The U.S. - Japan Security Alliance

Date July 10, 2001
Speaker SOEYA Yoshihide(Faculty Fellow, RIETI / Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Law, Keio University)


Putting aside internal politics, let's take a look at the reality of the U.S.-Japan security relations in the context of international politics.

The Real Picture of the U.S. - Japan Security Relations

First, I would like to point to the dissymmetry and perception gaps that exist between the United States and Japan in their security relations. The U.S. envisages the U.S.-Japan security relations under the light of grand strategic design, whereas strategic debates have hardly taken place in Japan. In reality, Japan has had managed to cope with various security issues by stretching the interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution.

Following Japan's defeat in the World War II, the U.S. tried to restore stability in Asia with China as its center while containing Japan to a middle power so as to prevent it from evolving into a military threat. Article 9 symbolizes Japan's position in such postwar order as envisaged by the U.S. This, however, ceased to function in the reality of the Cold War that began in the late 1940s. Security environment at that time was completely different from what it used to be when Article 9 was drafted.

Former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida and his close associates set a basic model for Japan's postwar pro-US diplomacy which to conclude peace treaties with a number of countries while keeping the Constitution in tact. The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty has been the key to achieving such two goals at the same time. The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty has also served as a device to keep postwar Japan, which refuses square debate on security issues, within the international community. At the same time, however, it allowed Japan to maintain "contortion" in its security policy as a political taboo.

This situation continues even after the Cold War ended. In reviewing the Guidelines for the Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, the two countries discussed what Japan can do and cannot do in case of emergency in the region. Japan's premise in this debate was that Japan's cooperation should be kept within the framework of Article 9 of the Constitution. Most symbolically, the arrangement says that Japan's Self-Defense Forces are allowed to transport arms and ammunitions for the U.S. forces in rear areas but prohibited from providing Japan's arms and ammunitions to the U.S. forces. This is based on judgment that the latter case would constitute the use of force prohibited under the Constitution whereas rear-area logistic support in the former case would not. Such reasoning has been made not under the light of security strategy but based on legal debates. Once in war, however, it would be nearly impossible to draw a line between combat and non-combat areas.

Today, domestic factors continue to influence Japan's stance on the U.S.-Japan security issues, creating a perception gap between the two countries. The U.S. looks at the U.S.-Japan security alliance as part of its overall security strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. Its idea is to use the U.S. forces in Japan for operations in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East. The same consensus, however, has yet to be widely held in Japan.

Seeking political equality without undermining the existing military dissymmetry is a difficult aspect of the U.S.-Japan security relations. Some people in Japan call for political equality while keeping the problem of military dissymmetry out of scope. Such a view is observed especially in the political arena where politicians, despite their lack of necessary knowledge, continue to fill a key diplomatic or security post in the course of their political career. It is a grave problem that some politicians make careless remarks on the U.S.-Japan security issues as a means of taking out their political frustration.

A U.S. government, which knows little about Japan's domestic circumstances, gets frustrated with Japan's continuous failure to hold meaningful strategic debates, and begins to ignore Japan. In the past, the Nixon administration most conspicuously fell into this pattern. It tried to reform strategic relations among the U.S., China and the Soviet Union, and Japan could not properly handle the situation. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who served as assistant to President Richard Nixon, said in his memoir that the U.S. mostly ignored Japan's security policy and was comfortable with holding strategic dialogue with China. Washington praised then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and disrespected Japanese leaders.

Like the Nixon administration, the current administration of President George W. Bush is Republican. Fortunately for Japan, the current administration differs from the Nixon administration in that there is a pro-Japanese group who understand Japan cannot move solely based on strategic debates. The Bush administration will stay in place for nearly four years at least and Japan must not miss this opportunity to think ways to put itself on an equal footing with the U.S. on the premise of fundamental dissymmetry.

Security Strategy Under the Bush Administration and Japan

Although the Bush administration is said to be pursuing a national-interest-first policy, its basic course is set by its global strategy. For the U.S., a national-interest-first policy would not exist without a global strategy. The U.S. is both simple and clear in its principle that pursuing the universal value of democratic market economy is a plus for the world and the U.S.

The U.S. divides the world into three groups, namely, allies, strategic rivals, and rogue nations. Allies are strategic partners which help support the international order led by the U.S. Strategic partners hold a different view of the world or contest the strategic interests of the U.S. Rogue nations, which include North Korea and Iraq, are those which bluntly oppose the U.S. but have no power to change the system.

Japan, according to this categorization, is an ally and this is why the U.S. attaches so much importance to the U.S.-Japan alliance. The U.S. has been calling for building a strong alliance with Japan, emulating the one between the U.S. and Britain. In reality, however, the U.S.-Japan alliance is little more than a mechanism for Japan to bear massive financial burden for supporting the U.S. military presence in the region. It is not that Japan's military support for the U.S. is indispensable in a purely strategic sense. Rather, the U.S. is urging Japan to explicitly demonstrate its support for the security order set by the U.S.

