My latest TAP Online column takes a look at what the rise to power of the Democratic Party of Japan means for the important US-Japan bilateral alliance. Possibly it means nothing, and the party’s rhetoric about changing things was just cheap talk. But maybe not:
Much as nobody is quite sure of what to make of Hatoyama’s campaign rhetoric, an untested new Japanese leadership throwing off the American yoke would likely make other Asian leaders nervous. The worry would be that a Japan without firm ties to the United States would need to increase its own defense capabilities considerably. That, in turn, could spur China to further intensify its own defense buildup. And in principle, it could open up a whole new front for nuclear proliferation. Bigger Chinese defense expenditures would also have negative consequences for India and Pakistan and make existing proliferation problems worse.
What Hatoyama actually called for, however, was rather different. Instead of a re-armed Japan, he wrote of “regional integration and collective security” along the lines of the European Union as the best ways to achieve “the principles of pacifism and multilateral cooperation advocated by the Japanese Constitution.”
This would be a difficult trick to pull off, but the outcome would be excellent. American worries about what the East Asian security environment would look like absent a hegemonic U.S. position are not unfounded. At the same time, the status quo simply isn’t viable over the long run. China is growing rapidly; Japan is a major country; smaller players like Korea and Taiwan have developed; and the region is simply too far away for it to make sense for us to be the main military player forever. Eventually, the region will have to go down either the path of security integration or competition. Traditionally, the United States has opposed any alteration of the status quo in the region fearing that change will end up in the latter arms-race scenario. Back in June, for example, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell slapped down Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s regional integration ideas. But with a new Japanese prime minister seemingly singing from the Rudd book, it may be time for us to abandon this point of view. Japan and Australia are, after all, our best friends in the region, and we ought to encourage them if they’re both prepared to take the leap to build the better security architecture of tomorrow. If we don’t, the risk is that the status quo will simply unravel in some less palatable way a few years down the road.
Read the whole thing.