Beware Resignation in Washington Toward the Japan-US Alliance

The 16th Annual Japan-US Security Seminar opened on January 15 in Washington, DC, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the revised Japan-US Security Treaty in January 1960. It struck me that perhaps never before had there been greater interest in the Japan-US alliance. At the same time, considerable perplexity was evident among the American participants.

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One may recall that concern about reaffirming the alliance rose to a peak in the mid-1990s, when a number of “track-two” (nongovernmental-level) meetings took place. Probably the recent seminar was the first time since then that so many people interested in the Japan-US relationship had gathered together in the United States. In conjunction with the seminar, the Tokyo Foundation hosted a public panel discussion on the morning of January 15, which drew an audience of almost 200. All were plainly very curious about Japan’s domestic situation, which was elucidated by Tokyo Foundation Chairman Hideki Kato and the other panelists.

The panelists for the seminar’s January 15 afternoon session, the public portion of the two-day affair, were Richard Armitage, former US deputy secretary of state, Shinichi Kitaoka, professor at the University of Tokyo, and Yukio Okamoto, special advisor to Prime Ministers Ryutaro Hashimoto (1996–98) and Junichiro Koizumi (2001–6). Despite it being a Friday afternoon, 270 people attendance, nearly all of them remaining until the session ended after 5pm.

With regard to the management of the alliance, many of the American participants were naturally mystified by the ongoing confusion in Tokyo over relocation of the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Okinawa. I was surprised, however, that nobody expressed irritation in the direct American fashion at what seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for the alliance on the Tokyo side. Most of the remarks were instead extremely restrained expressions of concern for the future of the alliance.

During this open session, Armitage commented that perhaps it was time for the United States to come up with a Plan B. By this, he meant a damage-control plan to deal with a possible failure to find an appropriate replacement to which to move the air station. In other circumstances, this might have been taken as an optimistic exhortation to look on the bright side. After all, quarrels often end up making a relationship stronger. In that case, he could have played up the possibility that efforts to break through the Futenma deadlock would ultimately result in a stronger alliance. But in fact what could be gleaned from his remarks was closer to a sense of . He seemed to be saying that if this is the best Japan can do, Americans will simply have to lower their expectations. I can only hope that I have read too much into his remarks under the influence of the sense of helplessness currently gripping Tokyo.

Three Types of Japan Experts

The Japan specialists I came across at this event can be divided into three groups. The first includes those who are perplexed by and unable to understand the approach to the Japan-US alliance adopted by the administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. In this group, there were neither pessimists nor optimists. The second group consists of those who have gone beyond feelings of bafflement and reached the conclusion that for the time being, they must simply wait calmly until the debate within Japan settles down. They have not given up the faint hope that the day will come when Tokyo rouses itself from its present muddle. At a stretch, the members of this group might be described as “cautiously optimistic.” Although their optimism is of the wariest kind, it remains one step short of pessimism. In the third group are those who have emerged from a period of puzzlement and are now attempting to reach their own conclusions on where the alliance is headed.

The majority seemed to fall into the second group. Or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that they had arrived at a consensus on the merits of appearing to have adopted such a stance. Although a number of participants expressed plain puzzlement regarding what was happening in Tokyo over the relocation question during the open session, for instance, on the second day, when the participants were limited to invited specialists, most of the Americans were very restrained in their remarks, and almost nobody said anything calculated to bring pressure to bear on Japan. I exchanged e-mail messages with one of the American participants several days before the event, and gathered that a discussion was underway among those planning to attend regarding the best attitude to adopt toward Japan at present. Probably the wait-and-see posture resulted from that exchange.

The problem lies with the third group. These are people who are intimately familiar with Japan, but they seem to be taking a pessimistic view on the Futenma commotion. I sense that they are not inclined to wait for Japan to come up with a response. Instead, they want to arrive at a conclusion on how the United States, for its part, should deal with Japan from now on. Evidently they share the feeling of also evident in Armitage’s remarks.

