- Japan:A Stabilizer for the U.S.-Led System in a New Era
Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has concentrated on reinvesting in the bilateral military alliance with the United States. Abe has done this both by making it easier for the United States to maintain a presence in Japan and by attempting to demonstrate that such a continued presence in the Indo-Pacific is in the best interest of U.S. national security. In general, he feels responsible for cementing the United States' defense commitment to the region.
Geopolitical as well as geoeconomic elements have driven Tokyo's actions and decisions on this issue. Support for the bilateral military alliance remains consistent in Japan, and the partisan divide on many domestic issues is less prominent when it comes to the need to keep the alliance in good order. Few advocate the abandonment of the alliance, and Abe's recent decision to strengthen national defense capabilities was more or less unopposed.
This essay argues that Japan needs the United States to stay involved in the Indo-Pacific and examines how, in a time of great regional uncertainty, Japan under Abe has attempted to engage the United States and keep it close while simultaneously bolstering Japan's own capabilities. The first section looks at Abe's cultivation of relations with U.S. administrations in the face of changing regional dynamics. The second section then details Abe's efforts and contributions to stabilizing a strong bilateral relationship and U.S. presence in the region. The essay concludes with a call to maintain this stability in the years ahead.
Engaging the United States in a Changing Regional Environment
Prime Minister Abe is among the few leaders of the world to build a strong personal rapport with both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump. Regardless of the striking differences between the two presidents, Abe has sought to strengthen U.S.-Japan relations under both administrations. [End Page 172]
With Obama, Abe had several notable firsts. In 2015, he became the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint U.S. Congress, and a year later, for the first time since the end of World War II, he escorted a sitting U.S. president around Hiroshima's ground zero and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Both leaders made another historic first by visiting Pearl Harbor together in December 2016. Following Trump's election in November 2016, Abe was the first foreign leader to meet the president-elect in New York. Since then, Trump has spent more time with Abe than with any other foreign leader.
No matter who sits in the Oval Office, maintaining the best possible relationship at the head-of-state level is a major priority for Japan. The United States is Japan's only treaty-bound ally and has been vital for Japanese national security since the Cold War era. The nuclear umbrella the United States provides to Japan has not lost relevance. Nearly twenty years into the 21st century, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security that the two nations forged in 1960 has gained even more salience and remains a high priority in Japan's foreign policy agenda.
Changes in regional dynamics have made Japan's neighborhood more volatile. North Korea has become a declared nuclear power, and China continues to develop its own military and nuclear arsenal. The year 2018 saw the unprecedented development of the U.S. president granting the North Korean leader a one-on-one meeting, but whether Pyongyang will implement complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement remains unclear. Any changes to the U.S. military posture in South Korea could alter the security dynamic within the region and beyond, much to the detriment of Japan's long-term security. In addition, China challenges Japan's territorial integrity in the East China Sea almost daily, as well as the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Given this fraught security environment, Japan seems increasingly backed into a geopolitical corner. Put simply, Japan needs the United States at this time of great geopolitical and geoeconomic uncertainty. Yet little can be taken for granted regarding the long-term sustainability of the U.S...