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UPDATED: July 28, 2015 NO.25 JUNE 18, 2015
Who Is America's Closest Ally?
Whether U.S.-Japan defense cooperation benefits them is questionable
By An Gang  

U.S. President Barack Obama and visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet the press at the White House on April 28 (XINHUA)

Undoubtedly, the hegemony of the United States in global affairs cannot be supported without a strong pillar--the U.S.-led alliances that have held control of crucial areas worldwide since the end of World War II (WWII).

Today, the United States maintains military alliance with as many as 60 countries, including the mighty NATO military bloc in Europe, Israel and a string of Gulf countries in the Middle East, Japan and South Korea in East Asia, and Australia in the South Pacific.

It may be interesting to ask, who is the closest partner of the United States today? With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paying an official visit to Washington earlier this year, the answer may be more obvious than one might think.

During his visit from April 26 to May 3, Abe received the warmest possible welcome from his hosts. More importantly, Japan's relations with the United States were lifted to a new height by renewing their defense cooperation agreement. U.S. President Barack Obama addressed Japan as "one of America's closest allies in the world," when he met with Abe at the White House on April 28.

The clout that the United States enjoys in global affairs has been on the decline since Obama's presidential inauguration in 2009. Correspondingly, the Obama administration has made a number of adjustments to its global strategy and its network of alliances, with a focus being put on boosting U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Meanwhile, the superpower and its close friends in Europe and the Middle East have shown different policy priorities on a variety of issues.

For example, a rift between the United States and Israel is growing owing to their disagreements on an Iranian nuclear deal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel maintains a certain amount of room to maneuver and she did not follow the White House's hardline trade embargo policy toward Russia as Obama did during the Ukrainian crisis. Spying scandals revealed by former U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden has also harmed trust between the United States and its European partners.

Even Britain, typically the most intimate of the United States' allies, has been criticized by its bosom buddy for joining the China-proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in March. Britain was the first Western country to apply for the founding membership of the AIIB, which caused a chain reaction of other major European countries, such as France, Germany and Italy, joining. Previously, the United States reportedly had lobbied its allies to boycott China's proposal to establish the AIIB, as Washington regarded it as a potent challenger to U.S.-led institutions such as the World Bank. In fact, Britain's decision reflects a consensus among a majority of Western countries in dealing with the United States and China. Most continue to maintain allied relations with the United States, but they are not willing to miss any opportunities to engage in the lucrative and potential-heavy Chinese market either.

As a result, only Japan has taken a negative attitude toward the AIIB, which has been used as an evidence by Abe to illustrate that Japan is the closest ally of the United States.

Closer than ever

During Abe's recent U.S. visit, both countries confirmed that the U.S.-Japan military alliance has been upgraded from regional- to global-level through the signing of the new Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation.

In March, the two sides had reached consensus on renewing bilateral defense cooperation at the Security Consultative Committee (2+2) meeting attended by top U.S. and Japanese diplomatic and defense officials.

It has been 18 years since the last amendment of the defense guidelines. The U.S.-Japan alliance was established as early as 1951 and primarily targeted the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1960, the first revision of the defense cooperation guidelines specified the United States' obligation to protect Japan. The two countries made a second revision to the guidelines in 1997 and allowed the Japan Self-Defense Forces to play rear-area support roles in U.S. military operations in the event of a conflict in areas surrounding Japan. It marked the transformation of the nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance from defense to regional intervention.

The new guidelines establish a framework for global military cooperation between the United States and Japan. "It's an historic transition in the defense relationship between our countries," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a press conference after signing the new guidelines on April 27.

Obviously, both the United States and Japan have taken what they respectively need from their enhanced alliance. At present, the Obama administration is implementing its strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region. But the United States is unable to fulfill its mission alone. It needs support from regional countries. For this reason, the Obama administration is trying to build security cooperation networks in the Asia-Pacific region with South Korea, South East Asian countries, Australia and India.

For a long time, the U.S.-Japan alliance has been a cornerstone of the U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. In 2011, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the Obama administration's ambition to build the 21st Century as "America's Pacific Century." Under the scenario, Japan's position in U.S. Asian partnerships would predictably be lifted to a new level.

Japan's Abe administration pursues so-called "active pacifism" in order to bring back "a strong Japan" and change Japan into an "ordinary state" with full military independence. By making use of the ruling status of his Liberal Democratic Party and the right-tilting of Japanese society, Abe has attempted to modify Japan's post-war constitution, which restricts the country's military development, and to remold Japan's development pattern and foreign policy. Abe has his own aims in strengthening the alliance with the United States, including challenging China on territorial disputes and regional affairs with the help of the United States.

Differencing ambitions

An enhanced U.S.-Japan military alliance, however, is by no means bound to bring them into an inseparable relationship. The two sides have an increasing number of differences on many issues.

For example, the Obama administration agrees with Japan's abolishment of the ban on its right to exercise collective self-defense. But the United States has expressed concerns over Abe's attempts to deny Japanese atrocities during WWII. Abe's 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors war criminals, has also disappointed the U.S. side. The Obama administration has repeatedly demanded that Abe cautiously handle historical issues and ease tensions with neighboring countries such as China and South Korea.

During his visit to Japan on April 8, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that he welcomed Japan to take part in air patrols over the South China Sea. But Japan did not respond positively to the advice, because the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces are not capable of maintaining intensive surveillance in both the waters of the East and South China seas. Moreover, Japan fears that its involvement in the South China Sea disputes between China and other Asian countries will lead to further tensions with its East Asian neighbor.

There is also a deep chasm in economic and trade relations between the United States and Japan. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral free trade agreement is a cornerstone of U.S. trade policy and the Obama administration's Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy. The TPP negotiations should be completed before this summer as planned. Bilateral talks between the United States and Japan are a critical part of the TPP negotiations. But the two sides have not reached consensus on some key issues such as Japan's import quota for U.S. rice and U.S. tariffs on Japanese auto parts. During his visit to the United States this year, Abe did not offer any compromise on these issues. He appeared to be more interested in signing a Japan-U.S. Economic Partnership Agreement, which could be considered a crowning achievement for the prime minister during his tenure.

Abe boasts that Japan is the closest U.S. ally, primarily for protecting Japan's security and rivaling with China. But such relations won't last long.

U.S. foreign policy always puts its own interests first, while being guided by political realism. Enhancing its alliance with Japan won't prevail over the needs of the United States to maintain stable relations with China. In U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific region, China and Japan are two equally important focuses. U.S.-Japan relations ultimately depend on the development of China-U.S. ties. As China becomes the second largest economy in the world, the China-U.S. relations are increasingly of global significance. In this light, Japan's role appears less important.

Some say that the two countries may never truly reach common ground, owing to unbridgeable gaps in language and culture.

What Washington should think about is whether or not the traditional way of protecting U.S. global interests through alliances will continue to work under the circumstances of China's development bringing big changes to the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S.-led military alliance put the interests of certain countries ahead of those of the international community, an approach which by its very nature will fail to win over all countries.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review

Copyedited by Kieran Pringle

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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