Countless official statements by the U.S. and Japan have
highlighted the two countries' bilateral alliance as the linchpin
or cornerstone of stability in Asia and indispensable to achieving
the strategic objectives of both countries. Although true, such
assertions are faulty on two counts: (1) they overlook the parallel
criticality of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, and (2) they presume
the existing paradigm with Tokyo will continue to meet U.S.
In 1980, The Heritage Foundation sponsored a major conference in
Tokyo titled "U.S.-Japan Mutual Security: The Next Twenty Years,"
headlined by former President Gerald R. Ford. The introduction to
the volume commemorating the proceedings sets the stage by noting
that Japan is "aware that it must assume a larger role and greater
responsibilities in world affairs, but without a clear perception
of what it must do." The truth is that nearly 30 years later,
Japan's perspective on security issues has not moved from these
crossroads, and as a result, cracks are emerging in its alliance
with the U.S.
U.S. national security leaders, including congressional
committees, should take appropriate steps in the framework of a
review of both U.S. and Japanese commitments. In 1960, the United
States made a promise to guarantee the long-term security of a
former enemy. Such a commitment brings with it the enduring
responsibility of the U.S. government to stand by its word.
Similarly, Japan took a long-range view of the importance of its
relationship with the United States, and the rest of the world
continues to assess Japan on its reliability as a security partner
and credibility as a pillar of international security.
Although severing the military partnership is neither likely nor
in the interests of either country, growing disenchantment could
exacerbate existing tensions and lead to greater fissures in the
relationship or a stagnant alliance that is unable to adapt to a
rapidly changing Asian security environment.
U.S. policymakers are weary of Tokyo's long-standing complaints
of being treated as a junior partner despite Washington's repeated
entreaties for Japan to assume a larger security role. For its
part, Japanese trust of the U.S. security commitment has eroded as
a result of the Bush Administration's premature removal of North
Korea from the terrorist list and fears that President Obama will
acquiesce to accepting Pyongyang as a nuclear weapons state.
Neither country is well served by endlessly repeated bromides of
the strength of the alliance as it becomes increasingly apparent
that Japan will not fulfill the security role required to address
increasing global security threats. Alliance discussions must go
beyond rehashing tactical details of U.S. force realignment.
Instead, U.S. and Japanese policymakers should conduct a realistic
assessment of the needs of the alliance, particularly fully
delineating roles, missions, and capabilities, including a
timetable for Tokyo to fulfill its commitments.
Washington must continue to press Tokyo to go beyond token
contributions to international security missions and create a
partnership that is more global in scope, even as the U.S.
acknowledges that other allies, particularly South Korea, are more
likely to be reliable partners. Papering over differences in order
to maintain cordial relations while failing to address growing
strategic shortfalls not only defers necessary remedial actions,
but also provides a dangerously false sense of security and
potentially undermines U.S. abilities to achieve its strategic
objectives. Sweeping deficiencies in the relationship under the rug
also threatens the long-term health of the alliance.
The Alliance: Still Important
Despite its shortcomings, the alliance is critical to fulfilling
current U.S. strategic objectives, including maintaining peace in
the region. The forward deployment of a large U.S. military force
in Japan deters military aggression byNorth Korea, signals
Washington's resolve in defending U.S. allies, and provides an
irreplaceable staging area should military action be necessary.
Japan hosts the largest contingent of U.S. forces in Asia,
including the only aircraft carrier home-ported outside the United
States and one of three Marine Expeditionary Forces, as well as
paying for a major portion of the cost of stationing U.S. forces
there. Japan is America's principal missile defense partner in the
Washington and Tokyo have made significant progress in recent
years in evolving the role of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF).
