Uncertain Future: Revitalizing the US-Japan Alliance

By Pyle, Kenneth B. | Harvard International Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Uncertain Future: Revitalizing the US-Japan Alliance


Pyle, Kenneth B., Harvard International Review


AT THE END OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Asia is entering a new era. The sudden, unexpected end of the Cold War, the rise of Japan as a regional and global economic superpower, the long delayed emergence of China into the global system, and the economic dynamism of the Asia Pacific region are creating a new distribution of economic and political power and raising a new set of issues affecting the fundamental structure of international relations in the region. Above all, these developments raise issues for the US-Japan relationship. For nearly a half century this relationship, encompassing the bilateral security pact and the growth of economic interdependence between the two countries, has been the cornerstone of international relations in Asia.

The organizational structure of regional politics in Asia has experienced two great transformations in this century. Both transformations came at the end of World Wars, both were achieved through US leadership, and both shaped the fundamental nature of US-Japan relations for succeeding decades. Both, however, ultimately failed to integrate Japan into a regional structure of international relations. The first transformation in regional politics, which came about after World War I, destroyed the imperialist balance of power in East Asia. At the Washington Conference of 1921-1922, the United States sought to reorganize the region on the basis of Wilsonian principles and to constrain the Japanese rise to preeminence. Skeptical from the start, the Japanese soon broke out of these constraints and sought to revise the regional order.

The second great structural transformation in the Pacific was the establishment of the Pax Americana after World War II. Having eliminated the Japanese challenge, the United States sought to prevent the Soviet Union from achieving total hegemony in East Asia through strategies of containment and deterrence that entailed the forward deployment of US forces, the organization of a complex system of collective security arrangements, and massive aid and development programs designed to stabilize the region and promote democratic politics. Again, in this structure of Asian politics, Japan was not satisfactorily integrated. By its own choice, under a policy which I have called the Yoshida Doctrine, Japan declined to join in a Pacific counterpart of NATO which John Foster Dulles proposed in 1950. Instead, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida chose to interpret the Japanese constitution as prohibiting participation in collective self-defense and set the nation's course on the narrowly focused pursuit of economic development. Avoiding any collective security commitments in Asia became a central tenet of post war Japanese foreign policy. Yoshida and his successors built an elaborate set of policies to prevent Japan from being drawn into any overseas commitments, thus sharply limiting its positive commitments to the Cold War effort in Asia. The Americans readily acquiesced to these policies because of a deep ambivalence and distrust of the prospect of Japanese rearmament.

Yoshida's strategy of economic nationalism had many successes, but in the long run it also had major drawbacks. It created a political-economic system in which economic bureaucrats working cooperatively with business guided the country's policies to achieve long-term economic goals, but it left the country unprepared to deal with the political consequences of this newly acquired economic power. The Gulf War was the first international crisis of the post-Cold War era, and the Japanese leadership was wholly unprepared to deal with the new context of its foreign policy. The storm of international criticism that greeted the grudging financial support Japan gave the UN-sanctioned coalition stunned Japanese politicians. Protests of constitutional inhibitions were no longer persuasive for a country of such economic power and prominence and so dependent on Middle Eastern oil.

The end of the Cold War requires a new definition of security in the Pacific that takes into account the changed distribution of economic and political power in the region and identifies new institutions to manage this new situation. …

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