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Rebooting the Japan-US Alliance

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Rebooting the Japan-US Alliance

With economy increasingly becoming the new decisive battlespace in the looming China-U.S. Cold War, the alliance needs an urgent reboot.

Rebooting the Japan-US Alliance
Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. John L. Carkeet IV, U.S. Army Japan

Japan commemorates the 70th anniversary of its enduring alliance with the United States today. The timing could not be more poignant, as Afghanistan’s recent implosion has categorically shattered the post-Cold War euphoria of the American unipolar moment. Signed on September 8, 1951, the Security Treaty Between the United States and Japan laid the foundation for what has increasingly come to be Washington’s single most important alliance in today’s simmering geopolitical rivalry with Beijing. Meanwhile, the Japan-U.S. alliance harbors many of its Cold War-era shibboleths, hindering Japan from taking a proactive role in a newfound security environment that is constantly under threat from China’s inexorable challenges. The alliance urgently needs a reboot lest it risk a system failure in advancing the common vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Although originally devised as an anti-Soviet expedient in the 1950s, the Japan-U.S. alliance has weathered the vicissitudes of geopolitics and evolved with seeming pliability well into the 21st century. Critical to the long-term success of the alliance has been its operating system, the Yoshida Doctrine. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, one of the signers of the 1951 treaty, adopted export-oriented neo-mercantilism for Japan’s post-war economic recovery while essentially delegating Tokyo’s own defense responsibility into Washington’s hands. To be sure, this peculiar arrangement fulfilled Washington’s Cold War objective of transforming post-war Japan into a bulwark against communism backed by economic might. For Tokyo, it was a low-risk, high-return deal that led the defeated country to become the world’s second largest economy by 1968 and one of the founding members of the Group of Seven (G-7) in 1975.

Yet, one of the Yoshida Doctrine’s unintended consequences has been Japan’s perennial reluctance toward security issues, a national attitude further bolstered by its own peace constitution. While subsequent changes in the alliance, including the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan, have ultimately expanded the areas of Japan’s defense commitments, Yoshida’s “economy first” mentality continues to overshadow Tokyo’s national security discourse.

In fact, such a lingering legacy is a major impediment to the evolution of the Japan-U.S. alliance as it faces off an increasingly bellicose China. The sober reality is that Beijing is at war with the world. The U.S.-led liberal international order, of which post-war Japan is a direct beneficiary, is under ceaseless assault by China’s unrestricted warfare, seeking to replace it with a new world order under Beijing’s mandate. The retired Chinese Major General Qiao Liang, one of the co-authors of the 1999 treatise, “Unrestricted Warfare,” ominously advocated that “the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.” Indeed, from artificial islands in the South China Sea to global cyber espionage, China has transformed all of society into a battlefield by “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.”

While the former commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, correctly denounced China as the “greatest long-term strategic threat of the 21st century” earlier this year, Tokyo has yet to reciprocate Washington’s renewed perspective, merely expressing “grave concerns.” Given Tokyo’s enduring disinclination to recognize the Chinese threat, the current bilateral alliance suffers a perilous perception gap and is fundamentally lagging in effectively countering China’s post-Clausewitzian challenges. The upshot is the growing prospect of a Chinese geoeconomic suzerainty engulfing Japan before shots are even fired.

China’s unrestricted offensives against Japan are most palpable in the emerging field of economic security. Ironically, Japan’s long-standing economic-centric approach to national security has scarcely inspired thinking about the country’s own economic security, let alone its economic statecraft. Instead, Japan has long allowed itself to wallow in the poisoned chalice of virtually unfettered access to an ascendant communist economy. As a result, blithe ignorance and unmitigated avarice have blinded Japan to the Marxist-Leninist nature of the Chinese Communist regime and its authoritarian agenda, culminating in Tokyo’s willful embrace of the Beijing-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) earlier this year.

In other words, Japan has sold China the rope with which it is to be hanged, to the ultimate detriment of the Japan-U.S. alliance. This has profound operational implications for the U.S. military assets forward deployed in Japan. For example, special operators in the U.S. forces in Japan could come under the constant risk of leaving digital footprints in a telecommunications environment increasingly compromised by Chinese providers, such as Huawei. Such information could lead to major vulnerabilities in operational security, endangering mission assurance in future operations. Unlike the United States, Japan has yet to exclude Huawei and other Chinese 5G technologies from its domestic market. Business viability is no excuse for being a liability if the alliance itself is at risk.

Equally important, Japan’s decades-long economic engagement with China has ironically led to the erosion of the country’s industrial base, the very piece that supported Japan’s post-war prosperity as well as the rules-based order. Indeed, the advent of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 exposed Japan’s severe supply chain risks as the country scrambled to procure masks and other medical equipment, only to discover its entrenched national reliance on Chinese producers. Such dependency is a crippling vulnerability of geopolitical significance, exploitation of which could subdue an entire society without firing a single bullet.

Moreover, the revelation of the popular LINE messenger app’s suspicious ties to Beijing earlier this year also underscores fundamental flaws in Japan’s digital transformation (DX) process. Indeed, despite its tremendous innovation potential, Japan has yet to witness a homegrown alternative to LINE, largely due to the country’s lingering systemic constraints on entrepreneurship. According to the 2019 Inc. magazine survey, Japan was ranked the fourth least entrepreneurial country in the world. As a result, Japan has largely failed to leverage the technological prowess it once boasted during the Cold War and yielded its coveted place as the world’s leading technology powerhouse to China in the age of DX. As China looks to become the “Saudi Arabia of data,” Japan’s DX dependence on China is tantamount to aiding and abetting Beijing’s globalizing digital authoritarianism and is incompatible with the democratic world order.

