Preliminary Reflections on “Why Do the Japanese Fear Abandonment?”: A (Potentially New) Perspective from which to Examine Sino-U.S.-Japan Relations

Back on November 22013, I was fortunate enough to be invited as a student presenter at the international conference titled “Abe-ministration: Reforms and Challenges” at the National Sun Yat-sen University (NSYSU) hosted by the Center for Japanese Studies (CJS). At the conference, I presented a paper, which appears on my blog here.

One of the most interestingstock-photo-japan-china-usa-rock-paper-scissors-164393492 exchanges between scholars, and one that has since piqued my interest to the point that I am considering using my response to this question as my thesis topic instead of my current and as yet still somewhat nebulous and more theoretical endeavor (part of which is mentioned in my critiques of offensive realism here and here), is recounted below. This exchange, which occurred between one of the most well-known American scholars of Japanese politics and a prominent scholar at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), followed a long panel discussion regarding Abe Shinzō’s foreign policy and the alliance dynamics taking shape. Of particular note was the JIIA scholar’s discussion regarding why the Japanese were (and still are) seeking, albeit limited, offensive capabilities despite the strength of the alliance.[1]

A discussion of what amounted to, although no one used the term “extended deterrence,” a discussion of the creditability of both the conventional and nuclear elements of the U.S. policy of extended deterrence ensued. One could, had one listened closely, noted a bit of a gulf between the American (with the exception of this writer) and Taiwanese (with the exception of the Chief Executer of the CJS) scholars on one side, who believed that the JIIA scholar was being too pessimistic about U.S. commitments and capabilities, and the Japanese scholars, who were far more skeptical of said capabilities and commitments. Indeed, during the climax of the discussion, the well-known American scholar asked the JIIA scholar point blank: “Why do the Japanese fear abandonment?” This question followed several comments by this particular American scholar about the continuous strengthening of the alliance especially since the mid-1990s. It is a difficult question, one which the JIIA scholar handled in a typical way but which, I think, needs further historical background if one is to drive the real point home.

The JIIA scholar responded that the United States had throughout the history of the alliance given mixed signals to the Japanese government about its preferences and intentions on a plethora of issues. There was no reason to believe that this would suddenly stop because now China was perceived by many as the external threat binding the two allies (and, by way of inference, other allies as well as security partners) together. In effect, Japan’s pursuit of a limited first-strike capacity was at once both a demonstration to its “senior” alliance partner that Japan had the will to possess and use such capabilities if necessary (enhancing the credibility of Japan’s own commitment as the “junior” member of the alliance) and a—here comes the watchword—“hedge” against potential U.S. nonintervention in, or even an altogether abrogation of the alliance due to, a regional conflict that pitted Japan against another regional power. (The obvious reference here was to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute, although the JIIA scholar did not mention China or that dispute in particular.)

After the question was asked and before the JIIA scholar answered, the Chief Executer of the CJS, who is also one of my co-advisers, turned to me, and we both said the same thing to each other quietly: “It [the alliance dilemma mentioned in the question] is structural.” That—i.e., the structural element of abandonment and entrapment—is certainly one, and admittedly a major, factor. But as I have revisited this question, thought deeply about my own academic work, and read much more, I have come to the conclusion that not only are there structural (the one briefly mentioned between my co-advisor and myself, above); postwar-alliance (discussed by the scholar from the JIIA in the previous paragraph); and political, economic, and sociocultural (as discussed at length in the Calder book, referenced in f.n. 1) factors involved; there are also deeper historical (pre-1945) and very important long-term strategic factors with historical antecedents that play into these fears, warranted or not, of “Japan passing,” a Sino-U.S. condominium (or a so-called “G2”) basically at Japan’s expense, and an abrogation of the U.S.-Japan security treaty in order for the United States (and potentially Japan) to seek closer relations with China at the expense of Japan. The logic behind this, too, is partly structural, but it is also historical and often overlooked because many scholarly works on Japan and U.S.-Japan relations, since they focus on either the nature of Japan’s political system or on the post-1945 U.S.-Japan relationship (i.e., the “alliance”), either purposely or inadvertently leave out the competitive influences that drove the United States and Japan towards total war. And as perhaps the best single-volume work on the broader history of the U.S.-Japan relationship, a study which spans nearly a century and a half of these two nations’ relations, put it, one of these competitive influences rested on the role Japan and the United States (as well as other powers) would play in China and their competing views regarding what China would ideally resemble and whose interests it would ultimately serve.