If they really have lowered their expectations, the situation is serious. An alliance is inherently a give-and-take relationship. If the Americans reach a consensus that not much is to be expected of Japan, then what the United States is prepared to offer Japan will naturally be scaled down as a result. The upshot would be a trend toward a “contracting equilibrium.”

Asymmetry in the Bilateral Alliance

In this context, we must not forget the asymmetry in the Japan-US alliance. From the start, this has been a relationship in which Japan maintains only light military power and holds its military commitments abroad to the minimum. At the same time it provides bases for American troops, in exchange for which the United States guarantees its security. Because of this asymmetry, dissatisfaction with the other partner can easily mount on either side.

The US military stands prepared to shed the blood of young Americans in the event of an emergency in Japan. Because it does not ask Japan to do the same, a sense of extreme imbalance exists on the American side with respect to the burdens to be borne in an emergency. On our side of the Pacific, Japan provides bases in exchange for the use of US military power as a deterrent. From the perspective of the Japanese people, however, what tends to stand out more prominently than the life-or-death benefits they would receive from American cooperation in an emergency that may or may not even occur is the peacetime cost of maintaining of the US bases, which are additionally a source of noise pollution, accidents, and scandals involving American soldiers.

The problem of Futenma’s relocation is linked to this unbalanced nature of the bilateral alliance. The initial relocation plan offers a representative example of attempts to provide greater stability to the stationing of US forces in Japan by lightening the excessive burdens imposed on Okinawa, and hence to sustain the deterrent provided by the presence of the US military. If the Futenma issue cannot be resolved smoothly, a vicious circle working in the opposite direction could take hold. Not only would residents in the vicinity of the base fail to see a lightening of their load, but the deterrence provided by the United States could also be impaired.

There is another major problem. This is that damage could be done to the efforts by both sides to lessen the alliance’s asymmetry, even if only to a limited extent. Over the past 20 years Tokyo and Washington have both worked hard to get Japan to shoulder greater responsibility for regional and global security and thereby move the alliance beyond one in which Japan merely makes bases available in exchange for help with its defense. As a result of this endeavor, Japan’s participation in international security cooperation has increased. Shortly after the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War, Japan dispatched minesweepers to the Gulf, and in recent years it has sent other units of the Self-Defense Forces to the Indian Ocean and Iraq and participated in international anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia.

One element of these efforts involved was the “reaffirmation of the Japan-US alliance” initiative led by Joseph Nye during his term as US assistant secretary of defense in the mid-1990s. Then, from 2004 to 2006, attention focused on the work to “transform the Japan-US alliance,” especially on plans to relocate the Futenma base and realign the US forces stationed in Japan. Among other key issues addressed were executing peacekeeping operations, extending humanitarian reconstruction assistance, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Aiming for an Expanding Equilibrium

It is fair to say that the aim of these efforts was to correct the alliance’s distinctive asymmetry as far as possible and bring about an “expanding equilibrium.” In this light, we have now arrived at a new juncture with the birth of the Obama administration in the United States and the Hatoyama administration in Japan just as the revised security treaty has marked its fiftieth anniversary. This provides a fitting occasion for making the alliance deeper yet.

When Jack Crouch, a former assistant to the US president, came to Japan in late January, he spoke of the opportunities that Japan and the United States were losing by wasting time on the Futenma issue. He said that the relocation needed to be guided to a soft landing so that discussions on improving the alliance for the future could be resumed as quickly as possible.

Earlier I referred to the sense of among some Americans concerned about the alliance. If their attitude prevails, there is the danger that people will opt in favor of the contracting-equilibrium option. That is, both sides could lower their expectations and scale back their responsibilities and obligations. In the background is the sense of disappointment felt by those Americans who over a period of many years devoted themselves to piloting the alliance toward an expanding equilibrium. If they have become dispirited, we Japanese must strive to regain their trust so that they resume their expanding-equilibrium activities.

At the same time, we must make sure that there is no wavering on a fundamental but low-profile element of the Japan-US alliance. This involves securing deterrent power by placing the US forces stationed in Japan on a stable footing. If this is not done, Japan’s very existence as a state may be altered fundamentally.

Noboru Yamaguchi

  • Senior Fellow

    Professor, International University of Japan