As the China-U.S. geopolitical competition increasingly turns into another Cold War, Japan finds itself at a historic crossroads that will determine the country’s future. As a member of the House of Councillors, Japan’s upper house, leading the country’s economic security policy, I argue that Japan must fully realign itself with the United States in fighting China’s unrestricted war against the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. To do so requires first and foremost a system upgrade in the Yoshida Doctrine, explicitly recognizing that economic security is national security.

To this end, Japan must accelerate the process of targeted decoupling from China in the fields of essential goods and advanced technologies. The present degree of Japan’s economic dependence on China is so profound that total disengagement would be mutually destructive. Therefore, Tokyo must design its own economic statecraft based on a calculated balance between economic incentives and economic security. In implementing targeted decoupling from China, Japan’s economic statecraft must pursue strategic autonomy and strategic indispensability in key basic industries so as to ensure the country’s control over chokepoints in economic security.

In particular, ensuring the economic security of Japan’s semiconductor industry is fundamental to prevailing in the China-U.S. Cold War. While Japan once boasted more than 50 percent of the world’s semiconductor supplies in 1989, the country’s share had plummeted to merely 6 percent by 2021, potentially leading to its total exit from the global semiconductor market in the future at the current rate. Because semiconductors are inextricable from today’s digital economy, Tokyo must protect the strategic autonomy and strategic indispensability of Japan’s domestic semiconductor industry to retain its control over a critical geoeconomic chokepoint in service of the rules-based order.

China’s National Intelligence Law mandates intelligence cooperation from its citizens and entities upon request by Beijing, leading the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Christopher Wray to describe Chinese counterintelligence and economic espionage as the “the greatest long-term threat” to the U.S. economic and national security. In other words, market share is synonymous with veritable sphere of influence in the China-U.S. Cold War. Japan’s defeat to China in the global semiconductor competition would provide Beijing with a strategic high ground from which it could further expand its geoeconomic suzerainty over the world.

As China advances its Made in China 2025 agenda in earnest toward becoming a global powerhouse in emerging technologies, I partnered with other like-minded lawmakers in supporting the launch of a parliamentary economic security task force, the Semiconductor Caucus, in order to address the urgent strategic issues surrounding Japan’s semiconductor industry. As U.S. Senator Tom Cotton rightly argues, we must combat the allure of appeasement and jingoism in navigating our policy discourse on targeted decoupling from China. In particular, Japan carries the original sin of appeasing Beijing in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident, when it became the first democratic country to revoke its economic sanctions against China. Given Japan’s prevailing predisposition for appeasement, largely due to entangled business interests in China, the legislative branch has a special mission of leading constructive policy discourses based on economic security imperatives.

Ultimately, I envision Japan to win the China-U.S. Cold War together with our American ally in defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The tasks before us are monumental and will begin with the consolidation of Japan’s economic security. I will leverage my legislative power to guide economic security legislation and aim to incorporate economic security into the revised National Security Strategy in the near future. I will also do my utmost to expand Japan’s intelligence capabilities and boost inter-agency coordination related to economic security while working closely with our U.S. counterparts. Ultimately, I seek to establish a whole-of-the-government mechanism for countering Beijing’s unrestricted challenges to Japan’s economic security. Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), has established the Strategic Headquarters on the Creation of a New International Order and the Economic Division at the National Security Secretariat (NSS) to further the above imperatives.

Lastly, I will deepen the engagement between the Japanese National Diet and the U.S. Congress. For too long, bilateral legislative interactions have been minimal, leaving the important job of alliance management to the bureaucracy, which is unaccountable to the public. As the economy itself increasingly becomes a battleground threatening industries and businesses in the China-U.S. Cold War, we must directly engage our colleagues in the U.S. Congress to proactively shape bilateral policy discourse and consensus to achieve a winning alliance that is also answerable to the public.

Seventy years ago today, Yoshida quietly signed the Japan-U.S. alliance treaty by himself at the Non-Commissioned Officers’ Club at Presidio, San Francisco. In signing the controversial treaty authorizing continued U.S. military presence in post-occupation Japan, he sacrificed his political future for the country’s honor and security. His solitary act unmistakably revealed his fearless leadership and shrewd realism, which ensured the successful evolution of the Japan-U.S. alliance under his doctrinal guidance. Yet the Yoshida Doctrine requires a boost as the China-U.S. Cold War looms over Japan, posing unprecedented challenges to the country and the alliance.

With the economy increasingly becoming the new decisive battlespace, the alliance needs an urgent reboot. Japan must realign itself fully with the United States in economic security and pursue targeted decoupling from China. Victory is possible. As Yoshida astutely demonstrated at the beginning of the previous Cold War, I, as a lawmaker, must lead by example the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance and a free and open Indo-Pacific toward ultimate triumph in my generation’s struggle against communism, starting with bilateral economic security cooperation.

Guest Author

Kenzo Fujisue

Kenzo Fujisue is a member of the House of Councillors in Japan. He is also the director of the Multi-partisan Economic Security Policy Study Team. Previously, he was the chair of the Committee of Information and Telecommunication and the senior vice minister of Internal Affairs and Communications.  He received an MS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School, and two Ph.D.s in Industrial Management and in International Relations from Tokyo Institute of Technology and Waseda University, respectively.