Tokyo worries about US commitment to global leadership

I just returned from a 10-day trip to Japan, where I participated in meetings with senior government officials and think-tank community members. This concern came through during meetings in Tokyo.

Japan, among the top global economies, is the closest U.S. ally in East Asia, aside from South Korea. The U.S. alliance with Japan, now in its sixth decade, is based on shared values of freedom and democracy, and close military cooperation. "Japan is one of our closest allies, and the U.S.-Japan alliance is the central foundation for our regional security and so much of what we do in the Pacific region," reiterated President Obama in February 2013 after a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Washington.

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Yet in recent years, analysts observed growing skepticism in East Asia about Washington's ability to live up to its promises to support allies. Most recently, Obama's inability to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from annexing Crimea from Ukraine and further threatening America's Eastern European allies, resonated in Japan. Ukraine and concern about Putin's aggression came up repeatedly during my meetings in Tokyo. It is also currently a topic much discussed in Japanese media. Earlier, Obama's inability to stand by his own red lines in Syria raised similar worries in Japan.

Among Tokyo's current chief concerns is China's increasing aggression, particularly with regard to the Senkaku Islands — an uninhabited five island archipelago located in the East China Sea between China and Japan, with identified oil and gas reserves under their seabed. Japan has administered the uninhabited islands since 1972 and prior to this, from 1895-1945, when the U.S. took control of the archipelago in the post-World War II period. While China has disputed Japan's rights to ownership of the Senkakus before, Beijing radically raised this rhetoric two years ago. The two countries have been at a standoff ever since.

China's aggression is a challenge to the U.S. commitment to assist Japan in protecting the islands, and herein lines Japan's concern. Chinese patrol ships and planes, for example, now regularly enter the disputed waters surrounding the islands. In November 2013, China's Ministry of National Defense announced the establishment of a controversial air defense zone (ADIZ) that overlaps Japan's own ADIZ in the East China Sea, over the Senkaku Islands. China began developing sophisticated offensive weapons and has steadily increased its military spending. In March of this year, Beijing announced a 12.2 percent defense budget increase, though some believe the real figure may be significantly higher.

To be sure, Obama had publicly said before that the U.S. will stand by its commitments to assist Japan. For example, in April of this year, prior to his arrival to Tokyo, Obama reassured the Japanese public that protection of the Senkaku Islands falls under the U.S.-Japan security treaty. "[W]e oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan's administration of these islands," he said in a written statement published in Japan's Yomiuri newspaper, according to Fox News. And the Ukraine and Syria crises differ from the situation in East Asia. Neither Ukraine nor, especially, Syria has enjoyed the same alliance with the U.S. that Japan has.

Yet, the overall trend is one of declining U.S. commitment to global leadership and support of allies, as well as of aspirations for freedom. This is worrisome. Indeed, Vice President Biden did not demand the repeal of the ADIZ during his visit to Beijing in December 2013.

In addition to concerns about the Senkaku Islands and China's aggression, Japan is facing a number of serious domestic problems and needs American leadership. Once the world's second-largest economy, Japan now has slid to fourth place, behind not only the U.S. and China, but also India. Japan's population decline is catastrophic and will likely contribute to Japan's economic woes. With one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, Japan's population of 128 million has been falling by about a million a year. If this trend continues, Japan soon will not have enough workers to support the country's retirees, who have one of the longest longevity rates in the world. Women especially are underutilized in the workforce and have much poorer career prospects than men, lest they give up the idea of having a family. While the Japanese authorities are fully aware of these problems, it is unclear if they will muster the political will to resolve them. Furthermore, Japan's culture of intolerance of failure appears to serve as an impediment to creative thinking for resolving these problems.

The U.S. cannot afford a decline of one of its few top allies in East Asia who leads the effort to spread democracy throughout the region. Japan, for its part, is concerned with the increasingly inward-looking U.S. outlook. While in Tokyo, I discussed the U.S. role in global affairs with Kuni Miyake, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, who spent more than 25 years in Japan's Foreign Affairs Ministry. He, as others in Japan, would like to see the U.S. "be engaged internationally; don't look inward." 

Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Follow her on Twitter @annaborsh.