Dr. James (Jim) Auer, a keen observer of United States-Japan and the Northeast Asia security environment for over half a century, is director of the Auer U.S. – Japan Center at Vanderbilt University.
We caught up with Dr. Auer and his cross-cultural American, Japanese, Korean family in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, in October 2019. In an exclusive interview, he discusses the dangerous security environment which defines Japan’s geographic location in the world, how the security relationship has changed over the years, and what the U.S. and Japan should be doing to keep the region stable and safe.
Q: You have been involved with U.S.-Japan security issues for many years. What changes in the relationship stand out for you over that time?
A: Fifty-six years — since 1963.
I strongly agree with something said by my graduate school professor Edwin Reischauer — that when the so-called revisionists were saying that Japan is only taking advantage of the U.S., and will never play fair, he said: “They think that they’ve discovered something new, that Japan and the U.S. are different. That’s the starting point of all scholarship.”
We’re different in language, culture, history, tradition, etcetera, but in fact there are a few common interests. Both border on the Pacific Ocean, and both countries have become prosperous by their effective cooperation in using the Pacific Ocean. [Reischauer] said, “To me, those are much more important than the differences.” I very much believe that as strongly today as I did when he said that, in graduate school 55 years ago.
Q: What are the most important advances in the U.S.-Japan security relationship over your years of involvement?
A: In the mid-70’s — I came to the Defense Department in 1979 — public opinion polls in Japan showed that less than half of the Japanese people really believed that if the Soviet Union bombed Tokyo, we (Americans) wouldn’t do anything unless they went on to Los Angeles. And it was very hard to reverse that.
But in 1973 — and I was still in Japan at the time, actually, working for the American admiral in Yokosuka — the U.S. came up with a plan, which, for budgetary reasons, home-based an aircraft carrier in Yokosuka. We had never, up to that time, and haven’t since that time, ever home-ported an aircraft carrier in any other country, except Japan. And the current one, the Ronald Reagan, it’s the fifth in a row.
That single act changed the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Japan. Even though there was no formal change in the commitment, that presence meant a lot. And I played a small role in that behind the scenes, hooking up a Japanese politician who was close to the prime minister who was for it, and the U.S. Navy. The U.S. State Department was somewhat hesitant about it, thinking the Japanese would never agree. “Why don’t we ask them and find out?” [I said.] And the [Japanese officials] loved it. For exactly that reason, it increased the credibility of the U.S.-Japan Alliance.
There’s one other small point. While he was ambassador, Walter Mondale made a statement that the U.S. had no commitment to defend the Senkaku Islands. And I wrote an op-ed piece in Sankei Shimbun, saying: “The ambassador has been poorly briefed. We don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, but the United States clearly reverted administration of Okinawa and the Senkaku Islands to Japan,” which meant that the Senkaku Islands do come under Article 5 of the Security Treaty. I was the first American to point that out in print.
And very quietly about two months later, Kurt Campbell, who at that time was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, said, actually we do have a commitment over the Senkakus. And at the time the Sankei article appeared, former Ambassador Okawara, said, “That article is very helpful.”
Q: What else has the U.S. done that’s been helpful on these mutual interests?
Well, again, the aircraft carrier is one obvious example. But the main thing is to do two things. One is to make sure that the Japanese understand. Don’t say, we’re doing this to be nice to you; say it to tell the truth.
We’re not doing this to be nice to them. And I like sushi and sashimi and many other things, but the reason the United States has a presence in Japan is not to protect Japanese against the Russians or the Chinese, but it is in the national interest of the United States. And that is what we ought to say in public.
The Gaimusho used to say that the Americans have an obligation to defend Japan, and therefore we sort of have to bribe them. And that’s wrong, too. And they should say that it’s in our interest to keep the Americans here and really stress the win-win nature on both sides.
Q: What role does Japan’s location play?
A: Japan is smaller and militarily weaker, and happens by geographic disadvantage to be in a very, very dangerous location, so Japan needs the [U.S.-Japan Security] treaty more than the U.S. does. But the U.S. need is still very strong.
Does the name Funada Naka mean anything to you? He was a long-time LDP politician, served as METI minister, defense minister, and deputy prime minister. He was a 7th-degree black belt in kendo, and he did kendo for Emperor Hirohito on his honeymoon.
He was very strong on many aspects of the U.S. relationship. At the time, the State Department said the Japanese would never let us keep an aircraft carrier there. I sort of smuggled my American boss to see him, and [Speaker Funada] said: “We hope that the U.S. needs the treaty as much as we do, or at least needs it a lot, but we know that we absolutely need it. So if you need something very, very strongly, don’t waiver and ask our opinion about it. Tell us what your absolute main need is, and don’t change your mind. Never back down.
It was very hard to get the U.S. to do that. [Former Japanese politician who served as Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Kiichi] Miyazawa would always call some lefty in the U.S. and say, “Oh, no no no, just ignore him. It’s just those terrible guys at the Pentagon.”
Q: Looking forward, what would you like Japan to do in the next decade to shore up the security situation in the region?
A: Well, the U.S.-Japan security relationship is very strong. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea is extremely troublesome. Although, except for that, North Korea is a pygmy.
China’s rise, on the other hand, is extremely worrisome. And we in the United States, especially our companies, have allowed that to go on for far, far too long. So I think for the U.S. and Japan to cooperate closer on North Korea, but particularly on China, is extremely important for the security of both countries — and, really, almost for the whole world. Certainly the Pacific.
Q: Is there any issue created by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe trying to cultivate a closer relationship with Xi Jinping, while the United States seems to be going the other direction?
A: Again, this is one man’s opinion, that Abe is more anti-Chinese than Trump. But Abe and Trump both say that they have a good relationship with Xi Jinping. And I don’t think either is true. And Abe, I’m fairly sure, and Trump, I hope, is lying when he says: “We’re really worried about China, but Xi Jinping’s a good guy and I can talk with him.”
He (Trump) says the same thing about [Vladimir] Putin. But Trump’s background is, you know, as a dealmaker in construction — in horrible places, like New York City. And he has to deal with some pretty unsavory characters. So maybe he knows better than we think he knows about dealing with guys like Kim Jong Un, Putin, and Xi Jinping.
Q: What would you like Japan to do to shore up the bilateral relationship?
A: Do what they’re doing and do a little more.
Japan’s still spending less than 1% of gross national product on defense. They could have a tremendous increase in capability if they increased to 2% of GNP, and it wouldn’t break the bank. Like our budgetary situation, their problem is not the defense budget, it’s the social welfare side of the budget that strains both systems.
Q: As an adviser to JAPAN Forward since the beginning, what are your expectations for us?
A: I like the Sankei Shimbun because I think it is the Japanese newspaper that is publicly supportive of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Unfortunately, a lot of non-Japanese speakers don’t have access to it. So I’m very pleased about the fact that Sankei is doing something in English via JAPAN Forward.