China apparently finds the U.S.-imposed values uncomfortable and the U.S. considers China as a strategic rival. Russia, too, is perceived as a potential strategic rival though to a lesser extent than China. But it is quite possible that the U.S. seeks stable relations with a strategic rival. In confrontation with China, for instance, the U.S. takes unbending stance but tries to search for a common ground at the same time. The same can be said about China's attitude in dealing with the U.S.

NMD and TMD as unseen passage

During the Cold War era, stability was established over consensus on mutually assured destruction (MAD). With the both sides holding on to nuclear weapons and acknowledging vulnerability to attacks from each other, they set up a mechanism in which either side triggering nuclear war will be retaliated by nuclear attacks. The Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty forms the core of such a concept and how to manage MAD-based equilibrium was the basis for the U.S.-Soviet negotiations. The ongoing discussions over the national missile defense (NMD) and theater missile defense (TMD) systems have completely broken away from the MAD theory. A new world order as perceived by the U.S. is completely different from that under the Cold War, and the ABM Treaty has no role to play there.

Although the U.S. has been thus calling for a departure from the Cold War theory, it has yet to map out a new world order. The U.S. says it needs to develop sophisticated missile defense systems to cope with rogue nations. This provides a politically convenient excuse but the U.S. needs to come up with more convincing reasons. It is quite natural and understandable that strategic rivals such as China and Russia oppose the U.S. plans on missile defense. In its negotiation with Russia, the U.S. seems to have a prospect for reaching some kind of agreement. Whether the U.S. has a similar prospect for China, however, remains questionable.

The U.S. seems to be unilaterally departing from the Cold War regime. How should Japan cope with the situation? Even if it feels somewhat uncomfortable with the U.S. unilateralism, Japan cannot oppose in the same way as China does. European nations are voicing concerns over possible adverse effects of the U.S. unilateralism, raising objection as an ally.

The U.S. is showing some consideration for its allies. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is beginning to say that there is not much difference between NMD and TMD. At one time, he even used the term global missile defense (GMD). This is apparently an attempt to wipe out allies' anxiety, for instance over decoupling, by making it clear that allied countries will be covered by a single defense system.

In Japan, some people say that Japan would have been better off if the U.S. keeps to the idea of TMD because of its peculiar need to comply with its denial of collective self-defense right. Now that the U.S. has brought up the idea of missile defense, with no distinction between TMD and NMD, Japan's commitment hitherto made to TMD has suddenly taken on some global implication. Japan, thus, once again faces the old but new problem of how to build national consensus on the issue.

Future Prospect of the U.S.-Japan Security Relations

Because Japan is so heavily reliant on the U.S., its independency and equality with the U.S. has often become an issue. In the U.S., however, it is the premise that Japan is and will be its ally. Possibility of Japan becoming a strategic rival is not and will not be an option for the U.S.

Nevertheless, I believe it is necessary that we discuss various possible scenarios for the future U.S.-Japan security relations. Conventional idea to keep the existing U.S.-Japan security relations firmly in tact and take greater initiatives in non-security policy in Asia would be one option.

The Japanese government's handle-with-kid-gloves attitude, as seen in its handling of Okinawa problems, has been blurring the core issue of the U.S.-Japan security relations. By clarifying its position with full recognition of the strategic value of the U.S.-Japan relations, Japan may be able to raise objection and make a better case against the U.S. unilateralism.

As another option, Japan may as well seek greater cooperation with China by minimizing incentives for China to rock the U.S.-Japan security alliance. This is to create cooperative relations between Japan and China on the premise of maintaining the existing regional framework based on the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. To this end, it is prerequisite for Japan to remove any uncertainty over the U.S.-Japan security relations.

If the U.S. and Japan manage to firm up the very foundation of their security relations, relations between the U.S.-Japan security alliance and other multinational security frameworks, such as ASEAN Regional Forum, may become organic. If this is realized, the next subject will be how to internalize threat, as in the United Nations-envisaged concept of collective security system. Potential threat, once internalized, would cease to be an external threat.

There exist some seeds of hope for such positive development in the future. Shared value is one such seed. Japan and the U.S. already share the universal value concerning the foundation of the U.S.-Japan security relations.

It is necessary to build consensus on multinational security order. But in reality, such order does not function unless enforced. The U.S.-Japan security alliance would help underpin in enforcing such order.

The question is how the U.S. and Japan can bring in neighboring countries into their security framework. China and Russia would have to be dealt with separately. But Australia, Southeast Asian countries and South Korea have a common ground with Japan in that they all need the U.S. presence. Japan should study, from a long-term perspective, the possibility of forming a common stance with those nations, bringing them onto the same negotiation table with the U.S., and evolving the U.S.-Japan security relations into a foundation for a multinational security alliance.

