Commentary

Pacific Fraud: The New U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines

U.S. and Japanese officials contend that new defense guidelines announced on September 24 will redefine and reinvigorate the alliance between the two countries. The guidelines actually preserve long-standing inequities in the security relationship and create the illusion rather than the reality of meaningful change. Japan will remain America’s military welfare dependent.

The principal revision authorizes Japanese logistical support for U.S. military operations in “areas surrounding Japan” — a phrase that is never defined — that are relevant to Japan’s own security. Until now, Japanese officials have argued that article 9 of Japan’s constitution precludes such involvement unless Japan itself is under attack.

Despite the hype on both sides of the Pacific, the reforms fall far short of establishing an equal security partnership between Japan and the United States. In the event of an East Asian conflict that does not involve an attack on Japanese territory, Japan will merely provide logistical support for U.S. troops and allow U.S. forces to use facilities in Japan for their operations. There is no suggestion that Japanese Self-Defense Forces will participate in combat missions alongside their U.S. allies.

Such a one-sided relationship ought to be unacceptable to American political leaders. Perhaps more important, it will be unacceptable to the American people if there is a crisis in East Asia. There is something grotesquely unfair about expecting U.S. military personnel to risk their lives to repel an act of aggression that threatens the security of East Asia while Japan merely provides such things as fuel, spare parts, medical supplies, and body bags for American casualties.

However important the freedom and stability of East Asia may be to the United States, they should be far more important to Japan. Therefore, Japan needs to act like a normal great power and take primary responsibility for defending its interests and maintaining the stability of its region. The new defense guidelines do nothing to end Japan’s status as a U.S. military dependent; they merely allow Japan to be a slightly more active and helpful dependent.

Incredibly, the anemic reforms contained in the new guidelines have attracted ferocious opposition. The changes are “really nothing” admits former ambassador Hisahiko Okazaki, one of Japan’s leading foreign policy thinkers, yet he warns that “there will be a tremendous fight” to win the Diet’s approval of even such tepid reforms. (That is not a minor issue, since literally dozens of pieces of legislation will have to be passed to implement the commitments in the revised defense guidelines.) Just as America’s domestic welfare programs encourage an unhealthy dependent mentality on the part of recipients, Washington’s international military welfare programs foster a similar mentality on the part of U.S. allies. Japan is a prime example.

An entirely new approach is required. Japan does not need to do (marginally) more to support a U.S.-directed security strategy in East Asia. Japan needs to determine its own destiny and do whatever the Japanese people believe is necessary to protect the country’s interests. That means that Japan has to become a serious, independent factor in East Asia’s security equation. Whatever the virtue of article 9 may have been when the United States pressed Japanese political leaders to adopt it after World War II, the article is now an obstacle to a worthwhile and equitable U.S.-Japanese relationship.

The impetus for meaningful change will probably have to come from Washington. Japan benefits too much financially from its reliance on the U.S. security shield to willingly relinquish that lucrative subsidy. (Japanese officials have admitted that the loss of the U.S. alliance would require Japan to spend an additional $25 billion to $50 billion a year on defense.) Relying on the United States to guarantee the stability of East Asia also spares the Japanese political elite and population from a serious domestic debate about Japan’s regional role. Finally, Japan’s security dependence eliminates the need to confront the diplomatic difficulties with its neighbors that would arise if Tokyo decided to adopt an activist policy. Given those incentives, it is not surprising that Japan would resist anything more than marginal changes in the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

Although the status quo might be in Japan’s best interest, it unfairly places the United States on the front lines of virtually every East Asian crisis. The U.S.-Japan alliance is a wholly one-sided arrangement, and that defect will not be remedied by the cosmetic changes embodied in the new defense guidelines.

Ted Galen Carpenter is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.