[Ed: This is the first in a series of interviews analyzing the continuing fallout from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s December 26, 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine.]
Brad Glosserman is executive director of the influential Pacific Forum CSIS, based in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Pacific Forum, which is co-chaired by Prof. Joseph Nye of Harvard University and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, is well-known for conducting policy analyses, and for promoting dialogue among prominent government officials and leading researchers throughout the Asia-Pacific region, especially on security issues. As executive director, Mr. Glosserman oversees all Pacific Forum programs, conferences, and publications. Mr. Glosserman previously served for 10 years on the editorial board of the Japan Times. He holds a law degree from George Washington University, and a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Dispatch Japan: Looking back, do you think the US response to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine was appropriate?
Glosserman: Yes, it was appropriate to express disappointment, and I am told this was a watered-down version of initial drafts. “Disappointment” is strong language. To have gone beyond that would perhaps have accurately reflected the irritation, anger, and frustration felt in Washington, but would have been diplomatically unwise.
The visit to Yasukuni has clearly complicated US strategic objectives in the region. It flies in the face of American interests in many ways. Washington needs to make clear the extent of American displeasure and disillusionment. Secretary of State Kerry recently reiterated the administration’s disagreement with the prime minister’s decision.
Let’s remember that American preferences were made abundantly clear last October, when Secretary Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel together visited Chidorigafuchi (Japan’s national cemetery for unidentified war-dead from World War II). That was a clear signal of American feelings about the appropriate recognition of the war dead.
At the same time, we have to careful to not expose a rift in US-Japan relations that would be easily exploitable by other governments.
To be more specific, the possibility of disconnect between the US and Japan over the appropriate response to the rise of China is one of the chief strategic challenges that we face. China is going to do its best to find or create a wedge between Washington and Tokyo, and then try to drive it deeper.
So the United States is walking a fine line.
Dispatch Japan:Why do you believe the prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni is so antithetical to American interests?
Glosserman: This complicates our efforts to work with Japan, and to welcome and facilitate a higher profile for Japan in security policy. The visit raises hackles in the United States – Japan’s most important ally – and within China and Korea, two countries with which Japan must eventually cooperate. Any kind of triangular Japan-China-Korea cooperation, which the US believes would promote stability in the region, becomes problematic.
The prime minister visiting Yasukuni also complicates US bilateral relations with both Seoul and Beijing. For example, when Defense Secretary Hagel meets with ROK President Park Geun-Hye, she quite vehemently complains about Japan. When US officials visit Beijing, they are subjected to a barrage of Chinese complaints about Japanese behavior.
The controversy over the visit to Yasukuni also has the potential to erode a consensus within Japan in favor of a larger security role.
Japan’s peaceful role in international affairs has been exemplary since 1945. If Abe, or any other prime minister, wants to base an enhanced security role for Japan on that admirable record, he’ll win support. But Abe has blurred that vision by seeking to rehabilitate in some ways Japan’s wartime regime, and that has the potential of fracturing a consensus inside Japan for a larger security role grounded in its commendable postwar achievements.
Dispatch Japan: What do you mean by ‘rehabilitate?’
Glosserman: I think Abe wants to take aim at the postwar order, including the verdicts of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals, and on to the Constitution. The US was largely responsible for the tribunals and played an out-sized role in the Constitution, so Abe’s challenges politicize the US-Japan relationship. It transforms the discussion about the nature of the US-Japan relationship and the security alliance. It implicitly pushes the US onto the side of the discussion opposite that of Abe.
At their foundation, Abe’s arguments raise doubts about the legitimacy of the postwar regime. To what degree do Abe, his Cabinet members, and his political supporters believe that the pillars of the postwar regime in Japan are valid?
It is fine for the Japanese people to ask these questions. But we should be clear that this has the potential to divide the country more than unite it. The extent to which the US gets drawn into this debate, the US-Japan relationship becomes enormously more complicated.
Dispatch Japan: What are the practical implications for Japanese foreign policy?
Glosserman: It is perfectly feasible for Japan’s security policy to evolve in an incremental, logical way without addressing in the slightest bit anything that occurred in Japan prior to 1945. In fact, an upgrading of Japan’s security role, including exercising the right of collective self-defense, and broader roles and missions in East Asia, is easier to achieve without these kinds of discussions about history. Raising questions about prewar legitimacy makes it harder to reach consensus in Japan. Some people will say they are all for an expanded role, but not necessarily in the context envisioned by the prime minister.
Inside Japan, I think this will only provoke opposition to an expanded security agenda, including from much of civil society. We got a hint of this from the widespread opposition to the recent legislation regarding official secrets.
In foreign policy, it becomes very difficult for South Korea to cooperate with Japan. China appears to have already decided it is not going to cooperate with the Abe government. China will likely try to play favorites inside Japan, and try to exacerbate divisions.
For the US, Abe’s stance complicates diplomacy in the region. In our bilateral talks with Korea and China, we have to be careful to not give the impression of enabling Abe. We have to cautious to not be seen as sending “OK” signals to the prime minister, that we are willing to overlook problematic parts of his agenda because he is delivering on other parts that we favor.
These complications, in turn, run the danger of exaggerating, or exacerbating tactical differences over how to approach disputes with China, such as the Senkakus or China’s recently-announced air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Every little difference with Japan becomes magnified, which is not helpful.
Dispatch Japan: Do you think Abe has a thought-out strategy? For example, is he trying to warn the US that he is worried about the durability of American security guarantees?
Glosserman: I don’t see a connection between the Yasukuni visit and broader strategic questions. It is not necessary. Japan could accomplish every one of the items on the current government’s security agenda, with respect to international profile and international effectiveness, without raising the questions implicit in the Yasukuni visit. To the contrary, the outreach to Yasukuni poses the largest obstacle to the realization of many of the specific goals Abe’s government has articulated.
Abe’s dilemma is to choose between his nationalism and Japan’s national interests.
The continuing evolution of Japan’s security posture, including revision of Article 9 of the Constitution and the exercise of the right of collective self-defense, is envisioned by the Japanese I know to enhance security cooperation with the United States. I’ve never heard anyone credible say that Japan needs to take these steps because the country ultimately needs to have an independent defense force.
Japanese I talk with say the current security agenda is designed to facilitate ties with the US, and that the issues surrounding the Yasukuni visit only interfere with that.
Moreover, there is very little stomach in Japan for great power ambitions. That, combined with demographic and fiscal pressures, creates powerful constraints, having nothing to do with the Constitution, that impede any big power ambitions that may linger. These are some of the conclusions I reached in a study of the impact of March-11 on Japan, which should be published soon.
I believe those constraints can work in Japan’s favor to play a bigger security role in the region. There is no factual basis to fear a revival of Japanese militarism.
But raising issues that even hint of great power ambitions, which Abe’s Yasukuni visit does, only creates obstacles to Japan playing the kind of enhanced role to which many Japanese aspire.