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Commentary: Time for innovation in the U.S.-Japan alliance



Last month, the U.S. Navy deployed a strike force that included the aircraft carriers Nimitz and Ronald Reagan to the South China Sea for exercises. In an official statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.”


This past March, the rapidly spreading coronavirus reached the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, ultimately infecting more than 1,000 of the 4,800 personnel on board. The Theodore Roosevelt was forced to dock in Guam for almost two months (while the crew remained in quarantine), opening up a power vacuum across the East and South China Seas. China seized upon this opportunity to dramatically increase its strategic maneuvering in the regions. In April, China unilaterally announced the establishment of new administrative structures in the vast South China Sea. In June, Chinese military aircraft deliberately breached Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on four consecutive days. China also dispatched the aircraft carrier Liaoning to the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile, July 23 marked the 100th day of consecutive incursions by Chinese government vessels into the waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands.


The U.S. recognizes the need to counter China’s moves, and is starting to signal that it will not sit back and allow such offensive actions to continue unchallenged.


During the Obama administration, American and Japanese assessments of the risks posed by China’s maritime strategy did not always align. Japan struggled with the contested sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands while the U.S. pursued a new policy of engagement with China on a number of global issues, including climate change. In particular, when the Obama administration looked on as China unilaterally occupied the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal, Japanese government officials saw the specter of an even more frightening scenario: the invasion and de facto takeover of the Senkaku Islands by China.


The Obama administration gradually became more vigilant with regard to China and worked to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance. Indeed, President Obama confirmed that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty extended to the defense of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands; yet this was not enough to quell anxiety on the Japanese side.


Since then, geopolitical conditions surrounding the U.S.-Japan alliance have only intensified. Three specific challenges have emerged: the rapid advancement of North Korea’s missile capacity and a corresponding weakening in deterrent forces (including the greater deterrence conferred by the alliance); America’s diminishing dominance over the Asia Pacific; and a dwindling faith in the U.S. commitment to defending the Senkaku Islands. What if the U.S. decides that, in the end, it would only seek to contain North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental U.S.? Has China already been allowed to expand its sphere of influence in the South China Sea to such an extent that its forces can now act with impunity? And when it comes to defending the Senkaku Islands, would the U.S. simply abandon its commitment? Japan is beginning to contemplate such existential risks.


We must assume that China’s offensive maneuvering will continue for some time. In response, the U.S. and Japan have no choice but to work on reaffirming and strengthening their alliance. This is because cooperation between the two allies is essential to maintaining the region’s balance of power and a strong deterrence against China. If the U.S. loses the fight against the coronavirus and suffers further political fragmentation as a consequence, however, we cannot expect American leadership or even involvement in rebuilding the alliance and international order.


Seventy-five years have passed since the end of World War II. While the so-called “long peace” has nevertheless witnessed a number of wars and other tragedies, we have managed to avoid another global conflict. The foundation of this long peace has been the establishment of a rule-based, multilateral, open and liberal-minded international order that has been supported by a series of U.S.-led alliances. Between 1948 and 1955 — under the administrations of Democrat Harry S. Truman and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower — the U.S. concluded treaty-based alliances with 23 different countries. In order to give legitimacy to these alliances, the treaties were tied to Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which recognizes the right to collective self-defense.


Yet this equally served to legitimize the international legal system, which was in fact nothing more than a paper pledge in the form of the U.N. Charter.


In the case of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the preamble first states that the two countries: “Recogniz(e) that they have the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense as affirmed in the Charter of the United Nations.” [Article 1] reads: “The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.” Furthermore, “the Parties will endeavor in concert with other peace-loving countries to strengthen the United Nations so that its mission of maintaining international peace and security may be discharged more effectively.”


The “long peace” of the postwar period was the product of [precisely] this kind of innovation in governance, which allowed for a mutual resonance between alliances and the international order.


Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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