The U.S. military alliance with Japan no longer serves the best interests of either country. Washington subsidizes Japan’s defense at the expense of American taxpayers. That subsidy, which has amounted to approximately $900 billion (in 1995 dollars) since the early 1950s, is a powerful incentive for the Japanese to continue free riding on the U.S. security guarantee. And Japan’s much-touted host-nation support of $5 billion a year actually pays only a small fraction of the total cost of the U.S. security commitment.
Even worse, Washington’s policy encourages a dependent mentality on the part of the Japanese and enables Tokyo to evade political and military responsibilities in East Asia even when Japan has important interests at stake. Japanese officials confirm that, in the event of war, Japanese military units would not join U.S. forces in combat operations unless Japan itself were attacked.
U.S. leaders foolishly perpetuate Japan’s security dependence. Washington’s East Asian policy is held hostage to the exaggerated fears of Japan’s neighbors, who oppose a more active military role for Tokyo. A lingering undercurrent of distrust toward Japan in U.S. policy circles has also been a major motive for Washington’s “smothering” strategy.
A new policy is badly needed. It would seek a mature relationship between equals and recognize that Japan, as the principal great power in East Asia, must take a more significant role in the region’s security affairs. The United States should withdraw its forces from East Asia over the next five years and keep smaller forces based in Guam and other U.S. territories. The U.S.-Japanese alliance ought to be replaced by a more limited, informal security relationship. America should be the balancer of last resort, not the intervenor of first resort, in East Asia’s security equation.