Japan and the U.S. 'Beyond Bilateralism': Introduction

“Challenges to Bilateralism,” T. J. Pempel’s wide-ranging introduction to 2004’s Beyond Bilateralism (which he edited with Ellis S. Krauss) lays out a compelling narrative for post-WWII U.S.–Japan relations. One of modern history’s strongest and most enduring bilateral relationships, he writes, is giving way to a complex network of ties involving other actors: in short, moving “beyond bilateralism.”

The story goes like this: From occupation through the 1980s, the relationship was characterized by common priorities, established means for negotiations in important policy areas (which were kept separate by a tacit “non-linkage rule”), all in an overtly asymmetrical relationship. The countries were on the “same side in the bipolar international arena,” their economies were intimately related, and they shared a commitment to democracy, albeit in different forms.

Since the mid- to late 1980s, Pempel writes, these strictly bilateral relationships have been increasing in complexity and ambiguity. Among the causes for this change are (1) the end of Cold War geopolitics, (2) the development of other Asian economies, coinciding with a huge growth in cross-border capital flow, (3) the rise of regional and global multilateral institutions, and most recently (4) the effects of 9/11 on global politics.

This frame for the book starkly coincides with the perspective of my current line of thinking when Pempel takes on the issue of China as an element of the changed U.S.–Japan arena.

For the three countries, the relationship has clearly become trilateral, as Mochizuki’s analysis in Chapter 3 shows [I will address this soon]. U.S. unilateralism pushes Japan and China closer together, while any warming of ties between either Japan or China on the one hand and the United States on the other forces a re-calibration of interests by the party left out. Japan fears that closer U.S. ties to China may come at Japan’s expense. Japan–China ties remain the triangle’s weakest link, but American policymakers have long worried that closer links between those two countries would come at the expense of American influence in Asia. And as China grows economically, some people in Japan feel similarly threatened, despite the short-term profitability to many Japanese corporations derived from investment in and trade with China. (17, emphasis mine)

This is the most concise statement I have yet seen on the significance of the U.S.–Japan–China triangle as grounds for analysis. (It also courteously underlines the importance of the thesis work I did, phew.) The chapter also demonstrates the importance of taking other actors into account in any set of relations, whether bilateral, trilateral, or multilateral. I look forward to the remainder of this book.

While I get ready to read the rest of this book, here is a brief summary of some other key points:

  • Pempel alludes to a U.S. idea that helping Japan to develop economically “was all calculated to assist Japan in becoming an economic success story that could be projected as a model for much of the rest of Asian development.” (7) I wonder whose rhetoric this was.
  • There was little unofficial influence on pre-“beyond” U.S.–Japan ties. Non-governmental actors had little pull. (8) Additionally, “Functionally specific agencies in both countries worked with their counterparts on matters within their joint domains relatively independently of agencies dealing with issues in other areas,” (9) meaning that issues were kept separate in negotiations—”a non-linkage rule.”
  • Similarly, when disputes arose, the U.S. president or Japanese prime minister rarely engaged in negotiations, instead depending on counterpart bureaucratic organizations, representing “a network of connectors [running] from one country’s government to that of the other.” (11)
  • Japan being concerned about increased U.S. engagement with China in the ’90s, 9/11 escalated those concerns. “Japanese concerns were enhanced by the American warming toward China and its SCO [Shanghai Cooperative Organization] allies [Russia and four Central Asian states] as a result of the U.S. post-September 11 antiterrorism campaign, as well as by China’s willingness to utilize the antiterrorism label to justify actions against dissidents.” (16) (The latter concern refers to China’s defining Muslim separatists in Xinjiang Province as terrorists. That may be, but the Uighurs in northwest China are not aligned with any strains of the much feared “global Islam.”)
  • President Clinton “personally took the initiative to upgrade the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to include a national leaders’ meeting,” yet the Bush administration has opposed multilateral arrangements. (27)
  • Japan has supported regionalism because “after the many trade frictions of the mid- to late 1980s, Japan was anxious to reduce its dependence on the United States and also on those global multilateral organizations in which U.S. influence was overwhelming.” (29) This last point relates to a recent proposal by Japan to study the creation of a massive free trade area that would exclude the United States, which I will examine later.

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