Amid news and pundit references about an alleged ‘tilt’ in American foreign policy toward Asia and the Pacific, it is useful to take a closer look at the badly under-reported story of Washington’s relations with what is habitually referred to as its number one ally in the Pacific. That focus furthermore sharpens the contours of the Sino-Japanese dispute over islands in the East China Sea.
The label ‘ally’ is a misnomer. No Japanese government ever had a choice. Two further conditions before a bilateral relationships can be called an alliance are also absent: shared long-term objectives and consultation about how to achieve them. The same can be said, to at least some extent, with the post-Cold-War NATO alliance. But the US-Japan relationship represents an extreme case. In fact, since nothing quite like it has ever existed, we do not have commonly understood terminology ready to describe that relationship.
Japan is not a colony, although a growing number of its exasperated thinkers like to use that term, and it is only very partially occupied territory. ‘Protectorate’ serves to some extent, except that Washington does not have the kind of leverage over Japanese domestic arrangements normally associated with that status. Remember also that not so long ago influential American voices feared Japanese economic power defeating that of their own. Japan shares a vassalage status, dating from the Cold War, with the European NATO countries, but there is something deeper, more elusive, and more desperate about its relationship with the United States. Japan’s domestic governing structure lacks something that has forced it to rely on the United States in all its major dealings with the international world and, judging by how they sabotaged a recent Japanese initiative to repair that anomaly, the Japan handlers in Washington would very much like to keep it that way. What fits squarely with the protectorate designation is that for global aims Washington takes Japan for granted as a political possession.
Two mutually reinforcing facts about this extraordinary and geopolitically vital relationship must be kept in mind.
Japan lacks a center of political accountability, a core to the state, a coordinating pinnacle to its power pyramid. It does not have a functioning government equipped to deal with unanticipated crises created by external factors, or capable of wisely deciding on strategy as an independent entity. Washington obviously cannot be blamed for this defect; it was already a problem when in December 1941 the Japanese navy bombed Pearl Harbor. As the war it thereby initiated forced it to fight against an industrial base roughly ten times bigger than its own, this was not a move made by a thinking central government. But Washington is guilty, ever since its official occupiers left the country in September 1951, of seducing as well as intimidating Japan’s administrators into accepting a role that has fatally hindered repair of this basic defect.
Secondly, the United States does not for practical purposes recognize Japanese sovereignty, which of course makes true diplomacy between the two countries impossible. (In bilateral conflicts that reach the light of day, we see Washington pushing and pushing, until Japan’s bureaucracy gives in). The United States, as has recently been widely noticed, has had a difficulty of accepting the principle of sovereignty in general, and under George W. Bush as well as Barack Obama, has done away with respecting it even in theory. But Japan must be the most striking example, outside American battlegrounds, where this fact is openly displayed.
Tokyo had long been encouraged by sundry countries to adopt a more prominent ‘international profile’, but when in 2009 the first effective opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), prepared to do precisely that as it ended half a century of virtual one-party government by the LDP, Washington lost little time in arranging the downfall of its first cabinet. It did so by turning a misconceived project of Donald Rumsfeld for a new base for the US Marines on Okinawa into a test case.
This base project is not feasible since it would almost certainly lead to an uprising on the islands in the far south. Okinawa (comprising only 0.6% of the national territory) bears a burden of three quarters of all US military bases in Japan. Four years earlier Washington had pushed the new plans down the throat of the LDP, which subsequently did nothing until agreeing on it again when in February 2009 Hillary Clinton arrived in Tokyo on her first mission as Obama’s Secretary of State. The LDP did so against a background of solid expectations that it would lose elections to be held in August, and Clinton delivered the message that a change of government could not possibly mean a change of policy.
Once in power it was perfectly understandable that the first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, would seek a way to re-negotiate the unrealistic US Marines base deal. He also talked about his desire for ‘more equal relations’ with the US, and advertised his interest in an old idea of a regional grouping ASEAN + 3 (China, Korea and Japan), plus hopes of working for better relations with neighbours in general. The power broker and political genius Ichiro Ozawa – whom the judicial bureaucracy had managed to force out of the presidency of the DPJ through a trumped-up scandal about a funds transfer – filled two Jumbo jets with writers, artists and parliamentarians in a symbolic mission to encourage ‘party-to-party’ and ‘people-to-people’ relations with China.
