A More Confident Japan in a Strong Alliance: Michael Green Speaks

Politics Economy

The international scene in East Asia remains fluid, but the new government in place in Tokyo is showing an energetic approach to economic policy and a more stable hand on the tiller of diplomacy. We spoke to the international affairs expert Michael Green about his views on Japanese politics and the country’s place in the regional and global picture.

Michael Green

Senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; associate professor at Georgetown University. Earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in addition to graduate work done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Tokyo. Served on the National Security Council staff, 2001–5, where he rose to senior director for Asia. He is also a nonresident fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute and a distinguished scholar at the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation.

A More Stable Government On the Scene

INTERVIEWER  As a long-time observer of the changes in Japan over the years, what are your impressions of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and his coalition government, which won a landslide in the July election this year?

MICHAEL GREEN  Since Abe became prime minister and instituted the first two “arrows” of Abenomics—monetary relaxation and flexible application of fiscal stimulus—the government and the business community clearly feel more confidence. But as I travel to small towns, I see that people do not yet feel the full impact of Abenomics. And the market has not reacted so positively to the government’s announcement of its economic growth strategy. Now that the election has been won by the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Kōmeitō, it’s important to put some new energy into the third arrow, a growth strategy boosting private investment.

While voter turnout was low, the result of the election was the most stable government we’ve seen in seven years. That is something that gives Japan a stronger voice in its foreign and economic policy abroad. There were some questions about the second Abe administration: whether the prime minister would use his second chance to advance an agenda on sensitive issues surrounding history, risking a backlash from Korea or even the United States, and distracting from the positive economic growth and security policies. But since the election, the Abe government has been focused clearly on areas like economic growth and strengthening the Japan-US alliance. That’s a very good sign. In terms of security policy, he has a very good agenda that is going to make Japan a much stronger player, not just as a partner for the United States, but with respect to Asia.

INTERVIEWER  With regard to deepening Japan-US relations, the security issue is crucial. Abe has talked of setting up a Japanese version of the National Security Council and revising the current limited interpretation of the right to collective self-defense as part of a general revision of Japan’s defense policy. How do you view these moves?

GREEN  I think that the drift in Japanese defense policy over the past few years makes it necessary for Japan to strengthen deterrence in a variety of ways. The United States does not have military contingency plans with Japan as it does with South Korea or NATO. So if a crisis happens, we will be less prepared. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that Japan cannot exercise collective self-defense. This raises many question marks about what Japan can actually do and how far the United States can count on Japan.

Clearing up this issue of collective self-defense will make bilateral alliance a far more effective deterrent against any attempt to intimidate Japan in the future. Increasing defense spending, even modestly, is an important sign of Japan’s will to defend its territory. I think developing Marine-like capabilities in the Ground Self-Defense Force will be necessary for island defense, and the US Marine Corps and the GSDF are working closely on that. These things will strengthen Japan’s deterrent capabilities and its connections with other maritime democracies.

The Alliance Remains Reliable

INTERVIEWER  President Barack Obama has spoken of strengthening the US position as an Asia-Pacific power, but there are concerns within Japan about whether the United States will indeed follow that path. Some are wondering if the United States would in fact adhere to Article V of the security treaty with Japan(*1) and come to its aid if conflict arises in the region.

GREEN  America will unquestionably honor the treaty, including the application of Article V, in the case of a crisis or scenario involving the Senkakus. In peacetime, as is the case today, some American officials say we shouldn’t talk about Article V or engage in joint US-Japan military exercises because it will provoke China. Others say that we need to increase deterrence to dissuade China from trying to expand seaward.

The issue comes down to whether a crisis can be averted by increasing the deterrent or by assuaging China. But in the case of an actual crisis, the United States will honor Article V.

Another point worth emphasizing concerns whether the United States will display strong leadership in the Asia-Pacific or not. The so-called “pivot to Asia” was surrounded by too much rhetoric and drama. In fact, we never left Asia. What we’re doing in the rebalance is drawing down our military capabilities in the Middle East and Europe. We’re going to have relatively more capability in Asia, but we’re not significantly boosting capability in Asia.