Alliance managers and military personnel should be commended for
achieving considerable accomplishments despite often seemingly
insurmountable political obstacles. The two militaries now have
enhanced and integrated their joint training, intelligence sharing,
The military leaderships of both countries are engaged in a
massive redeployment of U.S. forces in Japan, including relocating
a Marine Corps air station on Okinawa, and transferring 8,000
Marines from Okinawa to Guam. The U.S. Army is deploying the
headquarters for I Corps from Fort Lewis, Washington, to Camp Zama,
Japan, and the U.S. and Japanese Air Forces are integrating air
defense functions in a joint center on Yokota Air Base.
Japan has also been moving further from the flagpole by
venturing into new security roles. The Japanese Maritime SDF
performed refueling operations in the Indian Ocean, Air SDF units
provided logistical support in Iraq, and 5,600 Ground SDF personnel
assisted with restoring public services in Iraq. All of these
missions represented progress and should be acknowledged,
particularly since they were attained despite considerable Japanese
political opposition and public uncertainty.
The Little Engine that Won't
Japan's economic capacity and growing military capabilities
enable it to be a strong alliance partner and a significant force
to pursue global objectives. Yet, Japan is a powerful nation that
punches below its weight and exerts little international influence.
Rather than implementing a strategic policy, Japan has followed a
minimalist, cost-effective, and reactive approach designed to
derive maximum security and economic benefits from its alliance
with the U.S. while providing the minimal necessary reciprocal
Tokyo seeks to fly under the radar of world attention by carving
out a less contentious economic lane in the road to avoid
confrontation and potential pushback overseas. The 2005 agreement
on Common Strategic Objectives between the U.S. and Japan
delineated roles, missions, missile defense objectives, and U.S.
force realignment. However, "this level of organization,
integration, and volume of agreements not withstanding,
implementation has been incomplete and often grudging."
In the absence of bold and effective political leadership, the
Japanese public has shown little enthusiasm for assuming a larger
role and there are few incentives for disturbing the comfortable
status quo. The combination of "constitutionally imposed
constraints, interpreted restrictions on collective self-defense,
and self-imposed limitations has also provided the Japanese with a
self-serving rationale to arbitrarily limit defense spending to 1%
of GDP [which] has become a seemingly unshakeable article of faith
with the broader Japanese body politic."
There has been an enduring Japanese inability or unwillingness
to push the envelope on redefining the role of SDF to achieve
national objectives, to budget sufficient resources, or to
energetically convince the public and Japan's neighbors of the need
for a changed paradigm. At a time when the U.S. is looking for its
allies to assume a larger security role overseas, Japan has ended
its ground and air missions in Iraq. Japan has even walked away
from earlier efforts to reinterpret the theory of collective
self-defense to allow a more expansive role for Japanese defense
The Effect of Japan's Complacency
Glacial Reform.While the U.S.-Japanese alliance has been
evolving, with Tokyo adopting additional security roles, it has
done so at an unnecessarily slow pace that is woefully inadequate
to match the changes in the Asian strategic environment. These
military accomplishments "inevitably stand on a more problematic
political-economic foundation...the [alliance], formidable as it
may be militarily, thus has political and intellectual feet of
Japan has yet to define its strategic vision for maintaining and
expanding its role. U.S. and Japanese alliance managers should use
the 50th anniversary of the alliance in 2010 to issue a new
strategic document that goes beyond past bromides to provide a
detailed articulation of the roles, missions, and capabilities,
vision, blueprint, and commitments. Even more important, there
should be a timetable for Japanese implementation of its
Declining Defense Spending. In 2004, Japanese
defense spending was 6 percent of the general account budget, lower
than the 8.2 percent level of 1965. Japan's defense spending has
dropped from $46 billion in 2000 to $45 billion in 2008, and is
lower now than it was in 1996. Yet, a survey by the Japanese
daily Asahi Shimbun showed that, despite seven consecutive
years of defense cuts, 47 percent of respondents recommended
further reductions to the SDF budget.
