East Asia Peace Hinges on US Presence

A shifting landscape and unpredictable president could be sparks that light the fire
By Urs Schoettli, Geopolitical Intelligence Services
July 31, 2018 Last Updated: August 7, 2018

History weighs heavily on East Asia. Unlike France and Germany, China and Japan are still waiting for their historic post-war reconciliation. The cloud of Japanese war crimes during the country’s occupation of China hovers over relations between Beijing and Tokyo.

Russia and Japan never signed a peace treaty after World War II, and their dispute over the Kuril Islands continues to fester. Tensions also linger between Seoul and Tokyo, which have their own territorial dispute and the sensitive issue of Korean “comfort women,” who were forced into prostitution during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Finally, there is still no peace treaty between the two Koreas.

American Footprint

In both South Korea and Japan, most notably in the Okinawa archipelago, U.S. overseas bases are of crucial geopolitical importance. There is no doubt that since the end of the Korean War in 1953, U.S. military presence has been the pivotal factor in preventing the outbreak of war in the Far East.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained powerful naval forces in the Pacific, which largely disappeared after the collapse of the Soviet empire. More recently, China has undertaken a massive expansion of its naval capabilities. Particularly in the East and the South China Sea, Beijing is displaying its newly acquired military muscle.

In the North Atlantic, which was the sea of contention during the Cold War, the United States is still the dominant coastal power. That isn’t the case in the Indian Ocean—the other major sea of contention in the 21st century—where the United States depends entirely on treaties and external bases.

The massive, and, in many ways, unprecedented, U.S. military presence overseas after World War II has been of great benefit to allies. It is also the core instrument of the age-old policy to avoid wars on its own soil.

President Donald Trump has been right to criticize allies in Europe and elsewhere for not living up to their obligations in defense spending, and for taking a free ride on U.S. benevolence. Culpability, however, is very complicated. Japan has undoubtedly been paying more for the security umbrella than, for example, Germany.

Among other steps, Tokyo picked up a large share of the costs of the first Iraq war. One must also look at the reasons behind any security treaty or alliance. In Japan’s case, it was clear that the strong U.S. presence and alliance allowed Tokyo to renounce nuclear weapons, even in the face of a nuclear-armed China. In other words, the bilateral treaty has been a way to reduce tension in the region. Today, Japan adheres to the pacifist constitution bequeathed by the United States after World War II.

Shifting Landscape

While Trump appears to have a difficult relationship with Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel, he seems to get along well with both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In addition, both in terms of rhetoric and policy, Abe can be described as one of his country’s most outspoken leaders about Japanese national interests. Most importantly, he officially aspires to remove Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which curtails defense capabilities and prevents the country from becoming a “normal” power.

While it is most likely that a “no” vote would prevail in any referendum on Article 9, which is required to amend the constitution, there can be no doubt that many Japanese are worried about the deteriorating security situation, both external and internal.

One reason, of course, is the historic rise of China. Some years ago, the Japanese were shocked when they discovered that the People’s Republic of China had replaced Japan as the world’s largest owner of foreign-exchange reserves. Later, it replaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. Most recently, it has become obvious that the rise of China to world-power status will not produce a socioeconomic renaissance.

Security matters in East Asia are further complicated by Japan’s rapid demographic decline. For some time, there has been concern about the aging Japanese population and ensuing shrinking.

The prospects are stark: today, Japan has a population of some 127 million. By 2030, that figure will have shrunk to 117 million, and by 2050, to about 97 million. It is highly unlikely that some dramatic demographic shift will change these forecasts. Such population shrinkage is unprecedented in recent times and places a huge burden on the Japanese social-security system and labor market.

The demographic issue also has important geopolitical and security implications. A society that is not only getting older but actually dying out will reflect that in the prevailing mood and political attitudes,  becoming more conservative and more fearful of the future. That is already apparent in the fact that, despite low approval ratings for Abe, the ruling LDP is firmly in power and faces a splintered and incompetent opposition not seen as a credible alternative.

On top of all these internal and external uncertainties looms a new shadow—an American president who is portrayed as being unpredictable, irritable, and volatile.

A New Question

The future of the region is highly uncertain, but Sino–Japanese relations will surely be pivotal to whatever unfolds. That relationship has been frosty for most of Abe’s second term as prime minister, which began in 2012. More recently, though, the atmosphere seems friendlier.

President Xi, having consolidated his power both at the 19th National Congress last November and at the National People’s Congress in March, has made some overtures toward Japan, mainly through diplomacy but also in economic relations and trade. As a new uncertainty has crept into U.S.–Japan relations, China sees the opportunity to use a more conciliatory approach.

Whatever happens will be deeply shaped by speculation about and reactions to the policies pursued in Washington. Even if an outright trade war between the United States and China has been avoided, Beijing is today more aware of the potential economic synergies with its neighbor Japan. In many ways, the Japanese and the Chinese economies are so complementary that conflicts between the two countries can seem utterly nonsensical.

Many analysts do not recognize any real thaw in relations and see ulterior political motives in China’s more accommodating approach. Happy to exploit an opportunity to alienate Japan from the United States, Beijing is using Japanese uncertainty over Trump’s intentions and plans to present itself as a more reliable power in regional and global politics.

Japan is still the only country against which nuclear weapons have been used, and the devastation in Nagasaki and Hiroshima has been a powerful argument against acquiring nuclear weapons. A strong U.S. commitment has made it possible for Japan to resist the temptation of nuclear weapons, even as China has acquired them and with North Korea in the development phase.

What happens if there are doubts about the U.S. resolve to side with Japan in times of war? Is Washington willing to risk the destruction of Los Angeles or San Francisco for the sake of defending Japan in a war that threatens to go nuclear? In the past, this question was simply not asked—but things may be different under a president who adheres to an “America First” policy.

For a time, Japan had been reassured by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a key element of the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific strategy. Despite political resistance, Washington eventually managed to sign on to the agreement. A key argument in promoting TPP was that it was much more than a trade agreement; it was supposed to help contain China.

Then, having barely taken office, Trump rescinded the TPP—which blocked ratification—and left Japan in limbo. The image of a triumphant Trump signing the abrogation of the deal was seen as an insult to America’s most important ally in Asia.

Tokyo has continued to press for TPP, even one without the Americans. All involved realize that a TPP without the United States is futile, because it cannot be a credible tool to fight China’s hegemonic ambitions. Vague speculation that Washington might reverse course on the deal is of little use.

Japan knows that it faces a tumultuous future when its ability to rely on the United States is curtailed. The world is waiting to see how Tokyo will deal with this new challenge.

Urs Schoettli is an independent adviser on Asian affairs and a guest expert for Geopolitical Intelligence Services. This article was originally published by GIS Reports Online.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.