Foreign policy focuses on change. New leaders, new technologies, new conditions — all create the need for new policies. Experts are always planning for contingencies — the crisis to come — and when they hit it’s usually because governments failed to recognize the new realities that created them.

That’s why there’s concern on both sides of the Pacific about the Japan-U.S. relationship. A growing number of experts fear that the security alliance has not kept pace with changes in Japan, the United States and throughout Asia. The two countries agreed to the updated defense guidelines, but that is merely a starting point for alliance modernization.

Strains are already visible. Japan is trying to cut its host-nation support. The U.S. is pushing Tokyo to prepare to assume a higher profile in regional security. Tokyo wants more say in decision making. All the while, the Okinawa base issue simmers. Last summer, the situation had become sufficiently hot for local commanders to impose a curfew on their soldiers.

Robert Madsen, a fellow at Stanford University’s Asia/Pacific Research Center and the author of the Economic Intelligence Unit’s quarterly Japan Country Report, worries that supporters of the alliance are missing the point. “No one is asking the purpose of the alliance,” he suggested in a recent interview. “Too few people are thinking clearly about the long-term future of the region.”

The focus on economics — be it bilateral trade relations or the bottom-line cost of the security relationship — is off the mark. The security alliance was formed a half century ago because of geopolitical concerns and the regional balance of power. Fifty years later, those concerns are just as valid, if less obviously so.

“The strategic reasons for the U.S. relationship with Japan are not limited to the Soviet Union.”

Madsen ticked off the key features of contemporary East Asian politics: Japan is considerably more powerful than its neighbors; other countries in the region are uncomfortable with Japan; its relationship with the U.S. can help stabilize Japan; and stability within the region lessens the probability of war. Anyone looking at Asia a half-century ago would have made the same points. (The logic would have applied before World War II, as well.)

The end of the Cold War is a fact; the impact of that event is subject to interpretation, however. Talk of a “peace dividend” began in 1989, but it has proven pretty tough to identify. The danger is that governments will start looking for savings in the wrong places. To stick with the dividend analogy, the argument would be that governments are borrowing from the principal, and not the interest.

Two wild cards dominate strategic planning in Asia: China and the Korean Peninsula. Consider each in turn.

China’s rise is almost a certainty, although it will occur more slowly than many people think. “While China is not an inevitable enemy of the U.S.,” said Madsen, “it is an inevitable competitor.” Even if we assume the best of intentions on both sides, there will always be some friction — if only on the fringes of their relationship — between two great powers in the same region. China’s status as a rising power, eager to assert itself and to challenge U.S. hegemony, will inevitably cause some tensions. The Taiwan issue, with all its dimensions and complications, will add to the strains between Washington and Beijing.

In this situation, it is clear that “a strategic partnership with China would be very difficult to engineer. Furthermore, trying to do so gives Beijing bargaining power and undermines the U.S.-Japan relationship,” argued Madsen. “This is dangerous because Japan is still vitally important to the U.S.”

Developments on the Korean Peninsula are more variable. The Koreas could unite or they could remain divided. Koreans could move closer to China, could maintain their ties with the U.S. or they could aim for equidistance from both. From Washington’s perspective, the ideal solution is a united Korea in an alliance with the U.S. that is managed carefully to minimize China’s strategic concerns.

The danger, in Madsen’s view, is that Koreans, distrustful of China and tired of American dominance, will opt for equidistance. Loosening the bonds between the U.S. and Korea would ripple through Japan as well, undermining one of the current arguments for the Japan-U.S. security alliance. While he doesn’t believe that either Japan or South Korea should be subordinate to the U.S., Madsen worries that neither government would be ready to deal with China in 15 years. By then, the Chinese economy will have grown and market reforms paid off. The military will have modernized somewhat and the combination of economic strength, accelerating military development and political self-confidence will inspire Beijing to flex its muscles.

Neither Japan nor South Korea will be able to counter China on its own, and the odds of the two cooperating on security matters, without the U.S. acting as a stabilizer, are long. “In these circumstances, it is most likely that the two will develop independent military capabilities, and that is bad for China,” explained Madsen. Three independent powers in Northeast Asia, mutually suspicious and well armed, is not a formula for regional security or stability.

President-elect George W. Bush must strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and prepare it for future challenges. There needs to be a new tone to the dialogue. Japan wants to be treated more like an equal; that means it has to assume new responsibilities. The U.S. has to treat Japan with more respect. U.S. pressure is sometimes needed, but it should be done in private, not in public. Madsen worries that the constant criticism — especially on secondary economic matters — undermines popular confidence in the alliance on both sides of the Pacific.

“The goal should be maintaining the popular and political foundation of the current alliance. If Okinawans or others demand reasonable alterations, they must be accommodated; but the goal is to preserve the system until Japan is ready to play a more constructive role.”

In practical terms, that may require more maturity on the part of the U.S. Madsen explained that “If Washington’s attitude today is a petulant disregard, the proper attitude would be one of benign patience: a willingness to tolerate Japan’s passivity, a public commitment in word and deed to the strategic nature of the relationship, and planning for the reforms that will one day become possible.

“We need more flexibility in how things work. The relationship should be intimate enough so that when unforeseen dangers arise, Japan has a solid relationship with the U.S. and doesn’t panic. The same goes for Korea.”

At a time of sweeping change in international relations, this should be an enduring principle of U.S. foreign policy.

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