The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (top) operates with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier JS Izumo in the South China Sea in 2019. (Courtesy JMSDF/US Navy/Handout via Reuters) Maintaining the alliance with America as an anchor of regional stability will increasingly depend on leadership from Tokyo, not Washington.
Japan’s leading political party, the right-of-center Liberal Democrats, will be choosing a new prime minister starting on September 17, as the current PM, Yoshihidi Suga, has announced he will step aside. The person the Liberal Democrats choose, and who is then likely to win the next general election in Japan later this year, will hold in his hands the future of the U.S.–Japan alliance; even the future of Asia.
This is because, for the first time since World War II, it will be Japan that has to take the lead in determining whether the United States’ 70-year-old alliance with an Asian democracy continues to protect the freedom and prosperity of both — or whether the U.S. and Japan stand meekly by while China establishes its hegemony over the Indo-Pacific region.
Until now the dynamic of U.S.–Japan relations has always been the U.S. pushing Japan to take a more active role in defending itself and exercising more influence in Asia, with Japan sometimes reluctantly following. The Afghanistan debacle has demonstrated to friend and foe alike that, faced with problematic overseas commitments, the Biden administration’s first instinct is to cut and run. Now it’s going to be Tokyo that will need to keep the alliance on track. It will need to compel Washington to do the right thing, especially in dealing with the China threat.
Fortunately, Suga’s predecessor, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, made it clear to Japanese public opinion that the time had come for Japan to take a more active role in the projection of its interests and in its own self-defense. That included increasing Japan’s defense budget to the highest level since World War II; it included taking a more active and visible role alongside the U.S. in pushing back against Chinese hegemony in
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