It did not take long for a shock wave to hit Washington after Hatoyama showed that, unlike his LDP predecessors, he would try to be a genuine prime minister and work to establish a cabinet centered government. Some reporters with sources among American officials (there are hardly any American regular correspondents left in Tokyo) wrote that Washington’s specialists were always worried about China when looking at Asia, but for the first time had begun to be worried about Japan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates came to Japan shortly after the 2009 elections to rub it in some more that Washington would not accept independent Japanese action, nothing that deviated from how the LDP had done things. To underline that point he snubbed his counterpart by declining the invitation to the banquet that is routine for such occasions.
Obama and Clinton failed to acknowledge what both Hatoyama and Ozawa sought to accomplish: to sit down with the American top, jointly to regard the changed world around them, to discuss the growing power of China along with other East Asian regional matters, and the variety of new ways that the United States and Japan could perhaps explore to cope with new problems; in other words, to do what is considered quite normal as part of an actual alliance.
The new prime minister attempted three or four times to arrange for a face-to-face meeting with Obama. He was rebuffed, not through standard diplomatic channels, but implicitly and publicly by a spokesperson in Washington stating that the Japanese prime minister should not try to solve his coalition problems by wasting the president’s time. Obama had been told by advisers, as revealed by leaked information, to not give the new Japanese prime minister more than ten minutes of his time should he run into him when some international gathering made that likely.
The new American president had, until the summer of his first year in office, given Tokyo the impression that he took America’s relations with the rest of the world seriously, and would not go about international affairs in as bullying a fashion as his predecessor George W. Bush had done. Moreover, considering that one of the most famous former US Ambassadors to Tokyo, Mike Mansfield, used every opportunity that presented itself to repeat that the bilateral relationship was the world’s “most important relationship, bar none”, Hatoyama had no reason to think his wish for a meeting to be unreasonable. But to deepen the insult, Hillary Clinton ordered Japan’s Washington ambassador to her office for telling him that Hatoyama had lied after he, having been seated next to her at the banquet accompanying the environmental conference in Copenhagen, had answered the waiting Japanese media with the usual cliches about a ‘productive’ conversation.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, to find more undiplomatic and harsher treatment of a Washington enemy, leave alone putative ally.
In its attempt to ensure the survival of the dependency relationship, Washington received ample assistance from Japanese agents that have made it a central concern to block significant disturbance of existing power relations at home. Japan’s career officials, who normally determine policy without bothersome interference from elected politicians, do not believe that a truly independent Japan, with a true political center, can be to their advantage, which is why they have marginalized the single biggest threat to the status quo in the form of Ichiro Ozawa with an effective character assassination campaign and frivolous prosecution. The America handlers among officials or former officials and LDP veterans doing the rounds among their acqaintances in Washington, were telling those Americans not to take the Hatoyama government all that seriously. This proved effective enough to make the Washington Post refer to Hatoyama as a ‘loopy’ prime minister. Prominent Japan scholars in the US, used to a rather different Japan, and hardly aware of what reformist politicians had been thinking, added further arguments to the do-not-take-them-seriously disparagement. The big Japanese newspapers, which did not know what to make of a prime minister seeking affirmation of Japan’s sovereignty, picked up on this and began referring to a Hatoyama who was endangering or ‘fraying’ relations with the United States, which is the shorthand version still carried through till today.
That the Obama administration was trying to overthrow the first DPJ cabinet was by December 2009 clear enough to me to write about it in Japan. It was altogether predictable, and the American officials knew that they could leave it to Japanese players – advisers enamored of the status quo, editors of the mainstream media who are obsessed with maintaining order, the LDP in opposition – to do it for them. Hatoyama, still hoping for a perfectly justified face-to-face meeting with the president of Japan’s supposedly most important ally, was misled by his America handlers and made the mistake of binding himself under great pressure, and under the impression that a compromise with Washington was being prepared, to an unnecessary deadline of May 2010 for the Okinawa plans. He has told me that he considers this the biggest mistake of his political life.
