U.S. President Barack Obama’s April 2014 visit to Japan came across as one of reassurance of its alliance commitments to Tokyo in the backdrop of a sea of strategic reverberations in the region. The equations between Washington and Tokyo have been rather edgy in the past and Obama sought to set a conciliatory tone with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The subtle tension between Washington and Tokyo surfaced earlier when the U.S. government expressed “disappointment” following a visit by Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 — marking his first visit there as prime minister. Was this rare show of disapproval by Washington a sly move to appease China given that Beijing accuses Japan of wartime belligerence and strongly objects visits to Yasukuni shrine, which honors convicted Class A war criminals from World War II?
The Obama visit appeared to be aimed at quashing any such thought or belief. However, the U.S. did cause displeasure among the Japanese administration when it chose not to pick sides in the sovereignty claims of the region’s territorial disputes. This fueled the purported idea that Washington was prioritizing its equations with China over Japan and this aspect has not gone down well with the Abe administration. Indeed, it is clear that there is a strong undercurrent that Japan’s unfair denigration for its wartime past is a prime factor for Abe to cater and thereby, consolidate, his conservative support base at home.
The prime reason for Japan’s discomfort stems from an internal debate including sections within the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which question the role of the U.S. and of its security guarantees in the very bitterly escalating Senkaku Island dispute going on between Japan and China. Abe just about managed to maneuver Washington to provide Tokyo with full assurance that it would protect Japan if a military conflict took place over the Senkaku Islands when Obama stated, “… our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and Article 5 [of the U.S.-Japan security treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.”
It is only logical to question as to where does Japanese foreign policy stand in the international system today? Going back in time and reminiscing the Yoshida Doctrine, a strategy adopted post World War II under Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, in which economics was to be concentrated upon majorly to reconstruct domestic economy while the security alliance with the U.S. would be the guarantor of Japanese security.
Premised on the lack of military power, the Yoshida Doctrine did curtail the ability for Japanese leadership to alter the basic course of its foreign policy. The American security umbrella was expected to stand firm, thus justifying the firm defensive mission of Japan’s Self Defense Forces created in 1954. In fact, the 1951 the San Francisco Peace Treaty marked Japan’s presence as a stable, democratic bulwark in the region and cannot really be termed as a mere peace treaty to resuscitate Japan. It was a central bilateral military relationship between Washington and Tokyo.
While the Yoshida Doctrine was a successful foreign policy strategy, at least during the years of the Cold War, does it still hold relevance in formulation of Japanese foreign and security policy? Amid the current geo-strategic realities that Japan is confronted with, is there a possibility of reconsidering the basic tenets of the Yoshida Doctrine in favor of a more proactive foreign and security policy? Many argue that the doctrine still seems to be working and shall remain the cornerstone for Japanese security policy.
At the point in history when the Yoshida Doctrine came into being, Japan was not strongly poised to negotiate the terms of the peace treaty with the United States. As a matter of fact, the Doctrine emphasized not just on military reliance but also on strong economic tradeoffs. This aspect of the Yoshida Doctrine holds relevance even in the current context. Thus, while Obama did manage to find success in reassuring Japan of the American commitment to its treaty alliance, his pitch for new trade agreements could not be finalized despite heavy behind the scene activity to negotiate for a multination Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Japan’s present economic situation can be coined as unsteady although the Shinzo Abe administration has allowed a fiscal stimulus. The shaky economic situation can be attributed to Japan’s current account deficit of a record 1.5 trillion yen in January 2014, sluggish economic growth, weak export figures and a weakening yen. Although Abe has unveiled a series of measures to ensure long-term economic growth including structural reforms, boosting government spending on infrastructure, and encouraging private investment, there is a great deal of uncertainty whether these structural reforms will get fully implemented. What comes in as a disappointment is that until recently, almost none of these have even been proposed, let alone get implemented, in full detail.
With China upping the ante and infuriating the region by appearing to be heavily inclined toward upstaging the rule-based international order and altering the status quo of existing territorial disputes in its favor, will Japan be forced to redefine the terms of its re-entry into the region as a proactive participant? All in all, the probability of the Yoshida Doctrine getting dislodged entirely remains very low, albeit the contours especially revolving around the use of force could be revisited and debated. Conversely, the current economic standing brings relevance to the basic tenets of the Yoshida Doctrine. In this light, the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty is likely to continue serving as the bedrock of not just the U.S. security role in Asia, but a substratum of Japanese foreign and security policy per se.© Japan Today