President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold a joint press conference at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Japan, April 24, 2014.


Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

On his recent swing through Asia, President Obama paid homage to America’s primary Asian ally, a custom followed by generations of US leaders in Tokyo: “The US-Japan alliance is the foundation for not only our security in the Pacific region but for the region as a whole.”

But the ceremony and ritual of his photo-op-packed stop in Japan – which included a “sushi summit” and a robot show – mattered less to most Japanese, than a single line of his closing speech. “Our treaty commitment to Japan security is absolute,” Pres. Obama said. “Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.”

Senkaku Islands -- tiny uninhabited islets in the East China Sea claimed by both Japan and China – have become a dangerous flashpoint. President Obama’s terse statement reaffirming America’s treaty obligations to protect the territory drew a strident response from Beijing, which announced it will stage joint military exercises with Russia near the sensitive area this month.

Meanwhile, Obama’s Senkaku declaration was warmly welcomed by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. “Barack,” he said, “together I hope we can build the best US-Japan relationship ever.”

But America’s show of resolve did not reassure Yumiko Kato, a teacher in Tokyo. “I think it was just lip service,” she said, adding that many of her friends were equally unmoved by the Senkaku insurance plan. “I’m worried about the ability of the Obama administration to deliver on its promises.”

Andrew Horvat, a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Josai International University, said throughout the postwar period, Japan had grown accustomed to outsourcing its defense to the U.S. – an arrangement that suited both sides. But the waning of US wealth and power, and influence in the Far East – a region America dominated throughout the Cold War era -- has bred uncertainty among allies like Japan.

Now, Horvat said, Japanese are pondering “Are we going to be abandoned? Meaning, the U.S. and China are now mutually so interdependent that the Japanese are asking themselves, what’s the value of this American commitment to help us, if Americans’ hands are tied? If America’s national debt is in the hands of Chinese? Can America really help us when so many American people are dependent on the Chinese products they buy at Walmart?”

Obama’s visit was supposed to allay those fears, putting weight behind the rhetoric of his so-called “pivot” to Asia – de-emphasizing the Mideast to focus on the world’s most economically vibrant region.

Washington says the pivot means two more Aegis destroyers will be sent to Japan by 2017. More subs, drones, and other surveillance and reconnaissance systems are expected to follow, underscoring US resolve in a region alarmed by China’s moves to expand its borders in the East and South China Seas.

“We have the world’s second-largest economy, China, rapidly militarizing at rates far above those of any of its neighbors, and also that of the United States,” said Michael Cucek is an adjunct fellow at Temple University Japan. “The ability of [China’s] neighbors to keep up, particularly Japan, is limited.”

Japan scrambled fighter jets over 800 times in the last year – the highest level since the Cold War. More than half of these dispatches were related to the Senkakus standoff, which escalated last year with China’s provocative unilateral declaration of an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea… the move drew condemnation from US defense chief Chuck Hagel, in Beijing, recently.

“Every nation has a right to establish air defense zones, but not a right to do it unilaterally,” Hagel said. “That adds to tensions that can eventually get to dangerous conflict.”

But the pivot to Asia coincides with record-low support among Americans for an active foreign policy. Putting US troops in harm’s way over a few rocks in the  East China Sea, as in the Senkakus dispute, might find even less favor. Yet scholar Andrew Horvat argues that especially in a post-Crimea world, Washington is obliged to intervene.

“You don’t change boundaries unilaterally, you recognize boundaries that are internationally accepted. You don’t suddenly declare an air defense identification zone and demand everyone call you before they (enter it.) I think those principles are important.”

Kuni Miyake, research director of the Canon Institute for Global Studies, agrees that the US can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. “The bottom line is that this is for the mutual benefit, not only for us, but also for the U.S. interests, for the United States to stay here.”

Even so, the rise of a more powerful China has conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, not satisfied just to sit by and rely on U.S. military commitments.

In what he calls “proactive pacifism,” Abe is pushing for a constitutional amendment that would allow Japan to engage in collective defense. He rammed a tough new espionage law through parliament, and for the first time in almost 50 years, relaxed Japan’s ban on military exports to allow the sharing of defense technology with allies – all measures also long sought by Washington as a way of strengthening the alliance.

“Exercising the right of collective self-defense is indispensable for Japan,” said Narushige Michishita, director of security and international studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. Japan, he says, has no choice but to strengthen its d efense ties with other countries in the region as a counterweight to China’s growing military might.

“This is not about the containment of China,” he argues. “The most important strategic objectiveis to maintain the balance of power in this region.”

Maintaining that balance will prove complex, in a region still lacking a shared vision, still deeply riven by its troubled history, seven decades after the end of World War Two.