And once this multinational process begins to move, then, we should think what to do with China. In principle, the multinational framework should keep its door open to China. Dealing with China, however, inevitably touches on Taiwan problems. Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's visit to Japan raised lots of humanity and human rights issues here. Although some people point to the possibility of China's democratization, the Chinese Communist Party will likely stick to its regime till the last minute. But it is also true that the Communist Party is trying to adapt to the diversification of the Chinese society.

Given all those circumstances, Japan needs to diversify its policy toward China. It should express more sympathy toward the drastic changes in China and take a long-term perspective. It would take more time before China begins to take on value-oriented view on Taiwan. But Japan should begin to prepare now, setting a long-term scenario for its policy toward China and coordinating individual policies in accordance with that scenario.

Questions and Answers

Q: Anglo-Saxon countries are said to be cooperating each other in espionage activities. What is your opinion on this?

Q: I believe more information exchange is necessary for the U.S.-Japan security relations. The U.S.-Japan security alliance should be as close as the U.S.-Britain alliance, shouldn't it?

Anglo-Saxon countries such as the U.S., Britain and Australia probably found their relations comfortable. ANZUS Treaty, for instance, has an overwhelming support in Australia. And wiretapping activities have been carried out quite openly.

As to whether Japan should upgrade its security alliance with the U.S. to the same level as the U.S.-Britain alliance, I think Japan should not rule out such possibility. But the existing U.S.-Japan security alliance is not an alliance of natural form. It is an alliance artificially created with much hard work. So, before elevating the existing security alliance, we must first ensure that the two countries fully share the sense of value underlining their alliance.

Q: China is quite upset about the U.S. missile plans. China seems to be concerned that the U.S. is putting so much focus on Russia that China may be ignored in Washington-Moscow talks. How do you think Japan should cope with this situation?

China has traditionally criticized the U.S. for its Cold War-oriented ideas. Now that the U.S. has departed from that idea, China may be finding it difficult to construct its argument. Apart from maintaining firm stance against the U.S. missile defense system, we have yet to see how China intends to deal with the U.S. But I think that China's opposition to the MD concept is very much intuitive. TMD has been often taken up as an issue concerning Taiwan. But even without this Taiwanese aspect, China would be opposed to the TMD concept. Japan would be stretching itself too much if it tries to become a bridge between the U.S. and China. Japan, as an ally, has to keep in line with the U.S. But what Japan should specifically do remains unclear at this moment.

Q: China has been steadily building up its military power and the U.S. is surely aware of this. Japan is expected to do more than just sharing the idea of containing China.

Q: It is natural that China feels alienated in the issue of missile defense as it is excluded from talks between the U.S. and Russia. It is concerned that its nuclear strategy might be undermined and it is responding to this concern with nuclear modernization In the worst scenario, the U.S. may conclude that it no longer needs the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty when it pushes forward the GMD concept. For Japan, there is no other option but commit itself deeply in discussions on GMD.

Q: The ultimate question is how much resources Japan can allocate for security. What kinds of contribution would the U.S. expect from Japan?

Q: If we are going to have missile defense, we would no longer need conventional weapons and it would save cost.

The U.S. would probably try not to waste, rather than trying to reduce cost. I believe it is a widely shared view that the U.S. should continue to play its role in the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty but streamline its role. I don't expect this idea will have any immediate impact on the U.S.-Japan security relations. But such an initiative may emerge when situations change. Certain corners within the U.S. forces prefer to see a multinational framework in place of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. There is a good possibility for Japan to be asked to join multinational military exercises in the future. Japan needs to overcome the problem of collective defense right or it cannot cope with such situation.

Q: In the course of presidential campaign, there were little debates on missile defense and we all thought stock prices and economy were top concerns of the U.S. But after Bush took office, the U.S. government suddenly began to call China its enemy. I don't see much strategic basis for the ongoing argument.

So, you think we should keep certain distance from the Bush administration?

Q: I think so.

Q: Japanese people are taking little interest in security issues. The U.S. will soon map out its overall defense guidelines in Quadrennial Defense Review and it will probably announce defense policy for Asia before President Bush's visit to Japan. Japan should remain cool, but takes more sympathetic attitude than European countries. If Japan finds anything wrong in the U.S. security policy, then, it should point it out as a true ally.

Q: China often raises the issue of sovereignty. Is Japan going to change its view concerning sovereignty?

Q: We're beginning to hear lots of talks about Japan's sovereignty. But I think this is more like relieving frustration piled up since the end of the war. We might as well give a new angle to the ongoing domestic debates by presenting a new external scenario.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.