One of the key relationships for Japan is with China, a relationship that was frosty while Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister but which has warmed up under Shinzo Abe and now Yasuo Fukuda. Do you think this shift has any impact on Japan-U.S. relations?
I think it's very good for the Japan-U.S. relationship. By the end of the Koizumi regime, I think the Americans were getting a little impatient with the Japanese government's persistent provocation of Beijing. I'm not in the government, I wasn't in the government, and I'm not privy to the kinds of communications that went back and forth. But I can only guess that Japan's open provocation of Beijing was beginning to wear thin.
Washington policymakers see a stable Asia as in the U.S. national interest, and Mr Koizumi was destabilizing it. Mr Abe's rise to power was interesting because in almost every characterization of him in the run up in the media, we were all led to expect that he was going to be something like a Prime Minister Koizumi on steroids vis-a-vis China. But he was anything but. In his first visit was to Beijing he was mending fences. He did that in Seoul as well. He didn't become overly provoked by the North Korean missile or nuclear tests. He told the Chinese what they wanted to hear about visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, and he agreed to efforts to reform the Yushukan museum. He was much more moderate than anyone anticipated, which I think helped U.S.-Japan relations as well.
I think each capital in the Washington-Tokyo-Beijing strategic triangle would like to be at the corner where the distance between them and the two other capitals is closer, while the distance between the other two capitals is somewhat longer. That said, I think it's important to say out loud that a solid, stable, productive Japanese-China relationship is very much in U.S. national interests. I think each leader after Mr Koizumi has been steering a different course that is better for U.S.-Japan relations.
Every alliance has a dynamic in it that varies between getting too close to your alliance partner, which means you get entangled in their conflicts, while if you get too far away you get abandoned because you're not relevant. Everyone tends to focus in the U.S.-Japan case of Japan getting tangled in American conflicts. But the way Japan was heading with China, it looked like America was going to get tangled in Japan's conflict. I'm not talking about war, but about friction. The U.S. didn't want that - it had been busy fixing its relationship with China.
There has been tension in Sino-Japanese relations over so-called history issues, such as the facts revolving around Nanjing, and now more recently the downplaying by some politicians of the Comfort Women issue. How damaging are these issues to Japan's relationship with the U.S. and will they do any lasting damage to Japan's image?
They are certainly hurtful for Japan's image in the United States. When you get overwhelming support for Representative Honda's resolution on the comfort women for example, clearly there is damage being done to Japan's image in the United States.
That said, Japan's image in the United States is quite positive. Remember that the late 1970s and 1980s was a very difficult time in U.S. Japan relations. There was nothing but friction. The representation of Japan in the American media was often quite negative - they were seen as predatory, avaricious. But today we've never been closer. So these historical issues sort of linger out there alone. It's not part of a package. That is probably a good thing for U.S.-Japan relations, but if they were to go away completely, that would be even better.
On the issue of Japan-U.S. security ties. There has recently been some controversy over the leak of confidential data on the Japanese side about the Aegis missile defense system. How damaging was this incident, and could this have played any part in the U.S. decision to refuse to sell F-22 fighters to Japan?
I think the data leak was a real problem, but only within that group of alliance managers who worry about this stuff. It's not at the level where it is in the popular understanding of the relationship. Did it affect the F-22 overture? I think not, in the sense that the F-22 legislation was written specifically to exclude the transfer of the plane to alliance partners. So I guess you have to stand back and say well, did it affect, did it hurt or kill the prospect, that efforts would be made to change the legislation? I guess here the answer is maybe. But I don't think there is a lot of enthusiasm in Washington for transferring defense technology, even to Japan. It used to be certainly to Japan, but now I think it's even to Japan, because I think the relationship with Japan has gotten better.
The Japanese have responded in an interesting way, by announcing they are going forward with a new stealth fighter, and they have a mock up in a French warehouse somewhere that they put on television. But I don't think anyone in Washington is losing any sleep about it. I don't think anyone believes that Japan is really going to pursue that. It's too expensive. Japanese technology, without regard for the PR, is not there yet on aerospace. Look at the F-2, which was a disaster technologically. And I think many in Washington feel that Japan may have options in purchasing planes from other manufacturers, but it really doesn't have the indiginization option that it would like, so we'll see where this goes. But there are, as I say, US legal constraints that go beyond the political.
Recently the U.S. has struck a more conciliatory approach with North Korea as it tries to get it to dismantle its nuclear program. The Japanese, certainly under Abe, made clear they also wanted progress on the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents. Does Washington's softer line risk causing tension between the U.S. an Japan?
