Is Japan the new Britain?
"Special relationships" are often volatile in international politics as they are in the personal sphere. After a long period of harmonious partnership, one couple may decide on a trial separation, while another may choose to renew their vows. This appears to be what is happening now in Anglo-American and U.S.-Japan relations respectively.
Britain's May 7 general election is widely expected to usher in a period of weak government that empowers minority parties and leads to further arguments about Scottish independence, a British "exit" from the European Union and the desirability of Britain's costly nuclear deterrent. All this is anathema to the U.S., which is already displeased with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to sign up to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and his reluctance to get involved in the Ukraine crisis.
In stark contrast, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who continues to dominate the domestic political scene, has just returned from what was widely seen as a highly successful U.S. visit where he had the rare honor of addressing a joint session of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Abe's speech was perfectly pitched and is said to have brought tears to the eyes of some attendees. He talked of "deep repentance in his heart" for the ugly events of World War II -- a choice of words that went beyond previous apologies and has strong associations with the American puritan tradition exemplified by the 18th century philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. Abe also quoted a more recent American wordsmith -- Carole King and her 1970s hit "You've Got A Friend."
It was just 12 years ago that the then-U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair received a standing ovation in a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. and U.K. were partners in the invasion of Iraq. It was just six years ago that Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, won an electoral landslide on a platform that included de-emphasizing links with the U.S. and shifting to a more Asia-focused foreign policy. Both ex-leaders are now seriously unpopular in their own countries and their successors have no wish to follow in their footsteps. Will the current U.S.-Japan love-in and the creeping chill in U.S.-U.K. relations prove similarly transient? Probably not. Political leaders come and go, but there is a long-term congruence of interest between the U.S. and Japan which no longer exists between America and Britain.
The phrase "special relationship," as a description of U.S.-U.K. relations, was coined by Winston Churchill in 1944. Half-American himself, Churchill was a romantic imperialist who believed in the common destiny of the "English-speaking peoples," including Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries. In the three great conflicts of the 20th century -- the two world wars and the Cold War -- the U.S. and Britain were allies, but in earlier times their relationship was edgier. In the British-American war of 1812-15, British forces invaded and burnt Washington D.C. and tried to set up an independent nation of Native American tribes, while American troops invaded Canada.
In today's world, Britain has many diverse interests which are no more aligned with America's than with those of any other developed country. As host to the world's largest global financial center, it could hardly shun China's AIIB project. Furthermore Britain will remain a semi-detached part of the EU, even if it continues as a full member. If the Americans want to maximize their leverage in Europe, they should be talking to the Germans instead.
The U.S.-Japan relationship is different. There is a new, overwhelming interest the two countries have in common: the need to counter-balance a powerful China eager to assert itself economically, financially and militarily. The U.S. cannot realize its Asian strategy without the active participation of a prosperous and confident Japan. The stakes are much higher for Japan itself, which cannot "pivot" to any other geography but is fated to play out its rivalry with China in perpetuity.
For that reason, it is vital for Japan to deliver on the promises that Abe made in Washington on security and trade. Domestic public opinion is evenly balanced on many such questions and it will require plenty of political skill and courage to move things forward. On issues like relocation of U.S. bases in Okinawa, the pushback is going to be fierce -- but if Abe cannot get it done, nobody else can.
Americans and Japanese seem to see eye-to-eye on various subjects. According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, twice as many Americans trust Japan as China and more than 10 times as many Japanese trust the U.S. as China. Even on the legacy of World War II, views are similar -- with 76% of Japanese and 66% of Americans believing that Japan does not need to apologize any further for its actions.
Despite the congruence of attitudes and interests, Carole King's immortal lines: "Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you got to do is call" are not a good guide for policy. Even in the post-World War II heyday of the "special relationship," Britain steered clear of the Vietnam War and there were various foreign policy bust-ups --such as the Suez crisis of 1956 and the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, a member of the British Commonwealth -- in which the clash of interests was laid bare. A healthy, adult relationship is more durable than a "special" one and for that you need honesty from both sides.
Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.