country enjoyed free access to the resources and markets of the world.

When people feel secure and prosperous, they naturally aspire to freedom. That is why the Taisho democracy flourished in the first of the two periods.

Much the same can be said about the Japan-U.S. alliance.

The bilateral alliance and democratic achievements of this country after World War II, however, have been accompanied by defeat in the war and occupation by the Allied Forces.

The alliance between Japan and the United States, therefore, has fallen short of being accepted by many as one of the inevitabilities of history. Nevertheless, the structure of the Japan-U.S. alliance in terms of both international and domestic politics is basically the same as that of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.

The problem is: How much value does the Japan-U.S. alliance have in the eyes of the United States?

It is possible indeed that the United States, the sole superpower, might be able to ensure its own security, prosperity and freedom in the absence of the alliance with any country, including Japan.

A review of the 100-year history of the two countries, however, shows that Japan and the United States have followed similar diplomatic paths, much more so than generally assumed.

Just as the Russo-Japanese War marked the beginning of Japan’s rise in status as a world power, the Treaty of Portsmouth, the peace treaty signed after this war, provided the first opportunity for the United States to politically intervene in the old Eurasian continent. It is worth noting that the national interests of Japan and the United States coincided completely at that time.

At the time, the United States was still fettered with a policy it had since its foundation of nonintervention in Eurasian affairs. Secretary of State John Hay was skeptical about offending Russia, arguing that a U.S. hard-line approach toward Russia was unlikely to obtain the backing of the Senate.

Value of alliance

President Theodore Roosevelt, however, sided avowedly with Japan, stating, “Japan is playing our game [in East Asia].” Roosevelt went so far as to say that the United States, should Russia be victorious in the war, would then be compelled to take military action against Russia.

Also, the national interests of Japan and the United States squared with each other in the 50 years of the Cold War.

As Prof. James Auer of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., put it, Japan-U.S. military cooperation during the 1980s was a “hidden success story.” Over the decade, the bilateral cooperation reversed the East-West military balance in the Far East, contributing substantially to the final victory of the free world, at least in East Asia.

In other words, the best periods for Japan during the 100 years after Japan began to play a role on the world stage coincide with the periods in which U.S. interests in East Asia and the Pacific region were best ensured.

A phase that lay between the two periods, the 15-year period to 1945, was one of confrontation and bloodshed between Japan and the United States.

Should that period be deemed as a historical inevitability? Or was it just an unnecessary detour of history?

Noteworthy here is a memorandum written in 1935 by U.S. diplomat John MacMurray, who was opposed to Stanley Hornback, the influential State Department official known for his pro-Chinese, anti-Japanese stance. George Kennan, the chief architect of the U.S. policy toward the communist camp after the war, admired the MacMurray memorandum, making it a key reference in blueprinting Washington’s Far Eastern diplomacy.

In the memorandum, MacMurray said: “…a war [between Japan and the United States] would be a major misfortune for us, even assuming our victory, as well as for Japan and the Far East and the world in general…Elimination of Japan, if it were possible, would be no blessing to the Far East or to the world.”

It goes on to say: “It [elimination of Japan] would merely create a new set of stresses, and substitute for Japan, the USSR, as the successor of Imperial Russia as a contestant for the mastery of the East.”

MacMurray’s memorandum also points out, “Nobody except Russia would gain from our victory in such a war.”

Regarding China, the memorandum said: “There may be pacifists and idealists who foresee our victory over Japan…open a readier opportunity for closer understanding and collaboration, along liberal lines, between the United States and China. That is a delusive hope. The Chinese always did, do, and will, regard foreign nations as barbarian enemy, to be dealt with by playing them off against each other.”

It also notes, “If we were to ‘save’ China from Japan and becomes the ‘Number One’ nation in the eyes of her people, we should thereby become not the most favored, but the most distrusted of nations.”

To be sure, Japan, from a cool-headed, geopolitical point of view, is useful to the United States as a fortress, or at least as a buffer, against Russia and China, which–through temporarily pulling back from the center stage of international politics in the Far East due to their revolutions at the outset of the 20th century–are potentially more formidable continental powers than Japan.

Notwithstanding, Japan and the United States did clash and went to war.

Both Japan and the United States made a number of mistakes that gave rise to war.

One of the major mistakes on the U.S. side was the fact that it, when the menace of Russia vanished for the time being, prodded Britain to scrap the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and replace the alliance with a treaty among Britain, Japan, France and the United States, which later proved to be useless, in spite of the British wish to keep its treaty with Japan.

Likewise, after the end of the Cold War, there arose arguments in favor of formulating a treaty among China, Japan, Russia and the United States to replace the Japan-U.S. alliance.

However, Japan and the United States avoided repeating the mistake that led to the war between the two countries. This means that in making geopolitical judgments, the basics are more important than temporary political fluctuations.

Another mistake made by the United States that MacMurray identified was that it gave emotional backing to the nationalism that was rising in China. China in the heat of nationalist fervor was poised to do away with all the past “unequal” treaties even by unpeaceful means. Americans were uncooperative with Japan’s diplomatic policy under Foreign Minister Kijuro Shidehara, who regarded the Washington pacts highly as a basis for ensuring peace through the already existing international framework.

A grave mistake on the Japanese part was the government failure to curb expansionist fervor of the military, supported by the press, during a surge of chauvinism following the 1931 Manchurian Incident. Furthermore, the government at times went along with the chauvinistic trend.

It might have been possible for the government to do more to survive the final moments of World War II, as Spain had done. But the reality of domestic politics, however, meant the government seriously lacked the political and diplomatic capabilities to do so.

Collective defense a must

Currently, the United States, based on the western hemisphere, has become the world’s sole superpower, predominant over all other countries, including those on the Eurasian continent, such as China, France, Germany and Russia.

It may be best for the United States to maintain a firm alliance with Britain across the Atlantic Ocean and with Japan across the Pacific, while dealing with continental powers through a policy similar to that employed by Britain to ensure a balance of power in the 19th century.

The past 100 years attest to the validity of this.

Some American intellectuals are well aware of this. One example is the Armitage Report released in 2000, which centers around the need for transforming the Japan-U.S. alliance into one similar to the Anglo-American alliance.

Concerning concrete ways of making this a reality, the report says Japan could become a truly reliable ally of the United States by acknowledging that Japan is capable of exercising the right of collective self-defense.

If this materializes, peace will certainly be guaranteed in Asia, and the entire world, for a number of decades to come and possibly throughout the 21st century.