US-Japan: an easy marriage becomes a ménage à trois

Philip Stephens – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
Tokyo these days is full of Americans with furrowed brows. US pre-eminence in Asia is being challenged by the rise of China. Barack Obama’s administration is searching for a grand strategy to safeguard its place as the region’s pivotal power. Now, Japan is challenging the terms of its long-standing security alliance with Washington.
The proximate cause of the angst is an argument about the relocation of one of the US military bases on the island of Okinawa. Behind the spat, however, is an emerging divergence of perspective. Bluntly put, the new generation of politicians that has swept to power in Japan is unwilling to accept the subservient role allotted to them by Washington.
The election victory in September of Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan marked a revolution in Japanese politics after half-a-century of virtually uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. The US has struggled to grasp the significance of the transfer of power from its faithful allies in the LDP to a party of political insurgents.
The military base dispute has become a lightning rod for differences about how to respond to a changing geopolitical landscape. The strategic challenge shared by Washington and Tokyo is how to engage a rising China while balancing its regional ambitions. The difficult question is how.
The US-Japan relationship has thus far been defined by US occupation, the imperative of cold-war unity, and, until recently, by unchallenged US hegemony in Asia. But the world has moved on. China has entered the bedroom, turning a comfortable marriage into an awkward ménage à trois.
No one is talking about tearing up the 50-year-old security agreement between Washington and Tokyo. The US military presence and nuclear guarantee offer Japan security against the immediate threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea and reassurance against China’s military modernisation. The alliance simultaneously provides reassurance to Beijing about Japanese intentions and the US with a big military “footprint” in East Asia.
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