Michael R. Auslin is the Payson J. Treat Distinguished Research Fellow in Contemporary Asia.

On March 24, Auslin and Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow H. R. McMaster cohosted the inaugural US–Japan Global Dialogue. The day-long Track 1.5 conference featured exchanges between Japanese and American policy makers, academics, and business professionals on how to advance the bilateral relationship between the United States and Japan that has been critical to global security and prosperity since it was first signed, in 1960.

In this conversation, Auslin emphasizes Japan’s geostrategic importance, especially given China’s rise as a military and economic power. A leading manufacturer of automobiles and electronics, Japan is equally a critical player in global supply chains. Its wealth and advanced military capabilities undergird its worldwide influence in promoting liberal and democratic values.

Auslin explains that in many ways the Hoover Institution is returning to its roots through a renewed focus on US–Japan policy research. Following World War II, the Hoover Library & Archives opened an office in Tokyo in order to acquire collections related to matters of war and peace. Auslin believes that the Hoover Institution has the potential to become one of the most important venues for US–Japan exchanges, opportunities for which have been in decline since the end of the Cold War and the popping of the Japanese economic bubble at the end of the 1980s. Such exchanges are growing in importance today as the United States, Japan, and other like-minded democracies seek to ensure peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Will you describe the origins of this project?

Michael Auslin: Stanford University has a long tradition of teaching and researching about US–Japan relations and about Japan within the broader context of Asia. Within Hoover, we have had a history of very prominent scholars of Japan. After World War II, there was a Hoover Library & Archives field office in Tokyo, which curators used as a base to collect documents related to war and peace in Asia.

Hoover’s Japan collections, now overseen by Kay Ueda, have some fascinating documents and artifacts that describe the Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War II, diplomacy between Japan and the US from the early twentieth century onward, and the connections that Stanford University has had with Japanese students studying on campus. Jane Stanford herself went on a trip to Japan in the very early twentieth century, and there is a wonderful photo album that she had kept, which is housed at the Library & Archives.

In recent years, Hoover hasn’t looked closely at the modern US­–Japan relationship and the ways in which Japan has changed, especially in the wake of the end of its economic bubble and China’s rise. To fill this void, H. R. McMaster and I put together a conference that looked at many of the issues that underlie the current relationship between Tokyo and Washington, and how the two sides can work together to advance security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. I thought that given the importance of the relationship, an appropriate title would be the “US–Japan Global Dialogue,” because it signifies the potential of enhanced cooperation between the two countries, not just for Asia, but around the world.

The Japan of 2022 is very different than that of 1982. Today, Japan is concerned not just with becoming a great economic power but also in upholding liberal values, promoting free trade, and making contributions to global security.

During the conference, we brought together some of the leading practitioners in the US–Japan relationship. We had both a public luncheon, and a private, invitation-only hybrid workshop between American and Japanese policy makers, researchers, business professionals, and other influencers.

Two former US ambassadors to Japan, Bill Hagerty and John Roos, participated in the lunch conversation, as did Koji Tomita, Japan’s ambassador to the United States. Kurt Campbell, President Biden’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific issues, addressed the private workshop. We also had some very high-level discussions that reviewed the areas in which the two countries are currently cooperating, and how these partnerships can be improved in the future.

What has been the nature of US-Japan relations since the post-war period?

Michael Auslin: At the end of World War II, there was great concern over getting US–Japan relations on the right path. And that became even more important once China became a communist country under Mao Zedong in 1949 and when the US eventually became engaged in the Korean War and then the Vietnam War. It also took on added significance when Japan started emerging as an economic superpower in the 1960s. During these periods, there was a host of high-level US–Japan dialogues that were held both in the United States and in Japan. These included legislative conferences as well as academic exchanges.

Next to Great Britain, Japan was seen as one of the United States’ most critical allies during the Cold War. There were real constraints on Japan’s role in the world as it emerged from World War II and from the American occupation, which ended in 1952. The postwar constitution restricted what Japan could do in its own defense, as well as in military cooperation with other countries. Even after President Nixon’s diplomatic opening of China in 1972, the US–Japan relationship became even more integral to Asian and global security throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Japan also had an economic bubble that popped at the end of the 1980s, and which coincided with China’s rise as a major commercial power.

The US–Japan exchanges at the end of the Cold War had largely gone into abeyance. Today, I really think that Hoover has the potential of becoming perhaps the single most important venue for US-Japan Track 1.5 dialogues, which means policy conversations involving government and nongovernment participants. Japan continues to be indispensable to the economics and security of Asia, especially now that North Korea is nuclear armed and as Beijing threatens Taiwan and seeks to gain hegemony over the South China Sea.

As I mentioned earlier, Japan is forthright about defending liberal norms and values. The moniker of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was coined by former Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe. In recent years, Japan’s defense forces have modernized and increased the number of foreign militaries with whom they conduct joint exercises. Japan is a member of the Quad gathering, along with the US, Australia, and India. Tokyo has very close relations with Great Britain, and even tighter relations with NATO.

I believe it is critical that US–Japan relations continue to strengthen over the next generation, so that our two countries can effectively respond to the challenges in Asia and jointly serve as one of the primary bulwarks of liberal norms, democracy, and the rule of law in the world.

Do you think this relationship is the “most important in the world, bar none” as the late Senate majority leader and ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield said in the 1980s?

