Analysts say Tokyo is excessively optimistic about U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election and his administration’s strategic shift toward the Asia-Pacific region is unlikely to result in any dividend for Japan.
Instead of trying to protect the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by China, Washington could urge Tokyo to bolster its defense capability on its own because Obama is aiming to cut military spending during his second term, according to experts.
“Ultraman won’t come without doing anything,” said Tatsuhiko Yoshizaki, executive vice president of Sojitz Research Institute, comparing the United States to the popular giant-size hero character.
Obama’s administration has shifted its military focus in its so-called Asia-Pacific pivot, leading Japan to believe that reinforcing its alliance with the U.S. will help prevent China from boosting its naval power in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s confirmation in September 2010 that the disputed Senkakus are covered by the bilateral security treaty, which allows Washington to intervene in the event of a military strike against Japanese territory, has also fanned optimism in Japan.
Relations between Tokyo and Beijing have plunged since Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government in mid-September purchased three of the five main Senkaku islets, known as Diaoyu in China, from a Saitama businessman.
“As the security environment in East Asia is severe at present, the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance has increased. We hope to continuously enhance and deepen the relationship,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a news conference immediately after Obama clinched victory in the Nov. 6 presidential vote.
Welcoming Obama’s re-election, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba reiterated this stance, saying in a separate news conference, “it is very important for the United States and Japan to work as one to establish order and rule in the Asia-Pacific region and the world.”
But Takushoku University professor Takashi Kawakami said Obama’s military strategy is only aimed at pursuing the national interests of the United States — not Japan’s.
Tokyo will be forced to play “a bigger role” to deter China’s rising assertiveness in the region as Washington may become too stretched to protect even its allies in the face of major cuts in military spending, Kawakami said.
In January, the Pentagon unveiled a plan to reduce defense-related expenditures by about $259 billion over five years starting in October, and by some $487 billion over the next decade. And automatic across-the-board cuts in spending, including in defense, are also due to take effect in January as part of Washington’s deficit-reduction measures.
In addition, Clinton and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, whose diplomatic prowess has helped Japan hedge against China, are expected to leave Obama’s new administration, Kawakami pointed out.
Their departures “would be a major blow for Japan” and “make Obama less willing” to increase assistance to Tokyo, Kawakami said, adding that given the budgetary circumstances, Washington could end up submitting more policy requests to Tokyo instead.
“Japan has been too dependent on the United States,” Yoshizaki of Sojitz Research Institute said, lambasting Tokyo’s lack of defense and diplomatic effort in spite of China’s growing regional threat.
Speaking at the opening of the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th national congress last week, President Hu Jintao voiced his determination to “safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity,” apparently referring to Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands.
A Japanese government official speaking on condition of anonymity argued that in order to hold out against Beijing’s aggression, Tokyo should “make efforts on its own to form a coalition with other Asian countries, particularly in Southeast Asia.”
“Many of these countries are also embroiled in territorial clashes with China, so Japan’s interests clearly coincide with theirs,” the official said.
The protracted territorial disputes in the South China Sea are considered one of the most serious long-term security threats in the region. China, Taiwan and four Southeast Asian countries — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — have conflicting territorial and maritime claims over part or all of roughly 100 isles, atolls, reefs and cays believed to sit atop vast natural oil and gas deposits.
For Japan, maintaining stability in the South China Sea is “important” as the nation’s oil imports from the Middle East are shipped through the disputed waters, according to the official.
“If Prime Minister Noda actively approaches other countries with a view to holding bilateral talks, the move could be welcomed and enable Japan to create stronger ties with them,” the official added.
Sojitz Research Institute’s Yoshizaki echoed this view, saying Tokyo should extend financial support to build relations of trust with countries in Southeast Asia. For example, Japan could indirectly address various rows between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by funding the expansion of coast guard authorities and improvement of port facilities in such countries as the Philippines, he said.