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Japan-US security treaty turns 60, sheds light on 'new Cold War'

Lesson from Abe's grandfather vital as Tokyo navigates Washington-Beijing rift

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference on May 25 in Tokyo. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- The ordinary session of Japan's parliament, which has been preoccupied with the new coronavirus outbreak, closed on Wednesday without extending its session. Coincidentally, it was about sixty years ago that Japan was in the midst of another crisis, this one concerning the Diet's approval of the revised Japan-U. S. security treaty.

The amendment of the treaty, into which then-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi -- grandfather of the current premier Shinzo Abe -- put his whole soul, was a product of the Cold War between the U.S. and now-defunct Soviet Union.

Today, as the world witnesses a decoupling between the U.S. and China and possibly the start of a new cold war, Japan faces a tough challenge.

At a news conference on May 25 when Abe fully lifted the state of emergency, the prime minister answered a question posed by an American reporter with a symbolic statement. Referring to the fierce U.S.-China confrontation over the new coronavirus pandemic, the reporter asked which side is Japan on.

After saying he believes the virus spread from China, Abe stressed the following: "The U.S. is Japan's only ally. As an ally sharing the basic values as the U.S., we would like to deal with various international issues in cooperation with the country."

Regarding China, Abe noted: "The country is a highly important nation. It is so economically, too. What the international community wants from Japan and China is that both countries proceed in a responsible manner for the sake of regional peace, stability and prosperity. I hope China acts this way."

Abe did not make clear which of the two countries Japan sides with, but emphasized that relations with the U.S. are of supreme importance. This underscores the dilemma facing Japan.

Nobusuke Kishi, center, celebrates approval of the revised Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the U.S. and Japan on June 19, 1960.

The original version of the security treaty, the foundation of the Japan-U. S. alliance, together with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, was signed in 1951 by then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. As the treaty called for stationing U.S. troops in Japan but did obligate the U.S. to defend the country, Kishi determined to rectify the inequality. This resulted in Japan persuading the U.S. to revise the treaty, stipulating in it the U.S. obligation to defend Japan. The revised treaty was signed by Kishi in January 1960.

Yet the government's rush to enact the new treaty in time for the planned visit of then-U. S. President Dwight Eisenhower to Japan caused havoc. On May 19, 1960, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party extended the Diet session and forced the revised treaty bill through the lower house, triggering a national uproar. Kishi was forced to cancel Eisenhower's visit. After seeing the revised treaty automatically approved on June 19 and then come into force, Kishi expressed his intent to step down as prime minister.

During the Cold War, the question of which side Japan was on did not make sense, because the Soviet Union was not economically important to Japan. Today, however, Japan heavily relies on China, which has grown into an economic power. Stuck between the U.S. and China, Japan finds itself in trouble.

Businesses operating in both the U.S. and China are now concerned about being torn between the two countries. In fact, a U.S. company offering Zoom videoconferencing services had to temporarily halt access to human rights activists in the U.S. in response to Beijing's demands -- a clear sign that businesses are being affected by the bilateral conflict.

Masahiro Kohara, professor at the University of Tokyo and specialist in Japanese foreign policy, said that businesses attempting to please both the U.S. and China are running out of options. It may be difficult for companies to sever ties with China, but they need to look at whether their acts violate U.S. regulations, he said. Kohara advises businesses to think about how to respond in case they have to choose between the U.S. and China.

Countries increasingly link a broad range of matters to national security. Enhanced export controls are a case in point. By amending foreign exchange and foreign trade laws, Japan has shown that it is trying to prevent leakage of vital security technology and information.

The Soviet Union lost the Cold War because its arms race with the U.S. had weakened its economy. Arguing that "It is economic development, which brings about a nation's prosperity and the welfare of its people, that supports the validity of governance," Kohara noted that the outcome of the U.S.-China battle for hegemony rests on the economy. For both countries, an economic tug of war has morphed into a battle over national security, with neither side pulling back.

The U.S. President  Dwight Eisenhower, right, and Japanese Prime Minister Kishi engage in small talk during their farewell meeting at the White House, June 21, 1957.   © AP

For Japan, relations with the two countries directly affect its national interest, and also influences world stability. At this delicate time, Japan has decided to suspend purchase of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system from the U.S. If the decision causes friction between Japan and the U.S., it gives China a chance to drive a wedge between the two countries. Hence, the Japan-U. S. alliance, which has been tested before, faces another challenge of the two countries' capability to resolve differences.

Although there is a thorny issue between Japan and the U.S., it should be Japan's duty as an ally to tell the U.S. to exercise its role as leader of the free economy.

The revised Japan-U. S. security treaty contains economic provisions in Article 2 saying: By beefing up free systems in the two countries, Japan and the U.S. contribute to the development of peaceful and friendly international relations and; By seeking removal of differences in their international economic policies, the two countries promote bilateral economic cooperation.

These provisions are hardly known. Yet a report issued in 2018 by a bipartisan group of U.S. intellectuals -- including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye, an expert in international politics -- made mention of Article 2. Stating that the article "provides both a framework and a mandate for enhanced U.S.-Japan economic cooperation," the report encouraged the two countries to promote an open economic society.

Kishi thought that the revised security treaty should reflect the spirit of cooperation between Japan and the U.S.; not just in security but over a wide variety of areas such as politics and the economy. He infused these thoughts into Article 2, it is said.

In today's world, where a new form of decoupling is underway that is quite different from 60 years ago, the significance of Article 2 remains.

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