Time to Rethink U.S.-Japan Relationship

American and Japanese policymakers must shape a new approach that will more equitably distribute security burdens

April 18, 2006

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WASHINGTON — In a study released today by the Cato Institute, “Two Normal Countries: Rethinking the U.S.-Japan Strategic Relationship,” Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, argues that the United States should step back from its dominant position in East Asia and encourage Japan to assume new regional responsibilities.

Preble recommends that both the United States and Japan should continue their efforts to establish Japan as an independent pole of power in East Asia, a “normal country” that is no longer dependent on a distant patron for its defense. With the United States struggling to meet military commitments abroad, policymakers must shape a new policy that will more equitably distribute security burdens between the two countries.

“The presence of U.S. troops in stable, democratic countries that are capable of playing a larger regional role might inhibit such countries from assuming responsibilities commensurate with their political, military, and economic strength,” says Preble.

But while Japan is economically capable and now seems politically motivated to assume full responsibility for defending itself from threats, it is legally constrained from doing so under the terms of the Japanese constitution, particularly Article 9. A change in the wording of that document is likely required, though Preble stresses the specifics of constitutional revision must be left to the Japanese. In addition, gentle pressure from the United States may be required to encourage the Japanese to assume a greater role in regional security.

The best way to break Japan’s cycle of dependence is to phase out the American security guarantee and replace it with a more equitable mutual defense pact. “As a first step, the United States should refrain from interfering in the decisions that the Japanese people may make with respect to their own defense,” writes Preble. “Further, while U.S. policymakers might advise the Japanese of the uncertain benefits of acquiring their own nuclear weapons relative to the high costs, the United States should not expect to be able to prevent the Japanese from developing such weapons — nor should it try. Finally, the new strategic partnership should culminate with the removal of U.S forces from Japanese soil.”

Today Japan is a stable and mature democracy, and latent American and East Asian fears of a resurgent Japan should be calmed by the commitment of the Japanese to the principles enshrined in their constitution. “The pre-World War II era, when an imperial Japan attempted to secure an exclusive economic sphere for itself, is long past,” Preble writes. “The Japanese people have demonstrated a consistent aversion to the use of force and an equally strong determination to maintain firm civilian control over the nation’s military.”

He concludes: “The creation of a new strategic partnership between the United States and Japan that is far less burdensome and risky for Americans could provide an effective framework for addressing regional security challenges in East Asia well into the future.”

Policy Analysis Paper no. 566.