It could, but I don't think it will, or at least not in a direct sense. Let me divide the answer in two. In the direct sense, no. In the larger sense perhaps. The direct sense is that the abduction issue is not about national security - it is entirely about domestic politics, and to the extent that the [ruling] Liberal Democratic Party needs to use the issue as it did in November 2003 to win elections, and to the extent that the United States is standing shoulder to shoulder with the Japanese to fight the abductee issue, then it is very important.
But I'm not sure the abduction issue is as salient for the Japanese voters as it has been. I could be wrong, but I don't think it is. Notice that Mr Fukuda was not an abductee fighter. Mr Abe was, and Mr Abe and his group are out of power. So I think directly, it is not the issue it once was. Indirectly, and from a strategic context, we have the issue of credibility of the alliance partner. The United States says it is an ally of Japan, but it then goes and cuts a deal. That is a problem that is larger than the abductee issue, and it speaks to the credibility of the alliance overall.
I frankly think that Japanese foreign policy experts understand how important the WMD issue is for the United States and that they understand also that in international security terms, there is no comparison between the WMD issue and the abductee issue. So they understand what the United States is doing and why it has done what it has done. They most likely would have done it themselves. You remember when the reverse occurred back in 2002, when the United States said there was a WMD issue and the Japanese went and arranged the Pyongyang meeting between Koizumi and Mr. Kim. So it cuts both ways.
Japan in recent years has been moving toward taking on a greater security burden, but is obviously constrained by its peace Constitution. Can Japan go on reinterpreting its Constitution for activities such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or will it eventually be forced to rewrite it completely?
I think there are three levels, two of which you have identified - reinterpreting the constitution or rewriting it. But reinterpretation has to be divided into two pieces - there is de facto interpretation and de jure. De jure reinterpretation requires the Cabinet Legislation Bureau to announce a new formal interpretation of the Constitution that allows for collective self defense.
But short of that is where we are now - de facto reinterpretation. Japan is engaged in collective self defense on a number of fronts. It doesn't get acknowledged in polite company. But it needs to be acknowledged that putting boots on the ground, putting uniformed officers on the ground, in a war zone - they can say it's not a war zone, but they are flying a shuttle between Kuwait City and Baghdad, transporting soldiers, fueling American and British ships and warplanes to fight in Afghanistan - this is all stuff that had been ruled out under existing interpretations. But it is under way.
At a certain point it becomes difficult, you're right. That would be when U.S. and Japanese forces are actually doing joint operations, integrated under a single command. The way the U.S. works with the South Koreans for example, would require more than just looking the other way. But there's a lot that Japan and the U.S. will do short of that, which does not require either a new reinterpretation of the constitution, or a new constitution.
Recently there has been some controversy over the dispatch of Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force to the Indian Ocean for refueling operations in support of U.S.-led anti terrorism efforts. With the force being called back after the ruling party lost control of the upper House, and now being redeployed after a bill was pushed through the lower house, how do this make Japan look internationally?
It makes Japan look normal. The British have reduced, the Italians and the Germans have backed off. When they had an election in Spain it led to the withdrawal from the coalition in Iraq. U.S. alliance partners in these two wars have come and and they've gone. There's not a lot of international support for these operations, and in the case of Iraq there shouldn't be - the United States shouldn't be there. It was ill-advised from the beginning and other countries, realizing that, have been backing away. I think this makes a fair amount of sense.
Afghanistan is a different story, but there too we've seen ebbs and flows. We're seeing shifts all the time, and I think the Japanese shifted, and they've shifted back. I think what Mr Fukuda has done was, from the point of view of maintaining the alliance, an important thing. But I don't think this would have ended the alliance by a long shot, because so many other alliance partners have done the same thing.
Kenneth Pyle recently wrote a book called 'Japan Rising.' Do you think Japan is ready to play a bigger role on the international stage?
Yes. Japan is punching below its weight in international affairs. It chose to punch below its weight in international affairs for a very long time. I think it made sense to do what it did, to be basically a cheap rider on the United States, with American security guarantees. It was sensible while it was rebuilding. But when it got to a certain point as it did in the 1970s and 1980s, it was clear that there was much more Japan could, and for many should, do to contribute toward global peace and security. The Japanese after the 1991 Gulf War came to understand that, that they couldn't just write a check. They felt humiliated by it, you've heard the term many times 'the humiliation of checkbook diplomacy.'
I think Japan is ready, I think it's able. And in the context of strategic changes in the power balance in Asia, I think Japan really has to, otherwise its contributions will be washed away. You look at peacekeeping operations - the Chinese do significantly more peacekeeping under UN auspices than the Japanese, and get a lot of credit for that in world councils. Talk about responsible stakeholders, The Chinese look like very responsible stakeholders.
The Japanese have a lot of room for catching up, and there's lots of room for Japan to move and act and contribute.
Richard J. Samuels is Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies at MIT. He is also the Founding Director of the MIT Japan Program and author of the new book 'Securing Japan.'
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