Limited Overseas Role.Japan's national interests extend
far beyond its shores, but it is unwilling to protect them, relying
on others to divert their resources for Tokyo's benefit. Japan
should recognize that having global interests means having global
responsibilities. Only 38 Japanese troops participate in just three
U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world, compared to more
than 2,000 Chinese soldiers in 11 peacekeeping operations.
Japan is the only G-7 country that has not sent troops to
Afghanistan, which has been officially endorsed by the U.N.
Security Council. As James Shinn, former Assistant Secretary of
Defense, put it: "I thought Japan was trying to get a permanent
seat on the Security Council of the U.N. How can Japan seek a major
role on the UNSC on one hand, but decline on the other to assume
any responsibility for the SC's approved operation in Afghanistan?"
The Pentagon had asked Japan to provide transport helicopters and
planes as well as Japanese members for Provincial Reconstruction
Overly Restrictive Rules of Engagement.A debate rages
over not just which roles Japan should have, including boots
on the ground, but also how Japan conducts its missions. The
contentious legislative debate that precedes any Japanese
deployment overseas and the ridiculously constricted rules of
engagement (ROE) undermine the utility of any Japanese
contributions. When Japanese ground troops went into Iraq, the
risk-averse mission precluded them from providing their own force
protection; this required them to be protected by other troops. As
a result, the Japanese contribution was a drain on overall allied
Japanese provision of naval refueling assistance required
extensive and divisive legislative debate every year to renew
operations. But Shinn expressed disappointment about Japan's
contribution: "The refueling mission in the Indian Ocean is a very
minor contribution to the big problem of stability in the whole
Middle East [and it is] very unfortunate that the Japanese
government hasn't done more."
Japan deployed Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) destroyers
for a four-month tour patrolling for pirates off the Horn of
Africa. The mission was constrained, however, to protect Japanese
lives and property. Japanese naval forces were only allowed to
escort Japanese-registered ships or foreign-flagged vessels
operated by Japanese firms, were limited to using force exclusively
for self-defense and firing warning shots, and not allowed to come
to the defense of third-party vessels.
Even as the ships were engaged in their mission, the Japanese
legislature was still debating expanding the rules of engagement to
allow for a more meaningful involvement. It was not until June 2009
that legislation marginally expanded authority to escort foreign
ships and fire at pirate boats that ignore warning shots.
Even the broader rules of engagement still do not allow true
Japanese integration into the more comprehensive international
As such, it affirms Tokyo's self-centered response to global
security threats, limiting its involvement to protect only Japanese
efforts or to be involved only in an as minimal and risk-averse
manner possible. This is despite Prime Minister Taro Aso's
declaration that Japan's involvement is due to its responsibilities
as a member of the international community. Japan responded only
after China and 19 other nations agreed to participate, hardly the
actions of a country vying to be a leader of Asia.
Conflicting Security Priorities. The U.S.
strategic threat environment changed considerably after 9/11, as
well as due to the increasing North Korean and Chinese military
capabilities. As a result, U.S. objectives and expectations of its
allies have evolved. For its part, Japan remains focused on an
alliance in which Tokyo relies on U.S. military presence as a
low-cost defense of its country.
As a result of the Bush Administration's decision to delist
North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, Tokyo now questions
U.S. support for Japanese foreign policy priorities. Japan
perceives a difference in the U.S. approach to Iran's and North
Korea's nuclear programs. Although North Korea already has nuclear
weapons, Tokyo perceives the U.S. as not expending the same level
of effort toward Pyongyang, causing some Japanese officials to
question whether Washington believes that protecting Israel is more
important than protecting Japan.
Greater Political Uncertainty
The likelihood that the opposition Democratic Party of Japan
(DPJ) will win the forthcoming lower house election--and thus gain
control of the executive and legislative branches--may cause
turmoil for Japan's security policies. The DPJ is composed of
widely diverse ideological factions with sharply divergent views on
the U.S. alliance, Tokyo's use of military force, and balancing
Japan's relationships with the U.S. and China. The DPJ has vowed to
"continue scrutinizing without interruption" Japanese plans to pay
1 trillion yen for its portion of the realignment cost. It also
announced its intention to study ways of having U.S. forces in
Okinawa moved overseas.
