NAGOYA — For more than 400 years, Great Britain played the role of global offshore balancer. Believing that it had neither permanent allies nor permanent enemies, but only permanent interests, Britain avoided entanglement on the Continent. Shifting its weight as required to prevent any potentially hostile power from occupying the “low countries” on the opposite shore of the English Channel, Britain relied on global maritime power and astute diplomacy. This was an effective, low-cost strategy, which is why France called it “Perfidious Albion.”
After World War II, the United States inherited Britain’s role as global offshore balancer. Now that America is no longer tied down by countervailing Soviet power, it may be attracted by “Perfidious Albion” options. Yet Japan seems to be oblivious to this danger.
Currently, Japan is on bad terms with all its neighbors, and has territorial disputes with all of them. Moreover, unlike Germany, Japan emerged from the Cold War having failed to settle the issues of World War II with its neighbors. Japan also lives in a volatile region, as shown for example by North Korea’s dangerous nuclear brinkmanship. Yet Japan’s government is saying that, while it seeks to maintain deterrence, it wants a reduction of the “security burden” in Okinawa, and that it is necessary to remove some U.S. forces to “some other country.”
It’s time for Japan to wake up and smell the coffee. The U.S., relieved of the need to contain the Soviet Union in its continental imperium, has much wider strategic options. Japan has fewer options, not least because its economy hit a brick wall just as the Cold War was ending.
True, current strategic circumstances are giving Japan somewhat more latitude than it might otherwise possess. China is seeking opportunities to constrain U.S. influence in East Asia, not least by its quasi-alliance with North Korea. For its part, the U.S. worries about China advancing its great power interests at U.S. expense. All that encourages U.S. cooperation with Japan against China, thus giving Japan some important cards to play.
Yet Japan should not be complacent. The U.S. is a global power, whereas the security interests of Japan (and China) are much more regionally concentrated.
Japan should recall the “Nixon Shocks,” particularly when Nixon turned to China while giving short shrift to Japan’s interests. By the early 1970s, the U.S. had strong shared interests with China in opposing the growing Soviet military power that threatened them both. So Washington and Beijing moved into a strategic alignment meant to remind Moscow of its historic fear of a two-front war. That process also led to the Carter administration’s unilateral abrogation of its bilateral security treaty with Taiwan.
Yes, Congress responded with the Taiwan Relations Act, under which security commitments to Taiwan remained pretty much the same. But that is not the point. The wider point is that all security treaties can be abrogated by either party, and that the U.S. is capable of unilaterally abrogating bilateral agreements.
Moreover, no one sensible can now claim that there is any risk that China and Japan will gang up together on the U.S., whatever delusions there may be about an East Asian Community. Thus if the U.S. becomes increasingly fed up with Japan’s near-free riding, it may become tempted to withdraw to Guam, rely more on air and space power, and let China and Japan balance each other.
True, that is not the most attractive option for America. Among other things, Japan would have to look after its own nuclear security. That would set up a potentially dangerous nuclear rivalry between the great powers of East Asia, over which the U.S. had little influence.
Today’s Japan is complaining of being “trapped on all sides.” Yet it seems focused on the “need” for the U.S. to “relieve the burden on the bases.” The more Japan behaves as if it thinks its security is America’s problem, the more America will ponder its “Perfidious Albion” option. Moreover, America has shown itself capable of turning on a dime.
Japan should recall the platform on which Robert A. Taft ran unsuccessfully against Dwight D. Eisenhower for the U.S. presidential nomination in 1952. Taft rejected “NATO-style alliances.” He said the U.S. should rely on a global coalition of Anglo-Saxon democracies based on superior air power. Taft’s thinking also reflected traditional “Whig” preferences for smaller, cheaper government as well as disdain for “entangling alliances.”
Indeed, the recent Iraq war showed that when push came to shove, America could rely only on Britain and Australia. Moreover, the air and space advocates are the natural bedfellows of the neo-isolationists. Add missile defense to the mix.
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