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The Changing Era and U.S.-Japan Relations: Erosion of the Cold War Paradigm

Hatsue Shinohara
Professor, Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies, Waseda University

Concern about the Japan-U.S. alliance

The media reported that Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama and United States President Obama agreed to "deepen" the U.S.-Japan alliance to conclude Obama's first visit to Japan. However, the negotiation on the move of the Futenma airbase and the return of the land there to Japan is stalled, Japan has decided to halt the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, and there are voices of discord regarding the state of the alliance in Washington D.C., where I am currently staying. During a seminar hosted by a think tank, for example, a former government official criticized the leaders' meeting as having reached virtually no agreement, and one analyst observed that the halted refueling and 5 billion dollars in Afghan aid would set the alliance back to the Gulf War period, while a professor emphasized the changing landscape surrounding Japan-U.S. relations.

This is not the first time that the U.S. side, especially those who are pro-Japanese and adhere to the U.S.-Japan alliance, has raised concern about the alliance. Immediately after the Cold War in the mid 1990s, some presented a view that the alliance was "drifting." At that time in Japan, there was movement toward rethinking Japanese security policies in line with the changing situation of the post-Cold War era. However, the U.S.-Japan alliance was "redefined" and cemented in recognition of the necessity for U.S. troops to remain stationed in Japan due to the instability of the Asia Pacific region. Partly encouraged by the North Korean missile crisis, new Japan-U.S. guidelines and legislation to deal with contingencies in the area surrounding Japan were subsequently established to complete the military cooperation regime.

International relations undergoing fundamental change

The concern over U.S.-Japan relations currently at issue was triggered by the inauguration of the Democratic administration and Hatoyama's manifestation of autonomous diplomacy. This concern is not caused merely by a change of administration, however, but rather by the more fundamental changes which profoundly affect Japan-U.S. relations. In fact, the change in the international landscape which paved the way to the "redefinition" in the mid 90s has recently accelerated. Asian countries, and most notably China, are developing more rapidly, so China is now an extremely important trade partner for both Japan and the United States. During President Obama's trip to Asia this month, his stay in China was longer than in other U.S. allied countries such as Japan and Korea. While U.S. relations with China are qualitatively different from relations with Japan-which are based on a legally institutionalized alliance-the U.S. is placing increasing importance on its relationship with China. In Japan, on the other hand, Hatoyama proposed the "East Asian Community" concept when he visited Singapore, and some have also advocated that Japan attach more importance to Asian diplomacy. In addition, as globalization advances, the member countries participating in the summit meeting to solve the recent world economic crisis increased three fold from G7 to G20.

Repositioning U.S.-Japan relations amid this changing world is an important issue for both Japan and the United States. Japan certainly regards the United States as the most important country and as an indispensable security partner, given that the North Korean nuclear issue has not been resolved. However, if Japan places more emphasis on its diplomatic relationships with Asian countries, the importance of the U.S.-Japan relations might subside relatively over time. In this case, the closeness of relations would depend on whether the issues at hand were related to security, or were other non-security issues (such as political and economic issues), a situation which in turn might cast a shadow over security cooperation. During the Cold War, the United States had been the most important country to Japan for its overall foreign relations in the areas of politics, security, economy, and cultural exchange. If Japan forms a deeper relationship with Asian countries in terms of political, economic, and cultural issues, U.S.-Japan relations in general-as well as the alliance in a broad sense-may be accordingly transformed, affecting security relations in turn which an alliance in an original and traditional sense is aimed at.

Time keeps on moving

In the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, an alliance did not necessarily mean a close relationship among allies as a whole, because the alignment was always changing, as represented by Bismarck's alliances and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. On the contrary, NATO and the U.S.-Japan security treaty system that the United States built after World War II are comprehensive alliances in which closely tied allies share the same fate as well as democratic values. After the Cold War, these systems have gradually deteriorated. For example, the relationships among the United States and European nations are now less solid with respect to NATO. When the United States built these systems after World War II, they were based on its overwhelmingly superior political, military, economic, and cultural power. Whereas the United States is realizing that the basis for these systems has declined, it cannot easily give them up politically or ideologically, because these American style alliances allow the U.S. to exercise political influence on its allies by leveraging security and acquiring the right to use military bases within allied territory.

On the other hand, it is possible that the United States will establish a "creative" framework with China in the future that is different from the American style alliances seen during the Cold War in order to strengthen their friendly relationship. Even though the value of human rights and democracy is still important and the United States maintains alliances with Japan and South Korea, a paradigm in which these three countries confront China, for instance, does not appear to directly apply in the emerging international situation.

Time keeps on moving. We should track the development of U.S.-Japan relations without being overshadowed by terms such as "foundation," "redefinition," or "deepening."

Hatsue Shinohara / Professor, Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies, Waseda University


Professor Shinohara graduated from the School of Law as well as the Graduate School of Law at Waseda University and received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago.

Professor Shinohara's major publications include

From the Law of War to the Law of Peace [Sensou no Hou kara Heiwa no Hou e] (University of Tokyo Press, 2003), and "American International Political Scientists' Criticism against War," Shisou, April 2009 (Iwanami Shoten).