Hence, it is no mistake that as China develops, seeks greater amounts of foreign capital, sees its domestic market grow numerically and with regard to purchasing potential, and becomes a major regional and even global strategic player, both Japanese and Americans are concerned not only with how China itself will behave but also how the two (Japan and America) will behave towards each other. The competing discourses in both countries on China “the threat” and China “the opportunity” clearly factor in here as well, and these competitive influences make it ever easier for Chinese strategy to exploit, or at least probe, these areas of intra-alliance weakness. Simply put, both allies, for both structural and deeper strategic reasons (which can be traced throughout their prewar and even postwar historical interactions), view each other’s approaches toward China with incredulity, uncertainty, and, at times, open cynicism. These sentiments further heighten the security dilemma in alliance politics. However, the contextual and historical background as well as particular features of the U.S.-Japan relationship itself suggest not only that these structural factors will be more acute but that, beyond these structural variables themselves, policy, strategic thinking, and strategic behavior will increasingly, and ultimately, be at odds.

Most studies dealing with similar scholarly questions examine the Sino-Japan, Sino-U.S., U.S.-Japan, and Sino-U.S.-Japan relations through the prisms of strict bilateralism with brief mention of the third party (in the former three cases); true triangular relations; using bilateral relations to approach the third party (U.S.-Japan alliance-China, for example); or one party’s approach to dealing with a bilateral relationship (China and its method of contending with the U.S.-Japan alliance) alone or some combination of these sets. Most studies focus on a limited time period, particularly the postwar or post-Cold War eras. Similarly, many wonderful country-specific studies have been done, and although their specificity has proven an excellent basis upon which to build my comparative strategic analyses, they simply lack (via the country-specific parameters they set for themselves) the comparative aspect (especially in the tri-party sense) upon which my own study is based and to which I may be able to evaluate my own preliminary analyses.

In short, I argue that a better way of examining the Sino-U.S.-Japan relationship and answering the question “Why do the Japanese fear abandonment?” is to place these relations in their broader and more dynamic historical context while paying particular attention to not only structural factors but also the strategic calculations and behaviors of the three states involved. Particularly important is viewing the U.S.-Japan relationship through respective U.S. and Japanese approaches toward China throughout the greater (that is, both prewar and postwar) history of U.S.-Japan relations. My preliminary analyses thus far indicate that this perspective is a fruitful avenue for examining Sino-U.S.-Japan relations and the security of East Asia and the Asia-Pacific in general. In future posts, I will delve into some of these issues at greater depth, but for now it is most important to me whether a) other similar analyses have been done and b) the above perspective has any inherent weaknesses. I welcome, of course, any constructive input, be it critical or otherwise, as well as any suggestions regarding similar analyses. Thus far, I have found none, with perhaps the exception of the LaFeber book (linked above), but LaFeber does not go beyond his historical inquiry into U.S.-Japan relations and how they have been affected throughout history by the China factor to draw implications for social science research. I hope to both do this and, hopefully, go beyond. Again, I welcome any thoughts in this regard. In future posts, I will indicate my independent and dependent variables and make a preliminary attempt at establishing the logical relations between them.

I thank you in advance for any constructive comments you might have.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

[1] It should be noted, before I continue, that I personally question the idea that the alliance is particularly strong; an excellent read that has changed my perceptions of the strength of the alliance is Kent E. Calder’s Pacific Alliance. However, as I discuss below and will most likely argue at length in future posts here, future scholarly articles, and perhaps even in my Master’s thesis or future Doctoral dissertation, there are historical reasons related to national strategy and even security issues, on top of the political, economic, and socio-cultural factors laid out by Calder, to believe that in many ways the alliance is not as strong as it appears on the surface.