Japan's ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power in 2009 with the promise of "re-examining Japan's ties with the United States" and framing a foreign policy with "greater emphasis on Asia." Less than three years later, anxiety about the steady increase in China's economic strength, military power and political assertiveness in the region has forced the party to lean back on Japan's postwar alliance with the US.
Rajiv Bhatia, a former Indian diplomat and visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, said Japan is now trying a "hub and spokes approach" to international alliances, with the US as the hub and partnerships such as those between Japan and India the spokes.
Japan's DPJ government made some very public moves at the end of 2011 towards a three-way partnership with the US and India. More importantly, it has stated its desire to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a US-backed treaty designed to eliminate all tariffs within 10 years and create a free trade zone covering the entire Asia-Pacific region. The Pacific trade grouping does not currently include China.
The approach leverages the fact while the US remains the world's largest economy and a vital trade partner for developing economies, Japan is at the heart of emerging Asia's development assistance landscape, a reality that no Asian nation can disregard. The latest government data from Japan shows the country provided US$2.22 billion in ODA to Asian nations in 2009, making it Asia's biggest ODA donor. In fact, even in the current phase of Japan's apparent decline and China's ascendency, China still receives Official Development Assistance (ODA) from Japan.
Moreover, despite its present wilting economy, Japan remains one of Asia's pre-eminent economies in industrial, technological and financial terms. A strong alliance with the US makes partnership with Japan even more attractive for other nations in the region.
As if to help Japan in its decision-making, US announced a new defense strategy in December 2011 that proposed a larger US presence in Asia.
All of that allows Japan just the elbow room that it requires to play a fitting role in the region's geopolitical ballroom -- especially at a time when Japan is battling many anxieties, including the challenge to cope with post-Fukushima issues concerning nuclear energy, political instability and economic stagnation.
But DPJ's unnatural reaffirmation of faith in the order, in which the US acts as a fulcrum for Japan's geopolitical activities in the region, neither arrived suddenly nor was born out of the economic meltdown in Japan, which worsened after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear triple disaster.
At the 50-year anniversary celebration of the Japan-US security treaty in January 19, 2010, Hatoyama Yukio, the DPJ's first prime minister, repeated the DPJ's election platform calling for a "close and equal" relationship between the two nations and shutting down of an American military base on the island of Okinawa.
But in the wake of increased tensions in the region after the sinking of a South Korean navy ship, allegedly by North Korea, Hatoyama signed a deal with the US President Barack Obama on May 28, 2010 to retain the base for security reasons. It was a move that eventually cost him his post, as he cited the deal as the reason for his resignation on June 2, 2010.
The leaning towards US became near complete in September 2010, when Japan's relationship with China hit their lowest point in recent years because of Japanese arrest of a Chinese fishing trawler captain near disputed islands in the East China Sea. China reacted angrily by suspending midlevel diplomatic talks and cutting off exports of rare earth metals, which Japan needs to make electronics, a sizeable component of Japan's economy.
The disputed islands at the center of the controversy, known as the Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, are believed to be surrounded by oil and gas reserves and have long been a source of friction between China, Japan and Taiwan.
The diplomatic spat over the islands flared up again this month when the DPJ government, to support Japan's claims to the disputed territories, started allocating Japanese names to the islands. Japan has said it plans to finish naming all the 39 uninhabited islands by the end of March 2012 and place them under the authority of Japanese administrative units.
The naming of the islands may seem inconsequential in the light of its questionable legitimacy, but the move reflects Japan's acknowledgement of the fast-moving process of Asia's integration, in which two principal scenarios are likely to play out.
The region could eventually be led by Beijing's favoured ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea) community, which could reduce Japan's role to nothing more than a servant of Beijing. However, any effort by China to establish a Sino-centric order is expected to be met with resistance not only from Japan but also from South Korea and other Southeast Asian nations.
In the second scenario, Japan could leverage its intrinsic economic strength and good relations with major international players to form a grouping that comprises ASEAN+3 and Australia, India and New Zealand, as seen in the Sixth East Asian Summit in Indonesia in November last year. This would allow Japan to play an equal and important role in the community, along with China and India, using India as a counter to any hegemonic intent of China.
Experts believes that it is imperative for Japan to ensure that the second possibility prevails in the region. Already displaced by China as the world's second largest economy in 2010, the prospect of further tilting of balance between the two nations is generating new unease within Japan.
By 2030 China's economy is likely to be four times as big as Japan's. For it to be able to cope with a rival of that stature, Japan realizes that it needs have more nations on its side. For a start, the ruling DPJ has decided to work around its antipathy for the Japan-US security alliance. It is a broken election promise, but may prove to be a good strategic decision in the long run for Japan.