Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 05:35 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 05:35 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: US-Japan alliance far from certain


Sam Roggeveen


20 October 2008 10:08

Professor Robyn Lim from the University of Queensland has more on our North Korea debate (And Peter Drysdale at East Asia Forum has also joined the discussion):

I agree with Malcolm Cook that a new trilateral arrangement for Northeast Asia (US, DPRK, China) would be a very silly idea, excluding as it does the key US allies in Northeast Asia — South Korea and Japan. But  I can't agree with Malcolm that the US-Japan alliance is 'certain'.

To the contrary, victory has historically been the solvent of alliances and there is no reason to assume that the US-Japan alliance is somehow immune. The 'glue' in this alliance was the shared fixed enmity towards the USSR during the Cold War. But that glue dissolved along with the end of the Cold War.
The Cold War began, remember, not in East Asia but in Europe, as a consequence of the way the Second World War had ended, with the USSR dangerously close to hegemony over Eurasia. By the late 1940s, the US had concluded that such near-hegemony by a totalitarian power was a palpable threat to US security. Hence NATO. Then Stalin brough the Cold War to East Asia by giving Kim Il Sung the green light to invade South Korea (the result was not what Stalin intended, because it led, among other things, to a US alliance system in East Asia, as well as to the rearming of West Germany within NATO).
The US, having decided that the USSR was a fixed enemy, maintained that view until the overextended Soviet imperium was brought down. But US views of China were not fixed. To the contrary, they fluctuated according to the fluctuations in Sino-Soviet relations. With China and the USSR having come to the brink of war in the summer of 1969, Nixon saw and took an opportunity vastly to complicate Soviet strategic planning by enlisting China as an ally of convenience.
While Nixon's 'turn to China' — done with no consultation with Japan, incidentally — did not threaten Japan's strategic interests, what Bush is doing now regarding North Korea is quite different, and it has done much to undermine Japanese confidence in the US 'strategic umbrella'. The US and China are not friends.  How can they be, with China asserting its own version of the Monroe Doctrine? But they are not enemies either. Thus Japan has been unable to count on unreserved US support against China since the days of Nixon.
So I agree with Malcolm that the US has the task of helping to bring China into the international system without war, and without appeasement.  But the US-Japan alliance is far from 'certain'.  How can it be, when the glue that once underpinned the alliance has dissolved? The AEI and Heritage crowds try to put a gloss on all of this, but I  (recently returned from 14 years in Japan) don't find it very convincing. Nor is the US alliance with South Korea 'certain'. But that is another story...