December 6: The United States-Japan Alliance and Maritime Security Challenges

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December 6, 2011: Richard Bush, Koji Furukawa, Akihiro Iwashita, Andrew Oros, Akihiro Sato, and Yuki Tatsumi
Experts from the United States and Japan speak on maritime security challenges at the East-West Center in Washington
(Click to enlarge) From Left to Right: Akihiro Iwashita, Koji Furukawa, Akihiro Sado, Andrew Oros, and Richard Bush. Not pictured: Yuki Tatsumi.

The United States-Japan Alliance and Maritime Security Challenges

WASHINGTON, DC (December 6, 2011) Dr. Akihiro Iwashita, identified a major problem in Japan’s border security: there is no clear maritime border. While much of the focus on Asian maritime security tensions has centered on the South China Sea, there are also maritime and territorial disputes in Northeast Asia. Dr. Iwashita, head of the Border Studies program at Hokkaido University, brought two Japanese experts on Japan’s border and security policies from Chukyo University, Mr. Koji Furukawa, and Dr. Akihiro Sado, to the East-West Center in Washington to discuss these maritime security challenges. They were joined by Dr. Andrew Oros, and Dr. Richard Bush, who examined the role of the US-Japan alliance in addressing these issues. Senior Associate of the East Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center, Yuki Tatsumi, served as moderator.

Mr. Furukawa asserted that “the presence of unsolved border problems is a danger to Japan’s security,” a sentiment reflected in the revised defense policy which states that Japan’s Self Defense Forces will respond to threats in its maritime territories. However the reaction within the local municipalities of the islands is mixed. Some feel that the deployment of the SDF to the region will help secure Japanese interests in the area. Others fear upsetting ties with China and Taiwan, concerns more sharply felt in the island communities that lay only 110km from Taipei, but over 2000km from Tokyo. Dr. Furukawa believes these are problems best solved by diplomacy on the part of the Japanese government, rather than the US-Japan alliance.

When considering the shift in Japan’s defense capabilities to the Southwest islands, Dr. Sado is not convinced that these plans can be fully realized in light of the long-standing trends of defense budget cutbacks, the cost of reconstruction after the March disasters, and the instability of the Japanese government. Moreover he sees the trials of Japan domestic politics, with a resurgence populism, as complicating the presence of the US-Japan alliance in the region. In this he cited the Okinawan backlash over the Futenma relocation plans, and the possibility of a general election and political realignment meaning a different approach to strategic talks with the US.

Dr. Oros discussed these maritime disputes in light of the trilateral-i.e. Japan, China, and US- security relationship. He explained that these territorial disputes in Northeast Asia are flaring now because the end of the Cold War meant they were no longer put on hold in favor of more pressing security concerns, the rise of China’s military and economic strength, and the advances in technology that made extraction of resources from sea beds possible-thus making outlying islands more valuable as the markers for ocean claims. Despite the rise in tensions, he believes a world where the three countries work together on security issues is better than focusing only a strong US-Japan alliance.

For Dr. Bush, the presentations raised several issues: what are China’s intentions; can we view China’s actions (E.g.: Maritime flare-ups between Chinese vessels and the Japanese Coast Guard) as the intentions of the PRC leadership; where does the alliance fit in this; and what can be done? He noted that the US has great responsibility towards Japan, but is not sure that the US wants to have its credibility tested over the East China Sea. There is a need for conflict mitigation mechanisms in the region, rules based regimes to help deal with territorial crises should they come up. In terms of defining borders and thus possession of the sea, which was once considered a shared common, Dr. Bush emphasized the growing importance of international law. The more we follow these laws in setting borders and sharing commons, the better we will be.

Koji Furukawa is an associate professor at the Faculty of Law at Chukyo University, and a specialist on Japanese border policies and Japan’s foreign policy toward international organizations.

Akihiro Sado is a professor in the School of Business and Public Policies at Chukyo University, and a specialist Japan’s foreign policy, including the role of the JSDF and the postwar Japanese defense system.

Andrew Oros is a professor at Washington College, and is a specialist on the international and comparative politics of East Asia. He is currently completing a project on China-Japan-US security cooperation under a Japan Foundation Abe Fellowship.

Richard Bush is Director for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, and is a specialist on China-Taiwan relations, U.S.-China relations, the Korean peninsula and Japan’s security. His most recent book on Sino-Japan relations is entitled The Perils of Proximity: China-Japan Security Relations.

Akihiro Iwashita is a professor at the Slavic Research Center at Hokkaido University and representative of the Global COE program on “Reshaping Japan’s Border Studies.” In 2011, the 24th Regional Publishers Cultural Achievement Prize was awarded to his book entitled Japan’s Borders: How to break the “Spell” (in Japanese).

Yuki Tatsumi is Senior Associate of the East Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a specialist on Japanese security policy, Japanese defense policy, the US-Japan alliance and Japanese domestic politics.