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The art of the Japan handlers: the Armitage-Nye report

By Hiroki Sugita, Kyodo News


The recently issued Armitage-Nye report encourages Japan to join nations such as the U.S., U.K. and Canada in “Five-Eyes” intelligence-sharing framework. The Armitage report is a Japan policy report compiled by Americans who have accumulated deep professional knowledge of Japan. This is the fifth such report.


The report’s authors, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye et al., are called “Japan handlers.” They are often criticized for wielding great influence over a number of people and organizations across military, business, and political sectors with a stake in the Japan-U.S. security treaty. Criticisms aside, their words carry weight.


When the first Armitage-Nye report appeared 20 years ago, I had a chance to talk with its authors in Washington, D.C. I felt a certain discomfort at their proposal for Japan to allow the exercise of the “right to collective self-defense,” as it stuck me as a blatant example of “external pressure.” Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s cabinet approved that idea some 14 year later, however, and I must admit that I’m now impressed with the power of insight that comes from the Japan handlers’ long-term vision.


The reports are issued at intervals of several years. They have included in the past proposals for Japan to enact contingency legislation and to abolish the three principles banning arms exports. Both those proposals were later adopted.


There are factors that explain why their proposals become a reality: the Japan handlers have long dealt with Japan in security treaty matters and acquired a deep understanding of what is needed to strengthen the alliance. They know how Japan’s defense authorities think. They also know what Japan needs to do in a possible crisis situation such as further aggression of China in the Senkakus (Okinawa), a contingency in Taiwan, or an accidental military clash with North Korea.


As they have a deep understanding of Japanese politics, the handlers don’t make unreasonable demands. With regard to Constitutional reform, for example, Armitage says that “it will takes time and require political maneuvering. There are more urgent issues Japan should deal with.” They know well that the Japanese people wouldn’t accept the revision easily.


Faced with threats from China, the Japanese people have a favorable opinion of the U.S. in general. This means the Japanese government will likely accept reasonable proposals. There is a cool-headed calculation that Japan has to follow the U.S. lead as long as the U.S. shows Japan easy steps for it to follow.


Suggesting Japan join the Five Eyes network is also a skillful move. It is clear that the suggestion was made with China in mind, and that as Japan won’t risk antagonizing China in the military arena, the handlers concluded that Japan would be open to intelligence sharing.


The report doesn’t ask Japan to provide military support for Taiwan, either. Though tensions around the island are rising, the handlers only gently urge Japan to join in increased coordination with its ally in their political and economic engagement with Taiwan. “Let’s boost Taiwan together” is what it really means.


As for denuclearization of North Korea, the report says “this is unrealistic in the near term,” and proposes instead to focus on containing the country by strengthening deterrence and defense. This is a bitter admission that the international community has to accept the prospect of long-term coexistence with the North instead of its denuclearization.


“The Japan handlers lost influence during the Trump administration where unpredictability reigned,” says a U.S.-based Japanese diplomat. However, the inauguration of Joe Biden, who is well versed in diplomacy and seen as their peer, may restore them to center stage. The report will gain extra clout as the new administration takes over.  


Will the revival of “external pressure” lead Japan to take another step? Prime Minister Suga, who has never before been fully engaged in diplomacy or security, will have to strengthen the anti-China alliance with the U.S. while being careful not to provoke Chinese retaliation. That is an extremely challenging agenda.

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