Therefore, the degree to which a Japan under DPJ stewardship
would veer from the security status quo remains uncertain,
even to DPJ legislators. The conservative faction advocates
maintaining a close military alliance with the U.S. and continually
striving to expand Japan's security responsibilities. Another,
potentially larger faction, led by former party chief Ichiro Ozawa,
advocates a more independent role for Japan's SDF. This group would
press for a less constrained use of Japanese military force, but
only in support of U.N.-sanctioned missions.
Although the DPJ will be constrained in its ability to
significantly alter the status quo, the ascendancy of the
DPJ may have significant and detrimental effects on the bilateral
alliance and U.S. security objectives in Asia.
Japan's Self-Marginalization--a Fading Flower
Japan's regional and global influence and relevance are
diminishing due to a faltering economy, paralyzed political system,
and constrained armed forces. The current trajectory of Japan's
future is poor, with little reason for optimism for a change in
course. "The danger is that [the bilateral] alliance will, despite
its strategic importance, grow ever more irrelevant to the
increasingly global realities of world affairs," warns Kent Calder
of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. As a
result, the world "has likely seen the high-water mark of Japan's
international presence and assertiveness." Japan must
realize that the result of indecision, stagnation, and attempting
to merely maintain the status quo is devolving it to a
second-tier, middle-power nation.
Left unchecked, Tokyo's influence and relevance in Asia will
continue to erode. It is not a case of Japan abandoning the race,
but simply that its competitors have gotten much better. It is like
a ball player who continues to play the same level of game,
oblivious to the fact that the other players on both his team and
the opponent's are continually improving their capabilities.
If Japan is uncertain of its future regional role, China is not.
China, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If democratic Tokyo is
unwilling to play a leadership role, China's growing economic and
military capabilities will increasingly enable it to fill the gap
that Japan's declining financial strength and self-imposed security
constraints have caused. That could lead nations in Southeast Asia,
Africa, and the Middle East to increasingly see China as a more
capable and reliable actor than Japan. This is certainly not good
for U.S. strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region.
Writing Checks No Substitute for
Japanese defenders of the status quo reject assertions that
their country is losing influence or relevance by pointing to
Japan's significant economic contributions to addressing global
needs. Japan is the second-largest contributor to, among others,
the United Nations, the Asian Development Bank, and the
International Monetary Fund. Japan pledged a $100 billion loan to
the International Monetary Fund in March 2009 to bolster the fund's
Tokyo has provided hundreds of billions of dollars in overseas
development assistance. In February 2009, Tokyo hosted an
international aid conference to elicit aid to stabilize Pakistan
and fight terrorism, to which Tokyo pledged $1 billion over two
years. Japan pledged to pay the salaries of 80,000 Afghan police
officers for six months to help stabilize security in Afghanistan
and to build 200 schools and 100 hospitals.
Japanese economic contributions are impressive. Moreover,
they outweigh those of China despite Beijing often receiving far
greater media attention. But these are Japanese economic,not
security, contributions; the U.S.-Japan alliance is, of
course, a security relationship. One cannot substitute non-security
accomplishments as compensation for Tokyo's grudging implementation
of its military commitments. Tokyo has been unable to translate its
economic strength into political and security influence or into an
effective leadership role. And its economic power is a slowly
Some Japanese scholars point to the intangible influence
provided by Japan's "soft power," pointing to polls that show the
country is well respected throughout Asia. "While Japan's relative
economic strength may be on the decline, smart diplomacy and soft
power can supplement this loss and make sure that Japan's future
remains bright," believes Hitoshi Tanaka, Japan's former
Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Academics on both sides of the Pacific seek to justify Japan's
shortcomings by advocating a more comprehensive, "non-traditional"
definition of the alliance to include non-security issues.
