Among the reliable allies of the United States in the modern era, dating from the end of World War II and the arrival of the Cold War in Asia, few have been more reliable than Japan. Friendship between Japan and the United States remains the keystone of American strategy for peace and stability in the region.
Tending the network of bilateral and multilateral connections in which Japan plays a role has been crucial. One continuing sore spot has been the American military base in Okinawa, the setting of the last battle of World War II, fought on a larger scale than the landing at Normandy, and the scene of some of the most brutal fighting of the war. At the height of the Vietnam War, Okinawa was so important as a staging base that the joke was that “if the Americans put one more bullet on Okinawa the island will sink.”
Okinawa is only slightly less crucial to American military interests now, with Guam, an American territory, taking greater importance than in the past. But Okinawa remains important to the American strategic interests in Asia, particularly the large American naval base at Yokosuka, not far from Tokyo.
Coaxing Japan from its pacifist illusions contained in the constitution written under the supervision of Douglas MacArthur during the American occupation, is a modern diplomatic preoccupation of the United States, which seeks to integrate Japan’s potential military power as well as its great economic clout into a multinational Asian alliance.
South Korea would be important to this enterprise. But many Koreans have a hard time forgetting the past, and the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea early in the 20th century. Japan set out to replace the ancient Korean culture with the Japanese. Many older Koreans remember being beaten as students for speaking Korean. Such memories of reconstruction die hard, as Americans know well. Bitter memories of the Reconstruction of the South, so called after the American Civil War, still occasionally bubble to the surface of suppressed recollections.
China, which also suffered at the hands of the Japanese war lords, now happily gone, is more pragmatic, and has exploited this opening in American strategy with a campaign of seduction of Seoul. It has done this even at the expense of its relationship with its satellite in Pyongyang, which is increasingly dependent on Beijing for economic survival. So far Beijing’s ability to balance these two courtships has exceeded expectations in both Washington and Tokyo.
However strong the aversion to creating an enemy, held in certain American academic and political circles, the problem of a rising China is growing. China’s aggressive military expansion into the South China Sea, challenging traditional Japanese claims and creating new bases on coral reclaimed from the sea athwart one of the world’s most important shipping lanes is a headache even in Barack Obama’s White House, where “leading from behind” is the guiding philosophy. China’s dependence on trade with the West is a needed restraint, but the reliance on the military by Xi Jinping, the Chinese party and government leader, is a source of authentic concern.
Hillary Clinton’s famous “a pivot to Asia” as the secretary of State was inspired by the recognition that, like it or not, regional military commitments are important as the United States retreats from world leadership. Other Asian states feel threatened and are looking to other friends.
Australia, for example, have looked to the French for an advanced-design, $50-billion submarine program. The Australian buildup would be an important part of what Washington sees as a grand alliance of Japan, India, Australia and several Southeast Asian nations to curb Chinese military expansion. The United States wanted Japan to get the submarine contract but Australia’s dependence on China for raw materials, and Chinese opposition to the Japanese bid, were formidable obstacles. President Obama will leave a legacy of Asian complications left unattended for his successor to resolve.