Despite post-9/11 changes in American strategic thinking, the U.S. alliance with Japan today is more important and healthier than ever, but Japan’s troubled relations with its Asian neighbors can prove to be a serious problem for the alliance, said Eric Heginbotham, a political scientist with the RAND Corp.

Japan should try to “defuse the land mines” over wartime history issues, in particular the controversy over Yasukuni Shrine that has severely hurt its ties with China and South Korea, Heginbotham told the Oct. 28 Keizai Koho Center symposium.

Heginbotham said Washington has traditionally sought three functions in alliances — 1) to enable the United States to station troops near likely areas of conflict; 2) permit the U.S. to capitalize on strength — particularly military strength — of its partners in predictable ways; and 3) to help the U.S. manage diplomacy, reassure partners and influence a broader range of events far from home.

Priorities change among these functions over time. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has shifted emphasis dramatically on the narrow military aspects of alliances, he said.

And as the U.S. defense strategy emphasized the need for quick deployment of light forces around the world, he said, the focus has shifted somewhat from traditional allies to “partners” that are ready to host temporary facilities to which U.S. troops can be flexibly dispatched on an ad hoc basis.

What does this all mean for U.S. alliances and its position in Asia?

“Overall, the trend is and will continue to be some reduction in America’s presence in Northeast Asia, where we have our strongest traditional alliances, and some increased presence in Southeast Asia,” which is “close to the scene of action in the Mideast and could become a home of internal conflicts in the future,” Heginbotham said, although he added that the bulk of U.S. forces in the region will remain in Northeast Asia.

Despite these changes, Heginbotham noted that Japan’s geographic position off the continent with bases less vulnerable to attack — and a perceived sense of common strategic interest in Washington and Tokyo — “has made Japan even more important in U.S. strategic thinking” than it was before 2001.

One positive aspect of the U.S. effort to reorganize overseas bases and missions is that it has forced Washington and its regional partners to “confront issues in their relationships that have long been ignored or kept below the surface,” he said.

On the negative side, Heginbotham pointed to the risk that the U.S. might lose sight of its broader strategic interests by focusing on operational aspects of its bases and alliances, citing its ties with South Korea as a source of concern.

While there are some recent signs of improvement, the U.S.-South Korea alliance “is plagued by a broad range of very serious problems and disagreements,” he warned. “Left unresolved, it’s possible that they could threaten the health, or even the future existence, of the alliance.”

Heginbotham expressed concern that should South Korea leave the alliance with the U.S., “it’s not impossible to imagine the country as a close strategic partner of China and/or a possible fierce rival of Japan.”

Heginbotham noted that the U.S. alliance with Japan is “in many ways healthier than it’s ever been” as Japan has taken on new roles and missions in a “more equal military relationship.” He lauded the recent bilateral agreement that would beef up interoperability between the U.S. military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, and create a new U.S. Army command at Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture.

But while the bilateral alliance is in good shape, Heginbotham warned that Japan’s soured ties with its Asian neighbors over history issues, in particular the controversy over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, “represent a strategic problem” for the U.S.

South Korea and China consider Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, and Tokyo’s ties with these countries have been strained in recent years by their anger over Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Shinto shrine.

“The history problem prevents Japan from playing the leadership role that it deserves in East Asia, ties Japan to the past and enmeshes Japan in a set of rather sterile debates that are largely symbolic in nature,” he said.

“From a U.S. perspective, Japan’s conflicts over history with its neighbors will be at best a distraction from other regional issues, and at worst could drag the U.S. into conflicts in which it has little or no interests,” he said. “In South Korea, the issue raises suspicions not just of Japan’s trajectory, but of the U.S.-Japan alliance and America’s motives in its alliance with Japan.”

He suggested that Japan and its neighbors — particularly China — strike some form of a bargain in which Beijing will agree to stop abusing the history issue in its relations with Tokyo while Japan will take some action — for example by creating a nonreligious alternative to Yasukuni.

Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, discussed U.S. views on recent developments in multilateralism in Asia.

Mitchell, a former senior Defense Department official under the Bill Clinton administration, said the U.S. favors multilateralism only if it’s not just about countries gathering and holding talks, and if it does not constrain U.S. flexibility and options. Also, it does not want multilateralism that excludes the U.S., he said.

“It seems that multilateralism in East Asia is moving ahead regardless of the U.S.” under the leadership of ASEAN and China, he said, adding that Washington has been “very much flat-footed in this regard.”

While Mitchell said there is no sense of panic in Washington over the first East Asian summit to be held in December in Kuala Lumpur, there is concern that the traditional trans-Pacific or Asia-Pacific identity is being overcome by an emerging pan-Asia identity, which will exclude the U.S.

“I think the U.S. is watching, waiting and seeing how the East Asian summit develops,” he said.