The US and Japan will haggle over who gets what as they each look to use their security alliance to their own ends

Since the United States began to promote the rebalancing of its military and diplomatic assets toward the Asia-Pacific region, each trip to Asia by high-level officials from the White House and the Pentagon has been closely scrutinized by world’s media. The state visit to Japan by US President Barack Obama from Wednesday to Friday is no exception, and it is already under the microscope.

This is because the realization of the core objective of Washington’s Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy - to maintain the US’ leadership in the Asia-Pacific region - to a large extent depends on how to better control and use its allies in the region. Japan is the US’ most important ally in Asia, and to make good use of Japan is the direct goal of Obama’s upcoming trip.

First of all, Obama is hoping to promote a reconciliation between Japan and the Republic of Korea in a bid to lay the foundation for the three countries to establish a multilateral diplomatic and defense cooperation mechanism. Over the past year, the statements and actions by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other conservatives around him on historical issues have not only complicated the security situation in East Asia, they have also had a negative impact on the US’ strategic arrangement, as they have hindered the US’ plan to establish a US-Japan-ROK trilateral defense mechanism.

Washington has not only been “disappointed” by Abe’s words and deeds, it has been completely shocked. Without the first lady accompanying him, Obama’s hurried schedule and low profile is in stark contrast to Tokyo’s excited anticipation. Obama has to appear personally in order to press for better ties between Japan and the ROK. Under pressure from Washington, Abe finally promised that his government would not revise the Kono Statement concerning “comfort women”, the Japanese military’s sex slaves in World War II. So it is likely that Obama will try to further remove obstacles for the establishment of a US-led tripartite cooperation mechanism during his visit.

Second, Obama will make known his position on the US-Japan alliance in order to reassure Tokyo that the US’ strategic return to Asia remains the top priority in its foreign and security strategy. Tokyo has demanded that the US directly state that the Diaoyu Islands of China, named the Senkaku Islands in Japanese, are subject to Article 5 of the treaty, but the US has refused to do so, as it believes that there is indeed a dispute concerning the sovereignty over the islands. In order to seek confirmation of the US position, the Japanese government might use the relaxation of conditions for the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations as a bargaining chip. Doing so will present Obama with a very difficult situation, whereas Abe can take this opportunity to reject domestic anti-TPP groups.

Third, the US and Japan will come to an agreement on the formation of a new bilateral defense guideline. To make Japan undertake more responsibility within the alliance, the new guideline could allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to play a bigger role. To this end, the US will make a clear statement over the law and policy changes concerning Japan’s relaxation on arms exports, its right of collective self-defense and the revision of the Self-Defense Forces Act, at the cost of Asian peace and stability.

The Abe cabinet has not only already made legal and technical preparations for modifying the explanation of the right of collective self-defense, but also approved eased principles and guidelines on the transfer of defense equipment to revive the country’s arms exports, which is against the principles of its pacifist Constitution. In addition, Japan has released its first National Security Strategy, the new National Defense Program Guidelines and the Mid-Term Defense Program, all of which pave the way for its forces to play a bigger role.

It is important to note that although both the US and Japan have made China the primary target of their Asia-Pacific defense strategy, the two countries have different priorities within the alliance. By moderately loosening restraints on Japan’s defense, the US is seeking to make better use of Japan - on condition Japan is still controllable. Japan is seeking to take advantage of the US’ strategic needs to accelerate its own military independence.

In the past, Japan subjected its national strategy to the US-Japan alliance, but the situation has undergone qualitative changes with Tokyo more and more considering the alliance as a means to realize its national strategy. Because of this change, Abe’s national strategic goal of getting rid of the postwar system has resulted in greater US vigilance.

The stability of the US-Japan alliance is a consequence of its inherent inequality, with the US in a dominant position and Japan in a subordinate position. The US has not only made institutional arrangements for Japan, guided Japan in the pursuit of “shared values”, but also decided the common threats. Japan for its part, staged a comeback during the Cold War by pinning itself to the US. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Japan as the world’s second-largest economy was eager to seek the status of a great power, resulting in the US-Japan alliance entering a phase of quasi-equality.

After former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama’s attempt to get rid of US influence failed, the mainstream political elite in Japan reached a consensus on continuing to use the US-Japan alliance. And this has become a strategic choice to achieve the goal of seeking military independence. Both Yoshihiko Noda and Shinzo Abe have emphasized the importance of the country having its own forces, implying their mistrust of the US’ security commitment and their strong desire to realize military independence.

There is no doubt that it is a tough task for Obama to control and make better use of Japan at the same time. Now, in the face of an assertive Japan moving toward military independence and being a full-fledged power, the US’ Japan policy has finally shifted from an “unarmed” Japan to the bottom line of a nuclear-free Japan. So, Washington has pressed Tokyo to return over 300 kg of weapons-grade plutonium. In the future, the control and anti-control initiatives within the US-Japan alliance will become its normal state.–China Daily