[OUTLOOK]Changes to U.S.-Japan alliance

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[OUTLOOK]Changes to U.S.-Japan alliance

Participation in a recent conference on the Asian strategic environment reminded me how profoundly the U.S.-Japan alliance has been transformed over the past decade.
Once confined largely to the defense of Japan and its immediately adjacent areas, today the alliance has become global. Japanese Self Defense Forces have “shown the flag” in the Indian Ocean and put “boots on the ground” in Iraq.
The alliance now has wider scope for operational cooperation, and the division of strategic labor has become considerably more balanced. Until the mid-1990s, the United States essentially took care of “over the horizon” security challenges, while Japan compensated it by increasing its financial support for U.S. troops stationed in Japan. Today, Japan has found a new international security niche as an off-shore provider of non-combat, logistic and other services.
Nor are Japan’s international security contributions confined to UN-authorized peacekeeping ventures. Its troops in Iraq support a U.S.-led “coalition of the willing,” in a country where few areas are genuinely free of combat, and where the United Nation’s role is both ambiguous and modest.
Having shouldered security roles in more remote theaters, Japanese forces are naturally obliged to acquire greater “reach.” And they are in the process of expanding their ability to project power over distance by earmarking money in the defense budget for aerial refueling tankers and helicopter carriers.
The ballistic missile defenses Japan is constructing jointly with the United States have already prompted an adjustment in its blanket ban on arms exports, and will inexorably lead to more intimate collaboration with America in the fields of command and control and intelligence sharing.
In a post-Cold War environment, the aims of the alliance are being articulated in both broader and more specific terms. Indeed, at the recent “2+2” meeting, American and Japanese foreign and defense ministers expressed for the first time a shared interest in “encouraging a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue through dialogue.” The language sounded innocuous, but even the expression of such benign sentiments broke new ground for the allies, and the critical reaction it drew from the Chinese seemed neither to surprise nor faze Japanese leaders.
These are big-time changes. They reflect a variety of factors ― among them, the emergence of a new generation of Japanese leaders, a clear recognition that Japan lives in a tough neighborhood, the evolution of a more pragmatic and realistic intellectual climate on security matters, and a resolve by key Japanese leaders, buttressed by growing popular sentiment, to assume the role of a more “normal” nation.
Above all, of course, there is the widespread perception in Japan that North Korea poses a direct and growing security threat, and that a more and more powerful China may present Japan with tough strategic choices down the road.
These developments do not mean that Japan is stealthily abandoning all post-war limitations on its defense policy. After all, its off-shore security contributions remain confined to non-combat activities; financial constraints on its defenses remain tight; and despite Pyongyang’s provocations, Japan has clung to its non-nuclear principles.
Nor is the U.S.-Japan alliance trouble free. Anticipated adjustments in the U.S. presence in Okinawa have scarcely gotten off the ground. As Japan shoulders increased international security responsibilities, its readiness to sustain current levels of host nation support for U.S. troops will surely decline. U.S. proposals to move an Army Corps headquarters to Japan while removing an Air Force headquarters, given the strategic geography of the region, has provoked puzzlement in some Japanese circles, consternation in others. And the nascent debates in Japan on amending the constitution and asserting the collective right of self-defense have by no means run their course.
Still, this is a very different alliance today, and the changes in Japanese security thinking are regarded in Washington with satisfaction. I also view them as salutary and timely, but would add two caveats.
One of the impressive accomplishments of the 1990s was the emergence of an effective trilateral consultative process on security matters between the United States, Japan and South Korea. That pattern of collaboration has atrophied recently due to diverging perspectives vis-a-vis North Korea and the more recent reappearance of acute bilateral friction between Tokyo and Seoul. We need to do whatever is necessary to reestablish closer trilateral cooperation.
Both the Pentagon and JDA express growing anxieties about the direction and scope of China’s defense modernization program. This is perhaps natural, particularly as China moves to acquire a “blue water” navy. It is not unreasonable for both Japan and the United States to pursue a “hedging” strategy toward China, for no one can be sure how Beijing will eventually use the power it is rapidly accumulating. The alliance serves precisely as such a hedge.
But it is currently unnecessary and would consequently be imprudent to drift prematurely toward an effort to “contain” China. It poses no contemporary threat. Beijing is actively cultivating friendly ties with its neighbors. And to treat the PRC as a rival would, among other things, polarize Asian politics and present our friends in South Korea with unpleasant choices which are at best premature, and at worst, dangerous.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.


by Michael H. Armacost
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