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A New Japan, a New Asia

Authors: G. John Ikenberry, Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University, and Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow
January 21, 2010
International Herald Tribune

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This week marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan alliance, but the Obama administration seems sincerely flummoxed as to whether to bemoan or commemorate the occasion.

On the one hand, U.S. officials have reacted with considerable discomfort to the more independent and assertive policies of the new Japanese government. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Tokyo's desire to reopen debate about the location of U.S. bases in Okinawa "counterproductive" and the alternatives to current plans "politically untenable and operationally unworkable."

On the other hand, President Obama observed during his visit to Tokyo in November that the U.S.-Japan relationship must be one of "equals" and "not a senior-vs-junior partnership." And Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg last week welcomed the "expression of Japan's vibrant democracy" and the opportunity to "conduct an open dialogue on shaping the future of the alliance."

As the Obama administration struggles to sort out its Japan policy, it should tilt decidedly toward welcoming rather than rebuffing the fresh approach of the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. While a cold response to his more assertive foreign policy is predictable--Tokyo since World War II has consistently deferred to its U.S. protector--it is sorely misguided. In questioning the location of the Okinawa bases and seeking a relationship with China not entirely mediated by Washington, the new government is not attempting to demote Japan's alliance with the United States. On the contrary, it is seeking to update the alliance to the new political and strategic environment in the region.

Rather than warning Tokyo to return to the fold, Washington should work with the Hatoyama government to forge a healthier and more mature relationship.

The election last year of the Democratic Party represents a watershed in Japanese politics, bringing to an end the post-war reign of the Liberal Democratic Party. In breaking the lock that the L.D.P. had on Japanese politics, the D.P.J. has cleared the way for pressures long pent up to rise to the surface. Many voters long for Japan to become a "normal" country - one that assumes more geopolitical responsibility and conducts a foreign policy made in Tokyo, not Washington.

Mr. Hatoyama has pledged to address citizens' concerns about the social ills that U.S. bases have brought to their communities. And he has vowed to cut back the power of entrenched bureaucrats, who for decades preserved the status quo on foreign policy.

Among older Japanese, for whom the U.S.-Japan alliance enjoyed a sacred status, this status quo was more than acceptable. But younger Japanese have begun to ask tough questions - to which Mr. Hatoyama is seeking answers.

Tokyo's search for a more autonomous foreign policy is also a reflection of a changing strategic environment. China's rise is reshaping the region. It has become Japan's largest export market. Beijing has discovered the merits of regional engagement, opening the door to a new level of dialogue with Japan. Meanwhile, North Korea's nuclear program has provided a new urgency to regional dialogue, encouraging Japan to step out from behind the shadow of U.S. power.

Japan is in many respects beginning to travel down the road taken by Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the end of the Cold War, the European Union both quickened its pace of regional integration and yearned for more autonomy from Washington. Germany and France even led the charge against the Iraq war in 2003, and the trans-Atlantic alliance emerged the stronger for it. Europe no longer grumbles about the excesses of U.S. power. And the United States enjoys the benefits of a more independent and capable Europe that is shouldering a heavy burden in Afghanistan, leading the effort to curb climate change, and helping to stabilize the global economy.

Japan needs to similarly update its alliance with the United States, getting a measure of distance from Washington, but ultimately making the partnership stronger and more mature. Japan has the potential to be a regional leader on peacekeeping, foreign aid and clean energy technology.

As Japan deepens its bilateral relationship with China, the two countries may finally have the opportunity to replicate the kind of rapprochement achieved by France and Germany after World War II. In the same way that Europeans built a self-sustaining regional peace, Japan should capitalize on the stability afforded by its alliance with the U.S. to make a push for Sino-Japanese reconciliation and regional integration.

A more assertive and independent Japan promises to do much more for East Asia and the United States than a Japan that defers to Washington. It is past time for Washington and Tokyo to bring the alliance into the 21st century.

G. John Ikenberry is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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