Government and governance, International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, The World

6 January 2017

At a time of increasing tensions in the region, now more than ever Japan and the US need to build on their alliance, Ted Gover writes.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Pearl Harbour and public acknowledgement of past Japanese aggression was commendable in its political and moral courage. It was also an example of astute, strategic thinking that advocated continued partnership with Washington to meet oncoming threats in head-on fashion.

While acknowledging looming challenges, Abe described the US-Japan relationship as one of “deep and strong ties” and “an alliance of hope that will lead us to the future.”

Coupled with President Obama’s May 2016 speech in Hiroshima, Abe’s visit demonstrated the power of reconciliation between the former enemies who now share common values, interests and threats.

While historians will continue the necessary task of learning more about the tragic wartime past of both countries, 2016 should serve as a turning point in the US-Japan relationship. As Donald Trump assumes the American presidency, the US and Japan must focus on shared challenges and enhancing their alliance.

Among the emerging national security issues facing the US-Japan alliance are expanding Chinese maritime and aerial assertions of sovereignty in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behaviour, including sweeping maritime claims, the construction and militarisation of man-made islands in the South China Sea, and the unilateral imposition of its East China Sea air defence identification zone are all a challenge to the US military presence in the region.

Beyond this, China’s recent actions- from the theft of the US underwater drone, to the deployment of the aircraft carrier Liaoning near the coasts of Taiwan and Japan – have demonstrated a determination to respond to President-elect Trump’s sharp criticism of Beijing about the One China policy, Taiwan, North Korea and trade.

The alarming developments in the region will require Washington and Tokyo to upgrade their forces’ capabilities, joint training, intelligence sharing, and military research and development programs. Additionally, the alliance will need to further develop military and diplomatic relations with regional partners, including India, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Australia, among other states.

Another pressing security issue confronting Washington and Tokyo involves North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons program. The refusal of the Obama administration to negotiate with Pyongyang in the absence of Kim Jong-un’s commitment to end his nuclear program — an approach the administration calls “strategic patience” — has failed to blunt the regime’s efforts to weaponise a ballistic missile.

Critics have advocated for Trump and Abe to adopt a separate and more aggressive approach towards Pyongyang through the hardening of defences, supporting the idea of encouraging South Korea and Japan to acquire nuclear weapons for the purpose of compelling China to use its leverage with North Korea and force the regime to abandon its nuclear program.

Others recommend that Washington, Tokyo and Seoul hit Pyongyang where it hurts – in Beijing’s pocket book – by instituting either a full out trade war with China or sanctions on select Chinese companies, banks, and actors involved with North Korea’s nuclear program. Such measures, it is argued, would use economic leverage to impose a cost on Chinese inaction on reining in the North’s nuclear program, forcing Beijing to abandon activities that prop up the regime when the price of not doing so becomes inhibitive.

It is clear that Washington and Tokyo, together with Seoul, have yet to come up with effective measures for stopping Pyongyang’s progressing nuclear program. This crisis demonstrates the importance of reliable US-Japan ties, as Trump assumes office at a time of uncertainty when relations with other traditional US partners – including the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia – have had their difficulties.

As fellow democracies devoted to the rule of law and personal freedoms, Washington and Tokyo have an obligation to work together to reverse the downward trajectory of the human condition in Asia. Expanded gulags and returning famine in North Korea; ethnic cleansing in Burma; increasing intolerance and violence against religious minorities in Indonesia; and an out of control Philippines drug war replete with extrajudicial killings are a few of the ongoing human rights calamities where the United States and Japan can make a difference through joint programs and coordinated diplomatic pressure, among other means.

Following Abe’s Pearl Harbour speech, President Obama delivered his own. “Today, the alliance between the United States and Japan – bound not only by shared interests, but also rooted in common values – stands as the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific and a force for progress around the globe.”

By working together on shared endeavours, Washington and Tokyo can make good on the sentiments expressed by their leaders at Pearl Harbour.

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Gover, Ted. 2017. "After Abe’S Visit To Pearl Harbour - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.