"Non-traditional security" is, in fact, non-security.
Redefining non-security issues as "soft" security accepts passivity
as a strategy and highlights non-relevant achievements to
compensate for security shortcomings. Japanese efforts on global
warming, energy issues, or combating pandemics do not contribute to
a military alliance. Tokyo cannot substitute initiatives on these
issues for fulfilling its security requirements.
Unless soft power is convertible into political influence, it is
merely an oxymoron that is used as an excuse for avoiding security
responsibilities. Even effective soft power can only augment, not
replace, security commitments.
The Cost of Inaction
Japan may believe that there will be less need to engage
overseas since there is a perception that the Obama Administration
is "certain to distance itself from the widely criticized
unilateral approach to diplomacy adopted by the previous U.S.
administration and embrace multilateralism as it tackles global and
regional challenges." That is missing the point. Even a
multilateralist approach by the U.S. would require a larger
Japanese contribution. Despite new U.S. efforts to reach out and
engage its European and Asian allies in dialogue, the Obama
Administration has found few countries willing to commit resources
for coalition operations in Afghanistan. The lesson learned for
Washington is that allied foot-dragging was not due to President
Bush or his policies but, rather, allied reluctance to become
involved or to expend resources.
In the absence of significant allied contributions, the U.S.
will find itself either having to abandon strategic objectives,
such as stabilizing Afghanistan, or again having to assume the
lion's share of military responsibilities. Given constrained U.S.
military resources, Congress and the American taxpayer will
increasingly question the utility and cost of devoting significant
military resources to defend Japan. They will easily see it as far
less expensive to remove additional units from U.S. forces in Japan
rather than having to grow units from scratch.
Allies would then be faced with the choice of accepting greater
security risks or offsetting the decline in deterrent capability by
expanding their own forces, requiring a significant increase of the
defense budget beyond the current anemic level. Neither Japanese
soft power nor entangling Tokyo's neighbors in an East Asian
regional forum will offset growing security threats. There is a
growing Japanese chorus fretting over a perceived declining U.S.
commitment to Japan, yet there has been little effort by Tokyo to
prepare compensatory measures.
Straight Talk Needed. The leaders and legislatures of the
U.S. and Japan must forthrightly address the needs of the alliance
and Japan's contributions rather than continuing to paper over the
problems with positive rhetoric. Japan has called for an end to
being treated as the junior partner in the alliance, which it
perceives as unfair. Yet, with a proportionate share of
decision-making comes a proportionate share of the responsibilities
While the U.S. has responsibility for understanding the domestic
political constraints of its allies, those allies also have a
responsibility to live up to their commitments. Habitual
foot-dragging leads to mistrust, fatigue, and perceptions of
unreliability. Maintaining a status quo alliance in a
changing security environment will leave the U.S. with increasingly
larger military requirements that it may be unable to fulfill.
What the U.S. Should Do
- Stop referring to Japan as the only linchpin of U.S. security
in Asia, instead emphasizing the parallel importance of South
Korea, which has fewer constraints on the use of its military
overseas. Seoul is more able and willing to commit sufficient
capabilities to achieve shared political and security
- Affirm the U.S. security commitment to the defense of Japan
while defining a blueprint and timetable for transferring greater
responsibility to the Japanese SDF. Underscore Washington's pledge
of extended deterrence--"the nuclear umbrella"--while insisting
Japan expand its conventional force capabilities to fulfill
regional and global responsibilities.
- Proceed with the planned transformation and relocation of U.S.
forces in Japan, but condition it on full Japanese implementation
of existing bilateral agreements. Washington should make clear that
U.S. redeployments of Marine forces on Okinawa are contingent on
Japanese fulfillment of the Guam Agreement, which stipulates that
the new Marine air base must be completed on Okinawa before the
third Marine Expeditionary Force departs for Guam.
