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Strengthen U.S.-Japan economic ties for security in Asia

By Klint Alexander
Dr. Klint Alexander is Senior Lecturer of Political Science & Law at Vanderbilt University and a Member of the Global Business Team at Baker, Donelson in Nashville
January 20, 2016

Last month, Japan's lower house of parliament moved to bolster the country's security by approving a controversial plan to reverse its 70-year ban on sending its military forces to fight in conflicts abroad.

The legislation, virtually certain to become law, has elicited protests from Japanese society, which has embraced pacifism since the end of World War II.

Behind this move is a growing concern in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration over China's rapid military and economic growth, its increasing assertiveness in the East and South China seas, and its recent decision to establish an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to rival the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Strengthening the U.S.-Japan relationship should be a top priority for policy makers in Washington, D.C., and Tokyo. The Obama administration has already called for a strategic "rebalance" or "pivot" in the region to send a signal to China and reassure Japan, Australia and others in the region of America's military commitment to their peace and security.

However, realistically, the most viable way to defend Japan's interests is not through military power, but economic influence through trade, investment and support for sound macroeconomic policies.

Having recently visited Japan at the invitation of the Japanese government, I have come to understand the important role that the U.S.-Japan partnership plays to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region and the leverage that the first- and third-largest economies in the world have in shaping developments there.

The basic understanding of the U.S.-Japan partnership is this: as the security environment surrounding Japan intensifies, the need for strengthening economic ties between the U.S. and Japan becomes greater.

During the past two years, the U.S. and Japan have participated in several high-level meetings to enhance bilateral cooperation and promote more economic and cultural exchange.

Specifically, the U.S. and Japan have been working to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations and address global issues such as climate change, women's empowerment and sustainable development.

Moreover, since the tragic East Japan earthquake, the two countries have worked to promote more people-to-people exchanges at all levels, including the Kakehashi Project for youth exchange and the U.S. Tomodachi Initiative, wherein hundreds of Japanese students will be sent to the United States to study.

The TPP is perhaps the most pressing issue of the moment for the U.S. and Japan to enhance bilateral cooperation.

The TPP negotiations have stalled over narrow technical disagreements about automobiles and agriculture, and, of course, Congress' reluctance to grant President Obama trade promotion authority (TPA).

A key aspect of the TPP is that China is excluded from the arrangement.

A final deal would enable the U.S. and Japan to set the economic agenda for the Asia-Pacific region and establish the rules and standards for goods and services trade, intellectual property protection and foreign direct investment.

The other important economic issue with geostrategic implications for the region is the reemergence of the Japanese economy itself.

For two decades, Japan has endured recession and stagflation, which has eroded its image as a national power and undermined its effectiveness in dealing with various trading partners, including China.

The Abe administration has set forth "third arrow" reforms which seek to expand private investment in Japan, revitalize cities, develop the energy, technology, health care, and finance sectors, and promote women's participation and labor market reforms and women's participation in the workplace.

The effect of these reforms has been positive so far as the Japanese economy gradually recovers. Innovative macroeconomic policies coupled with a stimulus-minded Bank of Japan have been leading Japan out of the depths of recession and into a stronger position in the region.

However, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has recently called upon the Bank of Japan to scale back its quantitative easing program to guard against potentially higher inflation.

The U.S. should act within the IMF to support the Abe administration's efforts to revitalize the Japanese economy. Abenomics seems to be working, so why force Japan to change direction?

Peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region hinges on U.S.-Japan bilateral cooperation, a successful TPP and support for a strong Japanese economy. China's territorial ambitions will likely succumb to economic self-interest if the first- and third-largest economies continue to grow their economies and succeed in establishing a cooperative framework for trade and investment in the region.

Then, we all can worry less about the shift away from Japanese pacifism in the region.

Dr. Klint Alexander is dean of the University of Wyoming College of Law. He previous served as a senior lecturer of political science and law at Vanderbilt University and a member of the Global Business Team at Baker Donelson in Nashville.

Kristian Bush gives an impromptu performance on the flight deck of the USS McCampbell (US Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan) (Photo: Photo courtesy of Kristian Bush)

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