Free Trade to Engage China

INTERVIEWER  How do you view economic relations between Japan and the United States, particularly in light of the current negotiations on TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement?

GREEN  I would say that for the TPP, Japan and the United States will be on the same side for around 95% of the issues. The main areas of friction will be cars and agriculture.

US automakers will try to block Japanese TPP participation in to get as many concessions as possible, not because they think they will have huge success in the Japanese market—they gave up on Japan a long time ago—but because they are worried about lowering the tariff on light trucks, which would bring much more competition from Japan. In the end, they’ll accept the TPP, but there will have to be some symbolic agreement, such as to give automakers better access in Japan.

There are always some really hard issues involving tariffs, and they are the ones that remain until the very end. So I don’t know what will happen with the “sacred cows” for Japan. As an initial stance, the US negotiators have to tell Congress that everything is on the table. But so far, in every FTA, there are always a few things that don’t get touched.

INTERVIEWER  So a few “sacred cows” might remain?

GREEN  From an economic perspective, and from the perspective of consumers, the best outcome is to open all markets. But some areas are politically too hard. The negotiations will be tough, but I think that the United States and Japan will reach an agreement along with the other TPP partners. Then China will be under more pressure to come closer to international standards.

This is not about excluding China but about creating conditions where China can use the TPP to reform its economy, play by twenty-first-century rules, and integrate. Trade agreements are not like security agreements. The idea is not to exclude countries; the idea is to put pressure on other countries to lower their barriers. And I think the TPP will have that effect on China.

Overcoming the History Issue

INTERVIEWER  You have often emphasized the need for Japan and South Korea to build a solid cooperative relationship. But recently the territorial dispute surrounding Takeshima along with various historical issues have clouded that relationship.

GREEN  Japan and South Korea have a difficult history and complicated domestic politics, but they are also democracies that value the same principles of democracy, the market economy, and the rule of law—and that value their alliance with the United States. Solving the complicated historical issues is not going to happen quickly, but Japan’s political leaders at least need to minimize the friction arising from them. As far as I can tell, the Abe administration is doing that, though more efforts are still needed. Korea too must play a role in moving past the current impasse.

The problem is, during the election campaign, there were statements about the comfort women or about the issue of what is an “aggressive war,” and this got a lot of Korean media coverage. So it will take some time to convince President Park Geun-hye that the Abe administration places a priority on relations with Korea. But with the victory of the LDP in the upper-house election, and with a very sensible agenda set by Prime Minister Abe, I think the South Korean side will start engaging more positively.

I don’t think the Japanese government would be wise to try to criticize the South Korean government. If Japan-Korea relations cool, then US-Japan-Korea trilateral cooperation will be much harder. And if that happens, then deterrence against North Korea will be weaker and China will be tempted to try to drive a wedge between South Korea and Japan.

Healthy Japan-Korea relations would take away China’s ability to say that the difficulties in Asia are about the past. It will force our friends in Beijing to think about the future and what kind of rules and norms should govern this region. We don’t want the debate to be about World War II—it should be about the rules and norms for the twenty-first century.

All too often, Japanese politicians play right into the Chinese hands, and give them exactly what they need to isolate Japan. I think the Abe government is very aware of this and will make prudent efforts to improve relations with South Korea.

I’ll tell you one more reason why this is important: China will argue that Japan’s collective self-defense is dangerous militarism, while Japan will describe it as a necessary, normal policy to strengthen its alliance with America and enhance stability in Asia. South Korea’s view in this will be pivotal. If the Koreans declares that such self-defense is dangerous, it will be a bad scenario for Japan. A much better scenario would be for Japan to build a common understanding that exercising collective self-defense is normal for any nation, and that the Japan-US alliance is necessary for the defense of Korea as well. This narrative will raise the alliance’s deterrent force and enhance Japan’s diplomatic power in the region.

Interest in Asia Remains Strong

INTERVIEWER  It seems that the “pipe” connecting Japan and the United States has become much narrower now that there are fewer well-informed observers of Japan in the United States like you.

