Lock and Load
Executive Summary: The article explores the complicated relationship between Japan and the US, particularly in regards to their history during World War II and the current political climate. The article delves into the historical context of the relationship and how it has evolved over time, including the current status of US military presence in Japan and the role of the US in maintaining a balance of power in the region. The article also touches on the current state of international relations and the potential impact of the US-China-Russia dynamic on Japan and the US's relationship. It highlights the need for strategic decision-making in light of the evolving geopolitical landscape, and the potential challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for both nations.
Photo from White House
It is ironic to see Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Joe Biden walking side-by-side at the White House, when one considers the events of 82 years ago. On November 17, 1941, Japanese special envoy Saburō Kurusu and Ambassador Admiral Kichisaburō Nomura attempted to persuade President Roosevelt at the White House to stop aid to China and resume trade relations with Japan. Six days later, on November 20, the US presented a counter-proposal, the Hull note, which called for Japan to withdraw its military from China and abandon its Axis ties with Germany and Italy. The negotiations continued for three weeks, but ultimately failed when Kurusu abandoned the talks. The raid on Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of December 7 subsequently prompted the US to officially enter World War II.
Four years later, on the eve of the end of World War II, President Truman, who had assumed the presidency following the death of President Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, was informed of the most classified military research in history, the Manhattan Project, just 12 days later.
The nuclear weapons, originally intended for use against Nazi Germany, were ultimately authorized for use against Japan for two major reasons. First, the projected casualties for the invasion of Japan, known as Operation Downfall, were estimated to be around 35%, or a total of 268,000 casualties, based on the bloody battles on Okinawa and Iwojima. Secondly, the possibility that the Soviet army would co-capture Tokyo, as they had done in Berlin, added to the difficulties in the subsequent battle between the free world and the communist camp. As a result, the gun-type nuclear bomb "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the implosion-type nuclear bomb "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki three days later.
Photo from White House's Flickr
An added twist is that Kishida's family migrated from Hiroshima to Tokyo, making him a politician who, prior to his premiership, consistently advocated for Japanese diplomacy to promote nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). He and President Biden have openly warned Russia against using tactical nuclear weapons on Ukraine, with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev provocatively calling on Kishida to commit "seppuku," or the ritual suicide.
The Americans’ trust in Japan looks weird, as evidenced by the presence of 50,000 military personnel deployed as part of the United States Forces Japan (USFJ), which is under the unified command of the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). This is also true in Germany, where there are at least 35,221 active-duty US military personnel stationed. It is unclear why, as free countries, both Germany and Japan would require the foreign military to operate on their own soil, apart from the alliance for war and colonial status. Thailand used to host 50,000 US military personnel during the Indochina War, but the US had to abandon the military bases due to widespread civil protests. However, the US Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand remains one of the largest and most heavily staffed US embassies in Southeast Asia, second only to the Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. The US diplomatic network in Bangkok is a vast resource both in depth and width.
Unlike Germany, which has undergone a process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung or "coming to terms with the past," Japan has never officially acknowledged its "wrongdoings" during World War II. The devastating loss of life caused by the nuclear bombings, estimated at between 129,000 and 226,000 people, has likely contributed to Japan's reluctance to shift towards a more militaristic stance, as it had during the imperial period of World War II. On November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima's failed coup d'état attempt, aimed at changing the pacifist nature of the post-war Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and revising the 1947 "McArthur Constitution," ended in his seppuku. He asked his beloved student and aid, Masakatsu Morita, to act as his kaishakunin, or the person who beheads an individual who has performed seppuku, to spare him from unnecessary pain. However, due to Morita's three failed attempts to sever Mishima's head, Masayoshi Koga was forced to step in and complete the task.
Yukio Mishima's Last Day (movie)
Mishima's death poem, or jisei, captures his internal struggle:
A small night storm blows
Saying "falling is the essence of a flower"
Preceding those who hesitate.
Despite the public consensus towards a non-militaristic path, Japan has acknowledged the steady growing power of China, particularly during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's tenure, which marked a significant shift away from the "Yoshida Doctrine." This post-war foreign policy, named after Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, had focused on aligning with the US against the Soviet Union while maintaining a low profile in international affairs and avoiding involvement in conflicts, in order to prioritize economic development. Abe's speech, "Confluence of the Two Seas," delivered at the Parliament of the Republic of India in August 22, 2007, can be considered as one of the origins of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
In its Indo-Pacific Forecast 2023, held four days ago at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), the poll asked the audience, both online and in-person participants, to prioritize the US Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2023. The results showed that 42% prioritized expanding US-Japan-South Korea cooperation, followed by building resilience in the Pacific Islands at 25%, delivering on the Quad at 16%, strengthening ASEAN at 15%, and supporting good governance and accountability at a mere 2%. This reflects the urgency of growing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, and the South China Sea. Despite the slight sarcasm of Victor Cha, the Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair at CSIS, when he asked if anyone considered boosting good governance and accountability nowadays, it is ironic that he himself knows best that, in contrast to dealing with the EU, the US utilizes a strategy of hub-and-spoke architecture when dealing with its partners in the Asia-Pacific region, according to his book Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia.
However, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has emphasized that ASEAN remains a lynchpin in Japan's Asia-Pacific strategy. This is evident in Japan's economic development efforts to connect logistics and industrial hubs in Southeast Asia. This aligns with the joint statement by President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida that "We will continue supporting ASEAN centrality and unity as well as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific."