- Continue and expand values-based alliances, such as the
trilateral dialogue among the U.S., Japan, and Australia,
with an eye to broader supplementary diplomatic instruments like a
"global freedom coalition." Increase multilateral
security cooperation among like-minded partners, including South
The U.S. Should Urge Japan to:
- Implement the recommendations of the Yanai Commission to
adopt a less constrictive interpretation of the theory of
collective self-defense. This would allow greater Japanese
participation in four scenarios: (1) protection of U.S. naval
forces, (2) ballistic missile defense, (3) use of force by SDF
forces deployed on peacekeeping operations, and (4) providing
logistical support to other nations engaged in peacekeeping
- Enact permanent legislation to allow the dispatch of Japanese
forces overseas without requiring cumbersome and divisive
legislative debate before each mission. This would be an important
first step toward globalizing the alliance to allow Japan to
address international security threats inimical to both the U.S.
and Japan. Japan should increase its regional and global security
role to be commensurate with its economic power and military
- Implement rules of engagement similar to those used by other
nations engaged in U.N. missions. The need for other nations'
troops to defend Japanese troops in Iraq undermined the utility of
the Japanese contribution. Tokyo should evolve its role beyond
merely providing logistical support or funding non-military
initiatives. Becoming a full member of the team requires "boots on
- Increase defense spending beyond the status quo of 1
percent of GDP to enable fulfilling mission objectives. Enhance
public diplomacy efforts to explain the utility of an enhanced
alliance to offset Japan's current acquiescence and timidity, which
would lead to decreased influence in Asia.
- Assess the impact that buying expensive weapons systems, such
as the F-22 fighter aircraft, which costs much more than the F-35,
would have on Japan's ability to maintain critical defense systems,
such as missile defense, if the Japanese continue to refuse to
raise their defense budget.
- Assume a greater global role in combating proliferation.
Initially extend the range of JapaneseProliferation Security
Initiative (PSI) operations, currently limited to the waters
surrounding Japan, to assume primary responsibility for patrolling
against North Korean maritime proliferation in northeast Asia.
Japan is important to the United States--which makes it all the
more critical to improve the alliance for mutual benefit. An Asia
without the U.S.-Japanese alliance would be far worse than the
status quo. The U.S. needs strong relationships with Japan and
South Korea, as well as coordinated efforts among these three
allies to combat current and future security challenges in Asia and
around the world. Moreover, the alliances are not simply a response
to threats, but are a partnership of countries that share the
values of freedom and democracy. The U.S. should not shy away from
emphasizing that aspect in its military partnerships with Japan,
South Korea, and Australia.
Leaders in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul have inherited
responsibilities that go well beyond their borders. The sacrifices
of their citizens in the 20th century should never be forgotten,
and these three singularly important nations must constantly review
the premise of their commitments and long-term relationships in the
moral dimension that "our words are our bonds."
Japanese policymakers have not defined a strategic vision to
address the evolving world environment. Such a grand strategy must
be accompanied by bold, effective leadership to mobilize public
support for Japan's regional and global role. A national debate
must take place if Japan is to reverse its present wayward course.
The election of the opposition DPJ and its commensurate search for
a policy could prove to be catalyst.
The U.S.-Japan alliance is not a house of cards. But it is
underperforming, and weaker than generally perceived. As one U.S.
official said, "Getting Japan to do more is like pushing a string."
The alliance needs shoring up, including wider understanding and
public acknowledgement of its strengths, weaknesses, and
limitations to allow a more robust U.S. discussion of its own
defense needs. Endlessly repeating the bromide of "Japan as
linchpin" is not a viable strategy and it ill serves the United
States. A failure of America's leaders to understand, appreciate,
and take necessary transformative measures puts Washington's
ability to achieve its objectives at risk and raises dangers of
crises in Asia and around the world.
Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the
Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.