By Toshihiro Minohara, professor at the Kobe University graduate school
Tokyo and Washington celebrated the 60th anniversary of the signing of the revised Japan-U.S. Security Treaty on Jan. 19. On that day, a commemorative ceremony was held at the Iikura Guest House of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), with government officials of both countries in attendance. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised the deepening of the bilateral relationship, saying: “Today, more than ever, (the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty) is a pillar that is indestructible, a pillar immovable, safeguarding peace in Asia, the Indo-Pacific, and in the world, while assuring prosperity therein.”
Despite the agony that U.S. President Donald Trump has caused for other world leaders, Abe has surely satisfied his ego and skillfully avoided instability in the bilateral relations by establishing the “Donald-Shinzo relationship,” which is premised on a clear hierarchy.
This is entirely different from what was seen in the early 1970s, when the U.S. prioritized its narrow interests as it is doing now and damaged its relationship with Japan. But will the Japan-U.S. alliance really continue to exist unwaveringly as a bond between the two countries like the prime minister said?
For the next 60 years
It is inconceivable to me that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty will be able to withstand another 60 years as it is. People often say a lot can change in 10 years, and the international political scene surrounding Japan changed drastically in both the 2000s and the 2010s.
In the 2020s, which began with the U.S.’s assassination of Iranian Major General Soleimani, commander of the elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Japan is expected to face many international challenges. This has given rise to three minimum requirements that Japan needs to meet to maintain its security treaty with the U.S. based on the situations in two superpowers — China, which is trying to expand its sphere of influence, and the U.S., which gives top priority to its own interests.
The first requirement is to have the U.S. commit to security in East Asia and always recognize the importance of the bilateral relations no matter who becomes the president. As indicated by the first terms of President Clinton and President Obama, a certain period of adjustment is necessary when a Democratic president is sworn in.
Therefore, even though reports say President Trump is likely to be reelected at present, Japan needs to be prepared to deftly deal with the candidate who is chosen to represent the Democratic Party, which includes left-wingers, and swiftly establish a cooperative relationship with the new administration.
Japan also needs to be more active in promoting public diplomacy within the U.S. to prevent the bilateral relationship from falling victim to the domestic political situation in the U.S. In addition, the U.S.’s confrontational stance toward China and Russia could intensify should a candidate other than President Trump occupy the Oval Office. Japan-U.S. relations will grow unstable unless Tokyo is ready to quickly change its current conciliatory policies toward China and Russia.
The second requirement is to enhance the economic power of Japan, which is believed to have entered a recession phase. The U.S. joins hands with Japan not only because of the shared values and Japan’s geopolitical significance but also because of the benefits Japan offers as a wealthy superpower, including a sizable monetary contribution to cost of hosting the U.S. forces in Japan. But if Japan’s economy shrinks, the advantages for the U.S. in partnering with Japan will also decrease.
Therefore, there is an urgent need for Japan to address the current sharp drop in its population. If the country can’t find definitive measures to put a halt to the declining birthrate, immigration policies that rely on strategic thinking will be the only way for Japan to have a bright future.
As a responsible superpower, constitutional amendment is necessary
The third requirement is to amend the Constitution to allow Japan to actively contribute to the regional security as a responsible superpower. Once the issue of the new type of pneumonia quiets down, China will resume its expansion policy and begin pressuring neighboring countries again. It is unlikely that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty will be able to continue for another 60 years without a constitutional amendment.
In fact, the U.S. has a history of breaching its defense obligations as was the case with the now defunct Korean Empire and South Vietnam.
Amid rapid changes in the world, Japan also needs to be active and change itself in order to properly adapt to the times. Otherwise, the prospect of maintaining the alliance with Japan will become less appealing to the U.S.