At first glance, it seemed a modest step when the United States and Japan unveiled new guidelines last week upgrading their security alliance. After all, the accord simply details the ways Japan would cooperate with the United States in peacetime or wartime in "areas surrounding Japan." Indeed, most Americans would probably be shocked to learn that before this accord, it was uncertain if wounded American soldiers could be treated at Japanese hospitals or if U.S. forces could use Japanese ports and airfields in a conflict.
But, in truth, the agreement marks a deepening of U.S.-Japan ties with no small impact on the fragile East Asian balance of power. This was all too evident in the howls of protest emanating from Beijing, the third leg of a strategic triangle whose stability is key to peace and prosperity in the Asia Pacific. China's anxiety affects Washington-Beijing ties and will undoubtedly be voiced by Chinese President Jiang Zemin during his visit here next month. Japan's Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto received an earful of Chinese unhappiness earlier this month when he tried to persuade Beijing's leaders that there was no cause for concern.
U.S.-Japan, U.S.-China and Sino-Japanese relationships are the three sides of a trilateral geopolitics in a region where there are no mediating institutions--no Asian NATO, European Union or any formal regional security structures. The three economies comprise about 45% of the world's gross national product; they have three of the world's largest military forces.
During the Cold War, a Washington-Tokyo-Beijing entente against the Soviet Union muted Asia's historical distrust of Japan. With the Soviet Union gone, suspicion of Japan's intentions in East Asia has resurfaced, particularly in China and Korea. This has developed at a time of slow-mo political change and great uncertainty in the North Pacific--a volatile situation in Korea, questions about where Russia's post-communist transformation is going and, most of all, China's emergence as a world player.
It is the potential for instability in such circumstances that has reinforced the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The U.S. network of bilateral security ties--not only with Japan but with South Korea, Southeast Asian nations and Australia--has been and remains East Asia's informal security structure. The need to update defense guidelines governing U.S.-Japan relations became pressing after Japan's sluggish response during the 1991 Gulf War and, most dramatically, to the 1994 Korea nuclear crisis. As fears of war on the Korean Peninsula mounted, U.S. military planners on the front lines were unsure what support they could count on from Japan if Pyongyang's bellicose threats proved real.
The defense guidelines create a framework for planning, sharing intelligence and for a division of labor for what is still a largely one-way alliance. Unlike NATO, where allies are committed to defend each other, under the U.S.-Japan security treaty, the United States is committed to defending Japan, not vice-versa. Japan's "peace" Constitution bans Tokyo from all but defensive operations.
Japan, nonetheless, has the world's third-largest defense budget, some $50 billion annually, and sophisticated hi-tech forces. The new guidelines expand the activities of Japan's defense forces to include non-combat support operations such as deploying minesweepers, providing materiel and logistic support to U.S. combat forces, sea-lane monitoring and intercepting ships to enforce U.N. sanctions. These may sound like small steps, and they are, but the new assignments are being intensely scrutinized in Japan. Their implementation will be a major political event.
Beijing is looking even closer at Japan's higher military profile, for two reasons. China fears that Japan might assist the United States in the event of a conflict over Taiwan. More broadly, it worries that a reinvigorated U.S.-Japan alliance may take aim at containing China's growing power and influence. As a result, China has begun criticizing the alliance as an outdated Cold War institution and to call for new, multilateral security arrangements in East Asia.
But such rhetoric may have other purposes, like keeping Japan from enlarging its military horizons, wringing more economic concessions from Tokyo and constraining the expansion of the U.S.-Japan alliance, not ending it. Whatever the truth of the matter, China's real concern is Taiwan, which could trigger a direct U.S.-China military confrontation.
Both American and Japanese officials constantly tell their Chinese counterparts that they support a "one China" policy and that their alliance does not target China or any specific country, but instead aims to maintain stability in the region. They also tell Beijing that the guidelines are not about geography, but functions. The problem is that neither Tokyo nor Washington is explicitly willing to exclude Taiwan from potential areas of conflict covered by the alliance. Instead, both have adopted a posture of calculated ambiguity. While this is prudent for Japan and the United States, it is a major source of anxiety for China and, consequently, a source of tension in Sino-American and Sino-Japanese relations.
All sorts of dialogues and consultative councils are being proposed to remedy the situation. While talking is better than not talking, the reality is that as long as there is tension between China and Taiwan over Taipei's status, this will remain a sore point. Neither the U.S. nor Japan has any interest in clarifying ambiguity when it helps deter irresponsible acts by Taiwan and Beijing. But it is a strong argument for encouraging Beijing and Taipei to improve cross-strait relations.
Has the new defense agreement truly prepared the U.S.-Japan alliance for the 21st century? Or does it merely deal with the of Korea and Taiwan?
Until the North Korean threat disappears and Korea is reunified--probably sometime in the next decade--it is unwise to change the basic security arrangements in Northeast Asia. But the "strategic shock" of a unified Korea will fundamentally change the geopolitics of the region. What then will be the role for U.S. troops in Korea?
In the longer term, the challenge for Asian security is for China and Japan to come to terms with each other. Europe endured wars for more than three centuries until France and Germany settled their scores in 1945. Only then was NATO and the European Common Market possible. The question is whether Asia must suffer through similar turmoil before China and Japan reconcile and different security arrangements become feasible. Meantime, the strengthened U.S.-Japan security partnership remains the best bet as the insurance policy for the Asia Pacific.