Japan Seeks Upgrade in American Security Alliance

In its island dispute with China, Japan isn’t sure if the United States have its back.

Japanese defense minister Satoshi Morimoto during a press conference at the Pentagon in Washington DC, August 3
Japanese defense minister Satoshi Morimoto during a press conference at the Pentagon in Washington DC, August 3 (US Navy/Chad J. McNeeley)

Reflecting an increasing uneasiness with China’s growing military might, Japan’s defense minister Satoshi Morimoto on Friday said that his country is interested in revising the guidelines of its mutual defense pact with the United States.

Morimoto explained that since the last time the guidelines were revised in 1997, national security risks, like China’s maritime reach, terrorism, cyber security and instability in North Korea, have changed.

But it is the dispute with China in the East China Sea over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands that has raised questions about America’s security commitment to Japan should it get into a war with China.

The Obama Administration’s “pivot” to Asia was supposed to placate such anxieties but comments from some American officials during a trip to East Asia recently about the wisdom of going to war over “some rocks” in the East China Sea have apparently renewed those concerns.

Add to that the underlying fear in Japan and the rest of Asia that American economic restraints, weariness to overseas commitments after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a desire to develop better relations with Beijing will result in a pullback and the region being left alone to defend its interests against a rising China.

Japan’s desire to upgrade its alliance with the United States comes a few days after Barak Obama was reelected president and is due to be in Southeast Asia later this month for the Asia Pacific Economic Summit in Cambodia. Reports are that Obama will visit Burma, in what would be a first for a sitting president, which should address fears of an American abandonment of the region and surely raise eyebrows in Beijing.

China’s sovereignty claims to the islands, the increasingly provocative actions by its nonmilitary surveillance vessels in the area and the repeated declarations to such by its state backed media has certainly rattled nerves in Japan. The nation’s economy is also stagnant compared to China’s which, although boasting lower growth rates than previously expected, is still expanding, adding to Japanese concerns.

Japan’s leaders couldn’t have been at ease this week as China’s ruling Communist Party convened in Beijing. Outgoing president Hu Jintao reasserted the party’s grip on power and reiterated his call to “build China into a maritime power” in order to guard its interests.

Similar statements have been made in the past but in the current climate, it only adds to the worries of Japanese and other East Asian policymakers.

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