July 30, 2016 12:05 am JST
Commentary

Dudden and Kingston -- Do not 'Jexit' the Pacific

Donald Trump has effectively implied he would unilaterally "Jexit" Japan from its longstanding alliance with the U.S., tossing aside Washington's closest ally in the Pacific. Given the high stakes involved, America cannot afford this loose cannon blasting away at the region's structural foundation.

Notwithstanding Trump's posturing, his failure to understand the depth and complexity of America's post-World War II relations with Japan and other regional partners lays bare a vision of the U.S. without allies as hollow as some Brexiteers' notions of Britain as an island unto itself.

Leaving aside security concerns such as turmoil in global financial markets, China's hegemonic aspirations, North Korea's missile activities and the escalation of terrorist operations in parts of the region such as the Philippines (America's ally alongside Japan) -- Americans should understand the tremendous havoc created when a candidate for the most powerful job on the planet encourages Asia to go more nuclear -- saying, as Trump declared, "We're better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we're better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself."

While Trump as the Republican presidential nominee wants to raise the drawbridges around a fearful America and make moats out of oceans, a battle-scarred Hillary Clinton understands that the U.S. must remain engaged, especially in Asia.

Indeed, without question the U.S. should maintain robust ties with Japan. It is not only one of Asia's most vibrant and open societies, but when the U.S. alliance works well, American commitment to Japan fosters regional engagement. The alliance is not without problems, but exiting the relationship would only fuel expansion of rigid nationalism, or, worse, could fuel momentum for military confrontation over competing claims and interests in the region.

Noticeably, like America, Japan, too, is divided about its future and likewise faces serious economic challenges. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan is reshaping its security posture with the eponymous Abe Doctrine. His vision, a profound departure from Japan's long-standing pacifist stance, would in essence reinvent Japan as the Great Britain of Asia.

Yet the Abe Doctrine as expressed in the 2015 U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines and in recently enacted -- and highly controversial -- security legislation, appears to enjoy scant public support in Japanese society. That fact alone means Tokyo may not be able to deliver what Washington expects in terms of stepped-up security cooperation.

Equally problematic are promises of a new base for U.S. marines stationed in Okinawa, in southern Japan nearest China. America's next president needs to understand that Okinawans see the bases as targets, not shields. Anti-base sentiments draw on a pacifism rooted in World War II, when these islanders endured a brutal campaign that claimed a quarter of the population. Today, the rise of China has thrust Okinawa again into the frontline, and there are credible fears that forces beyond their control could lead to another maelstrom.

China's friend

Moreover, ongoing anti-base protests in Okinawa will slow progress on building the new airbase for the U.S. marines, further testing Washington's patience. A June poll of Okinawans indicated that the majority want the marines to leave, and that 80% want to downsize or close all U.S. bases in the prefecture. Most recent reports from Okinawa describe intensifying clashes between Tokyo-backed riot police and locals. The central government is forging ahead nonetheless.

Pulling the plug on the U.S. presence in Asia may have a superficial appeal for some -- in America as well as Japan. But a hasty withdrawal would clearly endanger regional peace and stability, as well as U.S. economic interests in the region. Washington has nurtured alliances and strategic partnerships with South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and India and lent support to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in its efforts to manage China's expanding ambitions.

Indonesia has been an effective partner in the war on terror, and the landmark reconciliation visit to Vietnam by President Barack Obama earlier this year offers strategic opportunities. America has many friends in the region, but Trump's isolationist instincts would unilaterally cede the advantage to China.

In a region bristling with flash points and an escalating arms race, much is at stake. In this complex situation, ignorance of nuance comes at America's peril, and whoever is president will have to play his or her cards carefully and astutely, not walk away from vital relationships.

We believe it is time for intensified engagement and more vigorous diplomacy, not for the resurrection of the hatemongering that defined America's 19th century "know-nothing" movement. In this respect, Asia's leaders must be thinking, who needs enemies with "friends" like Trump?

Alexis Dudden is professor of history, University of Connecticut; Jeff Kingston is professor of history, Temple University Japan.

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