Last week there were protests against the Japanese government throughout Asia as crowds demanded apology for its aggression during WWII and for cabinet members’ visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. It was August 15, 2014, the 69th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Like August 15 of previous years, leaders of China and South Korea also condemned Japan’s increasing assertiveness in foreign and defense policy.
Interestingly, the U.S. government’s growing willingness to share burden with Japan in its defense and deterrence against China and North Korea seems to have stroked this fear of Japanese militarism. The U.S. government has been carefully balancing the military need to push Japan to bear a bigger burden and the diplomatic need to not offend other countries in East Asia by doing so. The difficulty of such balancing act was underscored by Japan’s recent reinterpretation of its constitution, which extended the scope of the right to self-defense to include the defense of an ally under attack. The event exemplified the understanding between the two allies in burden-sharing but was recognized by other East Asian countries as a sign of Japan’s new assertiveness.
Political scientists have long recognized such complicated dynamics in inter- and intra-alliance relationships, in East Asia in particular. For instance, Cha (2000) argued that the key determinant in friction between Japan and South Korea is the symmetry of the U.S. commitment to Japan and South Korea. Noting Japan and South Korea are in a quasi-alliance relationship where the both countries have the U.S. as an ally, respectively, but not are in an alliance with each other, Cha applied Snyder (1984)’s framework of allies’ fear of abandonment and entrapment to explain the fluctuating tension between Japan and South Korea. He maintained that Japan and South Korea experience friction when the U.S. commitment to the region is strong or when there is an asymmetry in the two countries’ fear of abandonment by the U.S. When the U.S. commitment is weak and both countries fear abandonment by the U.S., Japan and South Korea display greater cooperation with each other.
Yet existing work on the dynamics in U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia are mostly concerned with nuclear and conventional military forces. How would the dynamics play out in the cyber domain? For one, burden-sharing between the U.S. and Japan in the cyber domain would incur lower diplomatic costs than other war-fighting domains. Cyber warfare is usually accompanied by anonymity. According to Gartzke (2013), anonymity in cyberspace provides both initiators and targets with conundrums. While anonymity “protects an aggressor from retribution, it also dilutes credit for the deed” (Gartzke 2013: 46-7). Moreover, anonymity fails to give the target a way to retaliate or to acquiesce (Gartzke 2013: 47). However, this implies that anonymity in cyberspace will prevent the U.S.-Japan cooperation from any public diplomacy crisis. While cyber warfare’s anonymity may weaken its effect in deterrence, it would neutralize any public outcry among East Asian countries responding to Japan’s burden-sharing. Because it is difficult to identity who cooperated and who attacked in cyberspace, Japan can take an initiative in its cooperation with the U.S. yet hide behind the cover of anonymity.
On the other hand, it is unclear whether Japan has the capability to share its burden and contribute to deter cyber threats from China and North Korea. The case of Stuxnet serves as a useful benchmark. In 2010, the U.S. and Israel implanted a computer worm in which attacked Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and disrupted its nuclear enrichment. According to Lindsay (2013), Stuxnet included “collaboration with Israel for both operational and strategic reasons: the United States needed access to Israeli clandestine intelligence networks in Iran, and the United States wanted to dissuade Israel from launching an airstrike against Iran” (385). There are some reports which suggest that it was Israel, not the U.S., which spearheaded the Stuxnet attacks (Lindsay 2013: 385). Unlike Israel, however, it is uncertain whether Japan can offer the U.S. anything akin to what Israel provided. Japan has been relatively slow in developing cyber capabilities and in responding to cyber threats. It was only in 2005 that the National Information Security Center was established in the Cabinet Secretariat. It was only last year that the Japanese government created and released its Cyber Security Strategy for the first time.
At present, it is unclear how the dynamics of the U.S.-Japan alliance will unfold in the cyber domain. The alliance has been central to East Asian security in the conventional domains. Both friends and adversaries in the region have observed and reacted to the changes in the relationship, resulting in political and military ramifications. It is unquestionable that they will continue to pay close attention to the alliance dynamics in the cyber domain.