Ultimately, a variety of actors will influence the overall unfolding of geopolitical events. These influences may depend on bureaucratic politics and the interests and perspectives of actors at the negotiating table, as well as the protocols and standard procedures exercised by government bureaucracies. However, in the long span of history, geopolitics is ultimately dictated by the interactions between nation-states, guided by an abstracted rational calculation to maximize national interest. This abstracted reason can range from pure powerplay to political ideals such as human rights and democracy. The possible outcomes can be complex, and as such, a powerful theoretical framework is necessary as guidance.
As stated, national interest is an abstract concept that can encompass both pure economic and political interests, to universal ideals. A nation-state is a political unit that came into being with the Treaty of Westphalia. According to Max Weber, a nation-state is a human community that successfully claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. However, there is no clear arrangement of political units at the supranational level. It can be interpreted as anarchy, where might is right. The other philosophical idea is "right is might," where the goal is to establish the rule of law in the absence of governance. This is an ancient debate, as seen in Plato's Republic between Thrasymachus and Socrates. The problem is that the rise and decline of such political units is at the mercy of Fortuna, as articulated by Machiavelli's core idea of the dialectic between Fortuna and virtù. Fortuna represents the unpredictable and uncontrollable forces of luck and circumstance, while virtù represents the ability to take action and shape one's own destiny through courage, skill, and determination. Machiavelli has further enhanced the concept that in order to achieve a just society, one must consider the reality of political constraints and make sacrifices in virtue to attain ruthlessness in political maneuver to overcome Fortuna's nature of stubbornness.
This debate has been furthered by Alexandre Kojève and Leo Strauss after Xenophon's "Heiro." It centers on how the relationship between philosophers, who understand the importance of virtue in eternity, can interact with statesmen, who strive for practicality within constrained conditions, particularly in regards to time and has to make critical decisions that will affect the present and future within a limited timeframe.
Yesterday, President Biden delivered a sermon at Martin Luther King Jr.'s church, where he stated that America is at a crossroads, both domestically and abroad. Biden clearly represents the idea that "right is might." He emphasized the need for America to "redeem its soul" by prioritizing spiritual and moral values, ultimately leading to a choice between democracy and autocracy, community and chaos, and love and hate. As Biden said, "progress is never easy, but it's possible." He urged to continue the fight for economic justice and civil rights. The question now is, where do we go from here? His answer is clear, we go forward, and we go together.
At home, President Biden will face challenges from the GOP-led House, starting with a test on the government debt limit this Thursday, as mentioned by Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen. Internationally, we have seen the alliance between the US, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and perhaps Australia, become more institutionalized. This coincides with the announcement of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the US and the Chinese Communist Party, a bipartisan committee that won a vote of 365 in favor and 65 opposed. The minority votes were all from Democrats, who expressed concerns about an increase in anti-Asian politics in the US. A bipartisan committee means that instead of a partisan committee like the China Task Force (CTF) established by the GOP and Kevin McCarthy on May 7, 2020, or the earlier advocacy by scholars such as Michael Pillsbury (The Hundred-Year Marathon) and Peter Navarro (Crouching Tiger), this committee's report, which is expected to be released 1-2 years after public hearings, will have a significant impact on long-term policy toward China. It can be said that the competition between China and the US is now institutionalized and will be a long-term endeavor.
The political realities President Biden must face are the budget constraints imposed by the GOP-led House and, internationally, the trilateral relationship between China, the US, and Russia. Russia intends to mobilize 500,000 more troops in January, in addition to the 300,000 drafted in October. This reality means that the US cannot finance the war in Ukraine indefinitely at this rate. The rational, but more cruel, choice is to let Ukraine being defeated by Russia and thus to support weapons and finance in an insurgency warfare similar to how the US, led by Zbigniew Brzezinski, supported the Mujahideen to drag the Soviet Union into a quagmire in Afghanistan, which was one of the causes that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Prior to that, Henry Kissinger had secretly negotiated with China, particularly on the Taiwan question, to help counter the Soviet Union. China didn't do this out of mercy, but with a political calculus inherited from the Warring States period, according to Pillsbury. And China's plan was in place even before Khrushchev's secret speech, that it planned to cooperate with the US, considering that China had just sacrificed around 500,000 of its servicemen in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, just 18 years before Nixon-Mao meeting. As mentioned earlier in this essay, friends and enemies can change their status, similar to Japan and the US. In this condition, the Russo-Ukrainian war is a kindergarten compared to the Korean War, and actually, the Cold War is still alive in Asia, considering the status on the Korean peninsula or the status between mainland China and Taiwan nowadays.
China seems to be aware of the brutal reality that it is not ready for war in this decade, but perhaps the next. Despite President Xi Jinping's tightening of power within the Chinese Communist Party, the decision to wage war with Taiwan would still require a high success rate, which currently seems unlikely according to simulations mentioning by the CSIS's report. In response, China has shifted its approach with the appointment of Zhao Lijian as Deputy Director of the Boundary and Ocean Affairs Department, signaling a move towards more transparent and rational diplomacy, as opposed to the combative and propagandistic tactics of Russia. This shift is also reflected in China's decision to release more realistic figures on Covid-19 deaths.
The question remains whether China can regain the trust of the United States and normalize relations. The GOP-led House has taken a hardline stance towards China, pushing for a more confrontational approach, which puts President Biden in a difficult position. He must weigh the brutal realities of geopolitical strategy, as outlined by Machiavelli, and make a choice between the unpredictable forces of luck and circumstance (Fortuna) and the ability to shape one's own destiny through courage, skill, and determination (virtù). The decision on how to handle the Ukraine-Russia conflict and China's rising power will be a critical test of Biden's leadership and strategic acumen. It will require careful consideration of the long-term consequences and a clear understanding of the complex dynamics at play. America is really at the crossroads.