Sunday, September 9, 2007

The three stooges

At the tail end of the APEC summit, Messrs. Abe, Bush, and Howard met for a much-vaunted security summit that came in the wake of the US-India-Australia-Japan-Singapore exercises in the Indian Ocean (the "quad" + one?).

Commentator Richard Halloran believes that the quad is shaping up to be a "informal defensive pact based on shared national interests and democratic values."

But how durable is the quad? India, for one, remains as committed to pursuing an independent course as ever, maybe even more so as it becomes a political and economic giant. (India has just announced naval exercises with China and Russia — why do exercises with the democracies mean India is joining an informal grouping, but exercises with China and Russia lack larger significance?)

Beyond India, whose commitment to the quad is the weakest, what of the "emerging" US-Japan-Australia triangle? I think things would look considerably different under different political leadership in each member state.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a group of leaders more harried at home than Bush, Abe, and Howard. Mr. Bush (30% approval, 64% disapproval), of course, has been universally recognized as a lame duck — a lame duck choking on the sands of Iraq — for months. Mr. Abe (negatives in the sixties) has been more or less written off, holding on to power simply because no one is in a position to force him out of office (or no one wants to). Mr. Howard, meanwhile, might be headed for an election defeat at the hands of Kevin Rudd's Labor Party, which has just widened its lead in public opinion polls in advance of the general election expected for later this year.

Would the quad look the same if it was, for example, a meeting between Mr. Rudd, Mr. Ozawa, and Mrs. Clinton (or substitute a Democrat of your choice)? Would these leaders pursue integrated cooperation with the same gusto as the current trio? Would they place the same emphasis on shared values, which serves little other purpose other than to separate them from China?

That's my problem with this whole project. If it is just an "open network" that recognizes the important ties each member has with China, what values does it add? Is Japan's security improved all that much by new security ties with Australia? What can Australia contribute that isn't already provided by the US, if not pressure on China? The same is the reverse, even more so, for Australia — what can Japan possibly contribute to Australia's security? I fear that, intentionally or unintentionally, this arrangement subordinates regional objectives to Japan's needs, given that Japan is perhaps the most insecure of the participating countries. As Halloran writes, "In Japan, strategic thinkers have pointed to open hostility from North Korea, barely concealed hostility from South Korea, and anxiety over long-term threats from China despite recent moves by Beijing to reduce the antagonism."

But why risk raising tensions with China now when the arrangement provides so little in practical terms?

So I remain dubious that this meeting was "historic," as the Sankei Shimbun writes in an editorial today. More like one last caper for a group of leaders facing the ends of their political careers.


Anonymous said...

So, here is a question for you...

Of what value is Japan to the US anymore?

During the cold war era certainly Japan was near the front lines (Soviet Union, Mao's China). Those days are over.

Why should the US have military committments to either Japan or South Korea? As an American what does it do for me? Both Japan and South Korea have shown with this whole Afghanistan affair that neither can be counted on for long term team work.

Japan Observer said...

I'm certainly sympathetic to this argument — check out the current recommended book, Rajan Menon's "The End of Alliances." He makes decent cases for the end of both the US-Japan and US-RoK alliances (as well as NATO).

The US-Japan alliance, I think, still has value insofar as it plays a constructive role in the regional order. As a host to US airpower and seapower (there's a reason why Yokosuka is the only port outside of the US home to a US aircraft carrier), the US-Japan relationship ensures that the US is able to play a stabilizing security role. Japan's limited but powerful force can play supplement the US, especially at sea.

But I fear that the cold-war era, unconditional security guarantee alliance is out of date, and dangerous, as it constitutes a moral hazard, encouraging Japan to both undercommit to its own defense and take riskier positions internationally (in the dispute over the Senkakus, for example).

Some alliance relationship is possible, and desirable. But I don't think the status quo is sustainable.