The downfall of the first DPJ cabinet had a demoralizing effect on this reformist party. The prospects for realizing policies listed in the manifesto with which it had secured a great election victory dimmed significantly. All DPJ plans for positive engagement with the countries on the Asian continent went straight out of the window when Hatoyama resigned to make place for Naoto Kan, who had never nursed reformist plans for foreign relations. The intra-party dividing lines were made deeper and more obvious through a new phase in the witchhunt against Ozawa. Kan reverted to servility mode in the face of emissaries from Washington, and recently Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has done him one better. Their grovelling – a more apt term is difficult to find – is presumably prompted by fear that what happened to Hatoyama may happen to them. Neither appear to have a clear idea what it means to be prime minister of a sovereign state. Hence both Kan and Noda took their cues from their LDP predecessors in pledging to do the impossible and solve the US Marines base problem on Okinawa.
The story of the rise and impending probable disintegration of the DPJ was the story of a failed attempt to establish political control over a bureaucracy that is essentially guided by autopilot.
In an ironical twist of fate, Japan’s new leaders, in the process of establishing political control over a theretofore politically almost impervious bureaucracy, were in 2009 confronted with an American bureaucratic clique that lives a life of its own and was seemingly oblivious to regional developments in which Japan was bound to become less passive and politically isolated. The Japan handlers under Hillary Clinton are almost all ‘alumni’ from the Pentagon, and an earlier generation of State Department diplomats with Japan experience appeared to have been squeezed out of the picture completely. The main link for protectorate management between the American Treasury and Tokyo’s Ministry of Finance that succeeded them has also been replaced.
Among several consequences of Japanese political subservience is that its underdeveloped foreign policy, relying on American proxy, has not formulated diplomatically feasible approaches with respect to any of the three conflicts over islands with its Chinese, Russian and Korean neighbours. We are seeing this again with the latest, potentially most alarming, episode of the conflict with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Whatever the merits of claims on either side, the sensible onlooker can only conclude that its key aspect must be a general dearth of diplomacy. The two countries appear to have no mechanism of solving delicate issues through informal or personal channels. But the deeper truth to diplomatic failure is found in Japan’s relationship with the elephant in the halls of global politics. Why should the Chinese sit down with Japan to discuss anything relating to the geopolitical scene, when they know tacitly that power lies elsewhere?
The emptiness where a meaningful and independent Japanese foreign policy with considered ramifications ought to be, leaves much space for opportunistic mischief by a populist rabble-rouser like the governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara, or rightwing groups who have no inkling of the meaning of sovereignty.
There is more coming. Tokyo is under heavy pressure from Washington to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is being sold as a free-trade type economic agreement, but is in fact full of political purposes, among which incipient encirclement arrangements against the two giants of the Asian continent. Quite helpful as a signpost for our thinking on these matters, the new US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta explained in Beijing on September 19th, that “our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China”.
Once the history of America’s foreign policy under Obama’s presidency is written, the story of the overthrown Hatoyama cabinet will not be foremost in the minds of the chroniclers, since American media have ignored it altogether, but it does reflect in shrill contours the absence of any desire for constructive new beginnings. American diplomacy all around the world has gradually slipped out of the hands of what used to be diplomatic and foreign policy professionals and into the top levels of the six military ‘commands’ that have been constructed on all continents.
As with the Japanese bureaucracy guarding the status quo in relations with Washington, these top soldiers appear to be operating on an autopilot of their own. One with a destination of ‘full spectrum dominance’ keyed in; something rather beyond the powers of the United States to achieve. Do not be fooled. A military not under political control, with industrial complex attached, is not an instrument of a state capable of strategy. There is no strategic logic to what Washington does to a Japanese government, or intends to do with its new bases for the Marines anywhere in Asia and Australia. The collective mind behind it is as witless s the Japanese military top telling the Emperor that there was no alternative to war with the United States.