Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Securing the "Anchor of Regional Stability"? the Transformation of the US-Japan Alliance and East Asian Security

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Securing the "Anchor of Regional Stability"? the Transformation of the US-Japan Alliance and East Asian Security

Article excerpt

The forward deployment of US military power in East Asia is thought by many scholars and policy-makers to be the key factor behind the region's sustained stability over the past twenty years. (1) It is underwritten by a range of formal and tacit bilateral agreements and alignments of which the most important is the alliance with Japan. In the past ten years this alliance has been both strengthened and transformed. From the mid-1990s, when the alliance was clearly troubled, through to the accession and sudden resignation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the relationship has been fundamentally strengthened. Both sides share a sense of the global and regional threats which they face, have institutionalised mechanisms to underwrite this consensus and to cope with the on-going challenges of alliance management, and key policy elite have excellent working relationships. Notwithstanding Japan's recent prevarications over its contribution to the Afghanistan operation, the relationship is the best it has been since 1945.

The purpose of this article is to critically analyse the transformation in the alliance and to consider its regional implications. It examines developments from the mid-1990s up to the May 2007 Joint Security Consultative Committee meeting and their consequences for the region. The article draws a number of conclusions. First, the US-Japan alliance is becoming a genuine security partnership and has distinctly moved away from its Cold War rationale. Second, changes to the alliance have not been as security-promoting as many think. For the partners, the risks of entrapment due to the alliance have increased. For the region, alliance enhancement is unsettling the strategic status quo and promoting destabilizing security dilemma responses. In this sense, the tightening of the alliance is a conservative move in that it tries to maintain the broader strategic status quo, but the changing security landscape means that such conservatism is not resolving regional insecurities. This is more notable in Northeast Asia, but its consequences for Southeast Asia are also not as benign as many assume.

On the Road to Graceland

America's series of Cold War bilateral alliances and security arrangements have been the centrepiece of East Asia's security and stability. With the end of the Soviet challenge, the ongoing normalization of China and the stabilization of regional conflicts, particularly in Indochina, it seemed that the Cold War security structures would be dismantled. The closure of US bases in the Philippines in 1991-92 appeared to indicate a wider shift in America's thinking about its place in East Asia. Many in the region feared that a large-scale reduction in the US presence would be dangerously destabilizing and significant diplomatic effort was put into convincing American policy-makers to maintain the status quo. This led to the 1995 and 1998 Nye reports which set out the strategic rationale for maintaining the same basic force presence and political structure for American power that had seen out the final quarter century of the Cold War. (2) Although the immediate concerns of key East Asian allies had been assuaged, the underlying problems had not been addressed. Without the Soviet Union, with China undergoing rapid economic growth and a diplomatic normalization programme, as well as the emergence a host of "new" security challenges, it seemed a little odd that American interests would be best served by the Cold War status quo. The recent shift in the US-Japan alliance is a somewhat overdue response to the changing landscape of East Asian security.

Strengthening and Reshaping the Alliance

For the bulk of the Cold War there was a settled view about the structure and purpose of the relationship. In return for the "easy ride" on American security public goods, Japan was a vital industrial centre safely out of Soviet hands and a geostrategic asset of high value to America's Cold War interests. …

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