GREEN  Actually, I disagree. I think the “pipe” is quite strong. In public opinion polls, for example, Americans and Japanese trust each other more than at any time in history.

There are thousands of American alumni of the JET [Japan Exchange and Teaching] Program. Incidentally, I was a MEF, or Monbushō Eikaiwa Fellow, which was the predecessor to JET. When I was in the White House, I was asked to put together a group to study the government of Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō and make recommendations to President George W. Bush on our policy toward Japan. That group included about a dozen people from various agencies, including the State Department, CIA, Department of Defense, and Department of the Treasury. When we sat around the table, we realized that almost everybody was a former JET participant or Mansfield Fellow and everybody spoke Japanese. There are many Americans knowledgeable about Japan thanks to those programs.

When I left the NSC and came to CSIS in 2006, I was the only Japan chair or senior fellow among all the think tanks in Washington. Brookings didn’t have a Japan person, Carnegie didn’t—nobody did. Today, there are at least ten. Any major think tank in Washington now has a chair or a senior fellow on Japan. Meanwhile, the number of senior fellows or chairs focusing on Europe has dropped by half.

But there are two problems. First, the number of Japanese studying in the United States has dropped by half over the last eight years. The second problem is that at the senior levels of the US government, none of the top military commanders or government officials are Asia experts. Our top generals and admirals moved up in the last ten years during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; all of them are experts on Africa or Europe or the Middle East. The same is true of deputy secretaries.

It is a little bit strange that even when the US is pivoting to Asia, we have so few Asia hands in the top levels of government or of the military. But I think it’s a temporary thing. Overwhelmingly, among mid-level and younger staff, the interest is shifting to Asia. People who were Army captains in Iraq are all studying Chinese and Japanese and Korean now. They’re all studying Asia. This is because of the pivot and because of the growing importance of this region.

But Japanese journalists love to talk about how Japan is being ignored so they rarely mention this increase in Japan experts in the United States.

Not English, But Politics

INTERVIEWER  Japanese tend to think of themselves as rather inept when it comes to interaction with people from other cultures. Part of this seems to be a lack of confidence in their English skills.

GREEN  Well, you know, within the Group of Seven nations, Japan’s English-speaking capability is the worst, and within the G20, it’s close to the worst. Half the South Korean cabinet have PhDs from American universities, and almost every senior South Korean political figure has studied in the United States. How many people in the Japanese cabinet have studied in the United States? Abe and his deputy prime minister, Asō Tarō, studied a little bit, I suppose.

Other G20 countries, like India and South Africa, speak English. Chinese students are applying to American and Australian universities by the hundreds of thousands. In our program at Georgetown, where I teach, we have a master’s degree in Asian Studies. We only take fifteen to twenty students. We usually get close to 200 applications, most of them from China. Typically, we’ll have 80 to 100 applicants from China and just a handful from Japan. So Japan is not putting the value on learning English that society or education-obsessed parents in countries like Korea or China are doing.

Japan’s ability to articulate its own position in English and influence international society is suffering as a result, no doubt about it. However, the major problem that Japan has had regarding its influence in the G7 or in the US-Japan alliance is not English ability, and it’s not cultural. The major problem is Japanese politics. If the prime minister changes every year, there’s no strong relationship with other leaders. The bureaucrats don’t know what the policy is because it changes all the time. Under the Democratic Party of Japan, the vice ministers and ruling party members pushed the bureaucrats aside and tried to do diplomacy themselves, and it didn’t work.

These political factors—the fluid nature of Japanese politics and the politicians’ efforts to dominate the bureaucrats who speak English well—are, to my mind, the biggest problem preventing Japan from influencing the US-Japan alliance, the G20, the G7, and the United Nations.

(Based on a July 27, 2013, interview. Interviewer Harano Jōji is representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. Interview photos by Kimura Junko.)

(*1) ^ Article V of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan reads in part: “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”—Ed.

United States security China politics Abe Shinzō foreign policy TPP economy South Korea constitution SDF defense free trade