This year celebrates an important anniversary for Japan–United States relations, giving us an opportunity to focus on their transformation with time. The author is referring to January 19, which marked the signing of the United States-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security sixty years ago, and to July 23, the date it was enacted. In Washington’s and Tokyo’s official statements, the pact is still described as the cornerstone of their bilateral relationship, a familiar catchphrase by now.
This description is clearly meant to evoke associations with Biblical references to the Cornerstone of faith, which was actually not laid by people. Therefore, such a Cornerstone can withstand not only the test of time but also the fires of hell.
During his first presidential campaign in 2016, Donald Trump, the previously unfamiliar to the world of politics Republican nominee for the top job, began questioning the purpose and significance of many of USA’s “indestructible and everlasting” alliances. And his statements seemed to resonate with the public at the time. The eccentric politician was not the first person to raise this issue, which has, for several decades, been the subject of discussions among those US intellectuals who are commonly referred to as “neo-isolationists”.
Their core belief is that the United States’ role in the world ought to be as follows “We have established a country, and first and foremost, its economy, political system and culture could be of interest to our external partners. Our very real achievements do not depend on ideologically-motivated military interventions or the spread of our values “by force”. However, we are willing to share them with anyone who is interested.”
These fundamental principles, which directly contradict those that define USA’s role on the planet, according to neocons (i.e. globalists), invariably lead to the aforementioned discussions.
And Donald Trump, as President, began talking about these issues with Americans as well as long-term US allies in Europe and Japan. After all, the United States continues to bear the brunt of the costs associated with these alliances. The country is also at a disadvantage, in comparison to its partners, when it comes to trade.
The key idea behind the “America First” policy is the need to quickly curtail US involvement in conflicts on foreign soil, and to focus on resolving internal problems that have piled up and are rapidly coming to light during the current crisis. Still, the US President is willing to offer US goods and services to anyone in need of them but for the “right” price.
In his view, it ought to be business as usual, as the saying goes, without any ideology-based issues. After all, at present, they are not as relevant to the global political landscape as they used to be during the Cold War, which is a crucial difference between the two eras.
Hence, for now, attempts by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to paint the leadership of the Communist Party of China as USA’s key geopolitical opponent have not been very convincing.
However, self-interest alone cannot hold military and political alliances together, which were established at some point in the past for purposes no longer relevant today. As a result, in recent years, various problems have arisen within the aforementioned partnerships seemingly, at first glance, by chance. This is particularly true of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
These issues are, perhaps, less apparent within the United States-Japan alliance. From the latest sources of information, we could refer our readers to the already famous book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir”, written by former US National Security Advisor John Bolton. His work has already been deconstructed and widely cited. If we choose to ignore some scandalous claims made in the book, overall, the former high-ranking official essentially did not reveal anything new about the past actions of his former boss on the international arena.
The New Eastern Outlook has, on more than one occasion, reported about issues, in US self-interests, that Donald Trump has with Japan, and John Bolton exemplifies them using specific figures. For instance, during his visit to Tokyo in July 2019, the former National Security Advisor passed on a message from the US President “requesting” the Japanese leadership quadruple its payments (i.e. from $1.8 to almost $8 billion) for United States Forces Japan (USFJ). It is worth noting that out of all the USFJ troops, two thirds (or approximately 50,000 servicemen) are stationed in military bases in Okinawa.
According to the memoir, before John Bolton left for Tokyo, Donald Trump had suggested that he use the possibility of complete withdrawal of US forces and the “unilateral” nature of the 1960 security pact as means of pressuring the Japanese government. After all, according to the current Constitution of Japan (formulated in 1947 under US supervision), the country would not be able to help its key ally, the United States, militarily if the latter were attacked by a third party.
In fact, the approach to the United States-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security (signed in 1960) has been shifting within Japan itself. These changes, in large part, have been prompted by long-lasting protests by Okinawa residents against the presence of US troops on their island. The main reason for the opposition is the fact that 70% of all the territory allocated by Japan for housing US military bases is in Okinawa. And the island itself accounts for a little over 0.5% of Japan’s entire land area. And although American military bases provide significant employment opportunities for Okinawa residents, disadvantages seemingly still outweigh these benefits, as a substantial portion of the island cannot be used for economic purposes.
As a result of the Okinawa prefectural assembly election on June 7, a bloc of assembly members (“which includes parties in opposition” to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, such as the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party) retained their majority (26 out of 48 seats). This puts Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, elected in September 2018, in a stronger position. The politician is a proponent of reducing the presence of US troops on the island (), who could, therefore, make trouble for Japan’s central government.
In fact, the Japanese leadership is being forced to deal with the fact that opinions of the majority of Okinawa residents are garnering more and more support from a substantial portion of Japan’s entire population. And views are changing not only about the specific situation in Okinawa but also certain key aspects of the United States-Japan security treaty, especially those concerning the legal standing of USFJ, stationed in Japan, as outlined in the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
According to a survey of Japan’s 47 governors, recently conducted by popular newspaper The Mainichi Shimbun, 39 of them believe that SOFA needed to be reviewed. The results showed that many heads of local governments had concerns about some of the privileges enjoyed by Japan-based US troops, according to the agreement, “such as Japanese laws not applying to their activities”.
The author believes that if the Japanese government were to suggest making USFJ servicemen and their activities subject to Japanese laws to its American allies, Washington would most likely choose to withdraw from the United States-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security altogether.
If this were to happen (and it is certainly possible from the author’s perspective), the United States would inevitably remove its forces from South Korea too, leading to the reshaping of the political landscape in the Indo-Pacific region. The status of new geopolitical players, such as India and Japan, would subsequently increase and the relationship of both these nations with China would also transform.
The future of Japan-China (as well as China-India) relations is a separate and extremely important topic that the New Eastern Outlook will always continue to focus on. After all, its relevance, based on everything that has been said so far, will only grow.
Vladimir Terehov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.