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‘Unsinkable’ US-Japan ties about to be tested

‘Unsinkable’ US-Japan ties about to be tested
U.S. President Barack Obama attends a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Akasaka guesthouse in Tokyo. Photo: Reuters

‘Unsinkable’ US-Japan ties about to be tested

If the Americans and Japanese went for that kind of thing, they might describe themselves as being as close as lips and teeth. In actual fact, that is how China and North Korea have traditionally categorised their relationship. Washington and Tokyo prefer to talk soberly about their “shared values” as fellow democracies and market economies. However, despite the lack of colourful language, theirs has been one of the closest and most enduring of post-war relationships. They stand shoulder to shoulder on most issues, from terrorism to intellectual property.

That closeness, forged in the ashes of World War II, goes beyond the ideological. In tangible ways, the two lean on each other heavily. The United States regards Japan as its representative in Asia. It depends on Japan to help fund its debt: Tokyo, not Beijing, is the biggest holder of US Treasuries, if only just. Japan has supported Washington’s military interventions, with cash and, increasingly, with logistical support. Tokyo relies on the US nuclear umbrella and on the protection afforded by 35,000 US troops stationed on its territory. In a candid description of the relationship, Mr Yasuhiro Nakasone, Prime Minister in the mid-1980s, referred to Japan as Washington’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the Pacific.

DEALING WITH THE CHINESE THREAT

Next week, Mr Shinzo Abe, perhaps Japan’s strongest leader since Mr Nakasone, will celebrate 70 years of that relationship with a rare speech to a joint session of the US Congress. He will stress Japan’s concerted effort to revive its economy. He will urge Congress to give Mr Barack Obama, the US President, the fast-track authority he needs to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He will express some contrition for the war, though perhaps not enough for the taste of some in Congress. He will paint a future in which Japan, released from post-war constitutional handcuffs, can play a more active role in helping the US to keep the world a safe and lawful place. He is unlikely to mention China. But everyone will know what he means.

Mr Abe will mostly be warmly received. Washington hopes Abenomics will work and is prepared to tolerate a little “Abenesia” — the downplaying of Japan’s war record — if that is the price of a strong leader. Indeed, many in Washington regard Mr Abe as the best Japanese Prime Minister in a generation.

In some ways, all this should be taken at face value. The relationship is remarkable, given the bitterness with which the two countries fought 70 years ago. However, in other ways, it is built on flimsier foundations than either side lets on. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows attitudes in the two countries are far apart on some issues.

True, both place a great deal of trust in each other, and both distrust China, with 30 per cent of Americans and only 7 per cent of Japanese expressing confidence in Beijing. But there are big differences. Only 14 per cent of Japanese think the use of atomic bombs on Japan was justified against 56 per cent of Americans. Hopes that, in this historic year, Mr Abe might visit Pearl Harbor and Mr Obama Hiroshima came to naught, since the two sides cannot fully agree on what either event means.

Despite the memories of war, 47 per cent of Americans say Japan should play a more active military role in regional affairs. In what will be a disappointing result for Mr Abe, who wants to make Japan a “normal” country, only 23 per cent of Japanese are comfortable with the idea of Tokyo beefing up its military diplomacy.

Beyond the Pew poll, there are other frictions. The Japanese right, though a firm supporter of the US alliance, resents a post-war settlement that casts Japan as uniquely villainous and that treats it as a “client state”.

One can exaggerate such differences. For the most part, Tokyo is a loyal friend of the US. Only occasionally, such as with the 15-year haggling over the relocation of the Futenma air base, do they fail to reach agreement. If anything, the rise of China is pushing the two closer together. Mr Abe’s efforts to shore up the military and to join the TPP are a direct response to a perceived Chinese threat.

Still, China’s emergence could also be divisive. If Japan feels that the US is not defending its interests, say over islands disputed with China, resentment could build. In spite of assurances from the US President, some in Tokyo doubt that Washington has Japan’s back. When the time is right, Beijing may well try to drive a wedge between the two. Only then will it become clear whether the US-Japan relationship can last another 70 years.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Pilling is The Financial Times’ Asia Editor.