Ensuring Japan’s future as a strategic partner of the U.S. by HOSOYA Yuichi

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments in the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API & Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on October 8, 2020:


API Geoeconomic Briefing

October 8, 2020

Ensuring Japan’s future as a strategic partner of the U.S.

HOSOYA Yuichi,
Research Director, Asia Pacific Initiative (API);
Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University



On July 23, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech with a tough rhetoric toward Beijing, directly blasting Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China.

The speech, which was given at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California, was reported by many media as representing a major shift in the United States’ China policies, which have been maintained since the 1971 visit to China by Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser.

Pompeo’s remarks came after a May 4 online speech by deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger at the University of Virginia.

The date was symbolic in that it was the day when the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement formed in China in 1919, following the Paris Peace Conference, backed by a rise in nationalism in the face of Japanese encroachment into the country. Pottinger talked about the significance of the date in his speech.

While mentioning that there are people in China who pursue the ideals of such anti-imperialist and democratic movements, Pottinger pointed out that aspirations of such movements have been left unfulfilled for a century and that the U.S. government has been cooperating with the Chinese government, which continued to suppress such moves, suggesting the need for the U.S. government to change its policy.

These speeches show that in order to understand the structural factors behind increased tensions between the U.S. and China, it is important to assess the current state of bilateral relations in a longer time frame.

This is because the structural changes in U.S.-China relations that we see today do not merely mean a shift from Washington’s decadeslong policy of engagement since Kissinger’s 1971 visit to China.

It could also mean the possibility of a complete change of course in the U.S.’ policy toward Asia that has endured over the past century.


East Asian order

In 1912, the Republic of China was established with Sun Yat-sen as president, following the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty.

The U.S. hoped that the new republic born in East Asia would nurture democracy and that the emerging nation would become its partner, sharing the same values.

In this region during the period between World War I and World War II, the biggest threat for the young republic was Japan, and China needed to cooperate with the U.S. to confront such a threat. And cooperation with China became the core of the U.S.’ Asian policy in the 1920s and 1930s.

Following the outbreak of World War II, the U.S. gradually expanded its assistance toward China. At the same time, multilateral mechanisms to realize the East Asian order after the war based on U.S.-China cooperation were formed at such occasions as the Cairo Conference in 1943 and the establishment of the United Nations at the San Francisco Conference in 1945.

After the 1931 Manchurian Incident, peace and stability in East Asia was shaped by the two major powers — namely the U.S. and China — with the Cairo Conference constituting the height of U.S.-China cooperation.

It can be said that the U.S.’ Asia policy after 1931 developed around the emergence of Japan as a threat and vague trust toward China.

But such an idea receded after 1947 when George Kennan, director of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, shifted its policy, focusing on improving U.S. relations with Japan.

This did not mean, however, that the U.S. tried to maintain peace and stability in East Asia through cooperating with Japan. Japan’s task was to provide land for U.S. military bases, and Tokyo was not expected to become Washington’s strategic partner as a regional power.

Therefore, from the 1940s to the 1960s, peace in East Asia was not guaranteed by U.S.-Japan cooperation. It was guaranteed by the United States’ overwhelming military power and the support that came from its military bases in Japan.

The United States’ dramatic reconciliation with China following Kissinger’s 1971 visit to Beijing meant the U.S. renewed its determination to maintain order in Asia through cooperation with China.

And as a key for the U.S. and China to preserve friendly relations, the two needed to play on the rumor that Japan was trying to revive militarism. Such an underlying notion never disappeared completely until this year.

But it is clear that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has a strong intention to revise the country’s Asia policy, which has previously been based on cooperation and engagement with China.

In considering the major policy shift, it would be necessary to mention John MacMurray, an American diplomat known as one of the leading China experts in the U.S. government in the 20th century.