Michael Auslin: I think in some ways it may be the most important bilateral partnership in the world. But there are other partnerships that are also critical. I think our partnership with the United Kingdom remains extraordinarily crucial. We share values with Britain and a common tradition and history. Our relationship with Australia is very significant. It’s been a partner in every overseas military engagement that we’ve been involved in since World War II. Our partnership with Israel is fundamental to peace in the Middle East. So, I think that Japan certainly ranks in the very top level of those partnerships. And in some ways, because of the importance of Asia, the partnership with Japan may indeed have the claim that it’s the most important, bar none.

But a partnership is a little bit different than a relationship. I would say that today, the US–China relationship is the most important. That doesn’t mean that it’s a positive one, but it nevertheless fits the definition of a relationship. It’s increasingly antagonistic, if not adversarial. So, getting that relationship right in terms of ensuring that we do not wind up in a war with China, or that China does not become an aggressive hegemon in Asia and beyond, is critical.

Much has been discussed about the importance of US engagement with India, in order to form a bulwark against China. By comparison, how would you describe Japan’s security role in the Indo-Pacific region?

Michael Auslin: Japan now has a greater role in Asian economies, including China, than India does. I think Japan is more integral to Asia’s security than India is, because of Tokyo’s close relations with the UK, NATO, and Australia.

The United States and India have a very strong relationship, but we’re not allies. We don’t have a formal alliance and defense agreement like we do with Japan.

Again, I think Japan has a very significant role on the values front. It’s the oldest and most stable democracy in Asia. It obviously went through its own period of ultranationalism and in waging aggressive war, but going on almost eighty years now, it has been integral to advancing peace, democracy, and prosperity in the global community.

Japan is strategically located. It basically chokes off mainlaind China from the Pacific Ocean, thus constraining the People’s Liberation Army’s maritime ambitions. Japan is still one of the world’s major manufacturers of electronics and automobiles and is a central actor in global supply chains. It has an incredibly well-educated and trained workforce population that is a model for the rest of Asia.

The “partnership without limits” that presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin announced on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in Beijing last January is an effort by the two leaders to undermine the global order that has kept peace and ensured prosperity since the end of World War II. There are some questions about India’s commitment to preserving this order. During the first part of the Ukraine war, we saw India turn to Russia for oil supplies, thus giving the Kremlin a lifeline of hard currency. Japan, on the other hand, joined the US and the European Union in imposing strict sanctions on Russia.

This does not mean that Japan sees everything the way that the US does. We are not in lockstep on every issue. But we are far more united on the fundamental issues than any other nation in the Indo-Pacific Region except Australia.

How are Japan’s Self-Defense Forces positioned to confront security threats in the Indo-Pacific region?

Michael Auslin:  Japan has one of the most sophisticated militaries in Asia. Tokyo spends about $50 billion a year on its military. It is well equipped with air, land, and sea defenses. It has recently purchased F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, advanced submarines, and two new helicopter carriers that can be converted to carry F-35B vertical-launch fighters. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are professional and well organized, although they are not as experienced as the US and other Western militaries because of the lingering legal restrictions imposed on them by the post–World War II constitution.

In the past decade, Tokyo has reinterpreted some important constitutional restrictions. For example, it was able to overturn the provision that prohibited the government from participating in collective self-defense efforts, meaning that it could not support partners and allies if it came under attack. It also now engages in defense industry cooperation with other nations and can manufacture and export military equipment and technology.

Japan still is a country without nuclear arms, which is largely due to the legacy of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Most of Japanese society remains strongly morally opposed to the use of nuclear weapons. Tokyo, however, watches closely China and North Korea’s nuclear development.

Japan is a very different military actor today than it was ten years ago. Its coast guard works with counterparts throughout the region. Its Maritime Self-Defense Force engages in large-scale naval exercises with fellow Quad members. The Air Self-Defense Forces are very active and fly with American pilots. And its Ground Self-Defense forces have trained with US Marines in amphibious warfare.

Japan’s military is becoming even more capable each day. There is of course room for more improvement. I think their capabilities will enhance as the necessity to confront China’s aggression increases.

What would you like to see Hoover’s US– Japan Global Dialogue accomplish in the future?

Michael Auslin:  I plan to organize more programming to explore the growing importance of the US–Japan partnership. Japan continues to play an critical economic and political role, and increasingly a security one. It’s also important to reinvest in the US–Japan relationship due to the global environment we find ourselves in. Americans have grappled with the challenge of Communist China since 1949. Since the early 1970s, our belief was that if the PRC [People’s Republic of China] entered the world community it would become wealthier and eventually become more moderate and would liberalize politically. It would cooperate with the United States and become a stakeholder in a global order from which it was deriving enormous benefits.

That dream has passed, and now the United States needs to reinforce its allies and partners in Asia. At the front of that line is Japan.  And so, because of threats posed by Beijing on Asia’s security and the postwar order, we are about to reach a golden era in US–Japan relations.

In developing programming, I hope to move conversations about Japan into a broad context. Japan isn’t just an ally of the United States. It also plays a stabilizing role in the Indo-Pacific region. It is a major contributor in infrastructure development. It has a powerful voice in promoting democracy and liberal values and is thus a formidable force in helping to shape a more peaceful, free, and prosperous world for future generations.

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