Before World War II, Japan’s Samurai culture and its experiences with American and European power projection in East Asia prompted the Japanese to carry out a colonization effort in East and Southeast Asia. Japan became at odds with its two major Asian neighbors, namely, Russia and China. As a result, Japan became a major part of what was known as the “Axis” powers that also consisted of Germany and Italy, in opposition to the Allied powers which consisted of primarily Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China during World War II. The United States, at the request of Britain, entered World War II and tilted the balance in favor of the Allied powers, and the rest was history.
After its experience in World War II and the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan decided that in order to recover, it would need the assistance of the United States, which was the world’s foremost power and was still becoming familiar with Eurasian politics and was only beginning to transition into its role as a global power after a long period of isolation. In turn, the United States offered to provide a security umbrella for Japan as long as it incorporated a clause in its constitution that would compel Japan to limit its defense expenditures to approximately 1 or 2 percent of its overall GDP. The Japanese agreed to the terms of the United States, and it marked the beginning of security and economic cooperation between the U.S. and Japan.
At the end of World War II, Japan was in the throes of economic devastation. The U.S. was riding high, and as the world’s foremost power it consisted of over 50 percent of the world’s GDP. By providing a security umbrella for both Germany and Japan and shielding Germany and Japan’s economic recuperation from potential security threats emanating from a rising China and Soviet Union, the United States distributed its share of economic output to Europe and Japan such that the United States brought its share of global GDP down from 50 percent to 25 percent.
Immediately after World War II, Japan had to make a choice between traditional militarism and economic pacifism, and it chose the latter. As a result, by the end of the Cold War, Japan became the world’s third richest economy after the U.S. and the European Union. Japan’s political philosophy based on economic pacifism has served as a boon for economic development throughout the world. Japan, as a result of its vibrant economy, has been a great contributor to international liberal organizations tailored toward international development. Cooperation between the U.S. and Japan and the alliance between the two countries has contributed greatly to global economic development.
Even now, the United States has largely preserved the status quo in East Asia by maintaining a security presence in both Japan and South Korea as a counterbalance to Russian and Chinese incursions into East Asia through North Korea. For the most part, North Korea is a Russian creation and a byproduct of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, China has stepped in to keep North Korea intact largely for pragmatic reasons. The collapse of North Korea would lead to a spiraling down of the security situation by way of nuclear fallout in East Asia, in turn causing a refugee crisis along China’s border.
Japan is on the receiving end of North Korean bullying and intimidation. Many of North Korea’s missile tests have been directed towards Japan in order to evoke a response from the United States and to have the United States engage North Korea directly. Recently, the Trump administration has held two high-level meetings with North Korea, where both President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un discussed the possibility of rolling back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for greater economic engagement with the West. In the end, the talks were held to no avail, and the status quo in East Asia continues such that China and Russia stand behind North Korea while the United States continues to provide a security umbrella for both South Korea and Japan.
Due to the rise of China and the bolstering of North Korea as of late, a certain degree of right-wing nationalist sentiment has been fostered and manifested in Japan through Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. To a large extent, Shinzo Abe and his supporters seem to be intent on increasing Japan’s military expenditures in the face of increasing military activity on the part of North Korea and China in the East Asian region. The desire for increased militarization on the part of Japan is a sign that the Japanese no longer see the United States as a reliable security umbrella, and that a certain level of self-reliance is needed as an insurance policy in the event that the United States abandons its alliance with Japan.
As an insurance policy, the Japanese possess nuclear breakout capabilities, and if Japan goes nuclear, it is aimed at maintaining power equilibrium with a nuclear China. Also, if the United States draws down its military presence in East Asia for whatever reason, South Korea may also go nuclear for it also possesses nuclear breakout capabilities. Thus, if the United States is taken out of the East Asian equation, it is likely that a nuclear Japan and nuclear South Korea will join forces to act as a counterbalance against the combination of China and North Korea.
If the United States is going to play a continued role in East Asia, it must also adopt a mediating role between China and Japan as well as between North Korea and South Korea. It appears that the Trump administration is looking for ways to resolve the long-standing conflict between North and South Korea. Japan is essentially public enemy number one in East Asia due to Japan’s colonization efforts in East Asia as well as Southeast Asia before World War II. Japan saw itself more as a European power than an Asian power, and this mentality largely alienated the rest of East Asia from Japan. As a starter, Japan should at least improve relations with South Korea if improving relations with China and North Korea proves difficult. Japanese militarization will probably be counterproductive in improving relations with South Korea.
Thus, preventing Japan’s nuclearization will be all the more important through cultivating diplomacy within East Asia through American mediation. As part of the mediation effort, the United States should propose the creation of a regional cooperation organization in East Asia aimed at economic cooperation and the mitigation of long-standing grievances and vendettas that exist between Japan and its East Asian neighbors. Perhaps by issuing a sincere apology for past actions, Japan can significantly ease the tensions that have existed in East Asia for more than a century.
If the United States maintains and enhances its military and diplomatic presence in East Asia, Japan must also consider opening its market to U.S. exports in order to financially assist the U.S. presence. Combined, Europe and East Asia have a larger GDP than the United States and both have been significant beneficiaries of America’s security assistance over the many decades since World War II. Japan must contribute financially to America’s security and diplomatic assistance in East Asia if it expects the United States to remain present in the region, and Europe must also contribute financially to America’s military presence there if it expects the United States to serve as a counterbalance against Russian aggression towards Europe.
Even though China’s economy is now larger than Japan’s economy, the latter continues to be a more dynamic and productive economy with a higher GDP per capita than China, and as a result it can afford U.S. goods and products. The United States should push for the opening of the Japanese market to U.S. goods and products as a major provision of a potential “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) in return for the security guarantees provided by the United States. In terms of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, both sides can stick to their comparative advantages. Japan’s comparative advantage lies in its import and export economy. The U.S. comparative advantage lies in its military superiority and political status as a neutral mediator coming from the outside. By sticking to comparative advantages and enhancing them within the framework of the alliance created after World War II, the relationship between the United States and Japan will grow and as a result both sides will reap benefits that in turn will contribute to the increase of security cooperation between the two countries as well as the equilibrium and stability of East Asia as a whole.
If the United States can play a mediating role in East Asia and mitigate the tensions between East Asian parties, the United States can then focus on the larger threats emanating from countries such as Russia and Iran who are having an adverse impact on the security situation in Europe and the Middle East. By establishing credibility and legitimacy in East Asia, the United States can then use that political capital to perhaps decouple Russia from China and ultimately tilt the balance of power against Russia and Iran in favor of the United States through China, which is something the United States did in the late 1970’s and 1980’s under the purview of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan with the aid of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. By the end of Reagan’s tenure, Russia was on the decline and the United States saw its stock rise in the international arena. In sum, East Asia and the role the United States plays there can serve as a starting point for the renewal of America’s credibility, legitimacy, power, and prestige around the globe.