‘The MacMurray moment’

MacMurray had been little known among the public, but his name came to be recognized after it was mentioned in “American Diplomacy 1900-1950,” a book published in 1951 by George F. Kennan, a historian and strategist who as a diplomat successfully advocated the U.S. containment policy against Soviet expansionism during the Cold War.

In the book, Kennan wrote on the role of MacMurray as the following;

“One of our best informed professional diplomats, Mr. John V. A. MacMurray, retired since several years, wrote in 1935 an extremely thoughtful and prophetic memorandum, in which, pointing to the likelihood of a war with Japan if we continued in the course we were following, he observed that even the most drastic achievement of our objectives in such a war would only play into the hands of Russia and raise a host of new problems.”

The MacMurray memorandum, now widely known among historians, shows that MacMurray, who was an expert in East Asia, had been concerned that Washington’s hard-line policy against Tokyo would lead to war with Japan. He assessed how Japan’s defeat would disrupt the balance of power in the region and create a power vacuum which would be filled by a superpower — the Soviet Union.

As early as 1935, MacMurray foresaw that a U.S. victory in its war against Japan would inevitably result in confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Following the end of World War II, Kennan, who, as director of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, was trying to shift U.S. policy to a softer stance toward Japan, referred to MacMurray’s views.

Kennan, who had little experience on East Asian affairs, contacted MacMurray before visiting Japan in February 1948 to ask for advice from the retired diplomat whom he regarded as the pre-eminent Asia specialist.

Kennan and MacMurray shared the same recognition that Japan was the most consequential nation in East Asia, that cooperation with Japan would be inevitable for the U.S. and that its Asia policy which overestimated China’s strategic importance would reach a dead end.

Both Pottinger and Pompeo, so to speak, appear to be trying to revive MacMurray’s forgotten Asia policy under the current Trump administration.

I would like to call this “the MacMurray Moment” and think about the significance of reviving the Asia policies advocated by MacMurray after 85 years.


A pacifist nation

There are two conditions which need to be met to realize the MacMurray Moment.

First, it is necessary to properly recognize the history of how Japan destroyed international order and became diplomatically isolated prior to World War II. We should review the history of the past century and reconfirm the course of postwar diplomacy based on the idea of liberal internationalism.

American presidents in the postwar era have developed relations with Japan on the premise that Japan, which has become a pacifist nation, will share with the U.S. the same values, including freedom and democracy, and support the liberal international order.

Secondly, Japan should possess sufficient ability to play an active role in securing peace and stability in this region as a strategic partner.

In 1948, when Kennan tried to shift the U.S.’ Japan policy, Japan was still under the occupation of the Allied Powers and there was little room for Japan to play an active military role due to the constraints of the pacifist Constitution.

But decades later, the international situation and Japan’s position in the international community have changed greatly. In other words, Japan, a democratic nation which has the same values as the U.S., should contribute to peace and stability in the region by possessing sufficient power.

But it would be impossible for Japan to possess the same level of military capability as the U.S. And we should not forget the fact that Japan’s actions as a civilian power led the nation to build trust in the international community.

I call this unique power of Japan, created by combining military power and civilian power, the “global civilian power 2.0.”

Japan currently advocates the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” with a determination to contribute to the peace and prosperity of the region as a whole.

The administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to play a bigger role in the region under the policy of “proactive contribution to peace” as the basic principle for Japan’s national security strategy. This policy is expected to be squarely succeeded by the new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga.

If Japan can act as a more independent, strategic player, it can contribute even more to regional peace and stability, placing the Japan-U.S. alliance more firmly at its core.

Roughly 100 years ago, the U.S. attempted to create a regional order based on its partnership with China, which it believed would develop as a democratic nation and share the same values.

Pompeo’s speech strongly suggested that such hopes had been betrayed.

If Japan can demonstrate sufficient trust and necessary abilities as the U.S.’ strategic partner, the MacMurray Moment, in which peace and stability in the region are maintained on the basis of Japan-U.S. cooperation, might finally come true.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.