Japan, not China, may be America's best partner against North Korea
© Getty Images

Recent days have seen an exponential rise in tensions in East Asia. Blatant saber-rattling from Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea, has resulted in the Chinese deployment of 150,000 troops to the country’s border, and the dispatch of American carrier USS Carl Vinson to North Korean waters.

This situation is only the latest in a string of challenges to U.S. interests in the region. China has laid claim to wide stretches of high seas and airspace, causing concern among American allies, and a more general global concern about the future of the nearly-universally recognized “global commons.”

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The root problem for the U.S. in East Asia is the enormous power differential between China and all of its neighbors, except Russia. China sits securely among much weaker nations, both on land (Mongolia, Myanmar) and at sea (Philippines, Malaysia). Even the Philippines, a long-time American ally, has recently elected a virulently anti-American president. This means that in any conflict with China or North Korea, America’s most likely foes in the region, the U.S. will have to largely go it alone.

 

But this unfortunate situation need not continue. U.S. officials are not taking full advantage of the presence of Japan, a U.S. ally that could provide economic help, strategic position, diplomatic support, and even military assistance. The relative neglect of Japan by the two previous administrations can be, and should be, rectified by the Trump administration.

Japan has the capacity to play a much larger role in regional (even global) politics than it does. It has a nine-figure population, one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, a high level of national feeling, a stable democratic political system, a steady commitment to defense spending, and a foreign assistance program that just marked its 60th birthday.

Moreover, Japan shares vital national interests with the United States. Both nations desire a peaceful and stable world. Both rely on a reasonably open international trading system. Both have a vital interest in maintaining the global commons. Both have much to fear from a nuclear-armed North Korea with erratic leadership.

Both have reason to be concerned about the growing regional and global ambitions of China and Russia. Both have an interest in a vibrant regional economy, and nothing to fear from economic progress in Southeast Asia or Oceania. Perhaps no nation in the world, other than Great Britain or Australia, wants more of the same international outcomes as the United States.

Unfortunately, Japan faces a significant barrier to the global role its assets permit it to play. The Japanese Constitution’s Article 9 commits the country to “pacifism” and prohibits Japan from deploying its forces outside its own borders. Since this Article was written by an American, Douglas MacArthur, it is entirely appropriate for America to encourage Japan to scrap it. Article 9 was a punishment for Pearl Harbor that made little sense even in 1947, let alone 75 years later. (No such prohibition was forced on Germany.)

While there is significant domestic opposition to such a move in Japan, that opposition is already showing cracks as the dangers to Japan become more obvious. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe overcame strong domestic opposition to pass legislation permitting the country to send troops abroad in the cause of “collective self-defense.” Massive demonstrations followed, expressing Japanese determination not to be dragged into a war that has more to do with America’s interests than Japan’s.

Recent events, however, make it undeniable that Japan has vital interests that may have to be defended militarily. China has heated up its rhetoric regarding possession of the Senkaku Islands, and matched that threatening rhetoric with increased intrusions by warplanes in or near Japanese airspace. These uninhabited islands are claimed by both countries, close to vital shipping lanes, home to valuable commercial fish, and potentially rich in oil and gas.

As F-15s from the Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF) fly to confront the Chinese planes, the risk of war is highlighted, as is the urgent need for a counterbalance to China’s increasingly bold territorial ambitions in the region. The U.S. should immediately offer real-time intelligence on China’s activities, as well as technical assistance to maintain and upgrade the JASDF. American diplomats should also persuade the Japanese to see the common interests that they share with China’s other neighbors.

Such policies cannot solve what is perhaps the most imposing barrier to Japan’s global influence, and that is the reluctance of many in Japan to shoulder such a role. Self-confidence cannot be imported, even from a well-meaning partner, but American officials can point out the near-impossibility that the U.S. can defend Japan from China or Russia by itself. In the end, Japan’s focus on its internal problems will not protect the country from its external threats, nor relieve the country of its global responsibilities.

Edward Lynch is the chair of Political Science at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. He served in the White House Office of Public Liaison in the Reagan administration.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not views of The Hill.