Tokyo’s New Military Guidelines Leave U.S. Defending Japan

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Washington he brought plans for a more expansive international role for his country. But the military burden of defending Japan will continue to fall disproportionately on America.

As occupying power, the U.S. imposed the “peace constitution” on Tokyo, with Article Nine banning possession of a military. As the Cold War developed, however, Washington recognized that a rearmed Japan could play an important security role.

However, Japan’s governments hid between the amendment to cap military outlays and limit the Self-Defense Forces’ role, ensuring American protection. That approach also suited Tokyo’s neighbors, which had suffered under Imperial Japan’s brutal occupation.

In recent years Japanese sentiment has shifted toward a more vigorous role out of fear of North Korea and China. This changing environment generated new bilateral defense “guidelines.”

Yet the focus is Japanese, not American security. In essence, the new standards affirm what should have been obvious all along—Japan will help America defend Japan. In contrast, there is nothing about Tokyo supporting U.S. defense other than as part of “cooperation for regional and global peace and security.”

This approach was evident in the Prime Minister Abe’s speech to Congress, when he emphasized that Tokyo’s responsibility is to “fortify the U.S.-Japan alliance.” He said Japan would “take yet more responsibility for the peace and stability in the world,” but as examples mostly cited humanitarian and peace-keeping operations.

Worse, Japan’s military outlays were essentially flat over the last decade while Washington, and more ominously for Japan, the People’s Republic of China, dramatically increased military expenditures. The U.S. is expected to fill the widening gap.

Obviously Tokyo sees its job is non-combat, relatively costless and riskless social work which will enhance Tokyo’s international reputation. Even Tokyo’s potential new “security” duties appear designed to avoid combat—cyber warfare, reconnaissance, mine-sweeping, logistics.

As I point out in Forbes, “Washington’s job is to do anything bloody or messy. That is, deter and fight wars with other militaries, a task which the prime minister ignored. Indeed, the U.S. is expected to do even more to defend Japan, deploying new military equipment, for instance.”

While America has an obvious interest in Japan’s continued independence, no one imagines a Chinese attempt to conquer Tokyo. Rather, the most likely trigger for conflict today is the Senkaku Islands, a half dozen valueless pieces of rock. Abe so far has preferred confrontation to compromise—a stance reinforced by Washington’s guarantee.

Abe’s historical revisionism further inflames regional tensions. Abe addressed the historical controversy in his speech to Congress but more remains to be done.

U.S. officials appear to have forgotten the purpose of alliances. Abe was eloquent in stating why Japan enjoyed being allied with America. It isn’t evident what the U.S. receives in return.

After World War II the U.S. sensibly shielded allied states from totalitarian assault as they recovered. That policy succeeded decades ago. Now Washington should cede responsibility for defending its populous and prosperous allies.

America should remain a watchful and wary friend, prepared to act from afar against potentially hostile hegemonic threats. In the meantime Washington should let other states manage day-to-day disputes and controversies.

The U.S. should not tell Tokyo what to do. Rather, Washington should explain what it will not do. No promise of war on Japan’s behalf, no forward military deployment, no guarantee for Japanese commerce at sea, no Pentagon backing for contested territorial claims.

This would force the Japanese people to debate their security needs, set priorities, and pay the cost. Moreover, Tokyo would have added incentive to improve its relationships with neighboring states.

After 70 years the U.S. should stop playing globocop, especially in regions where powerful, democratic friends such as Japan can do so much more to defend themselves and their neighborhoods. This would be the best way to enhance security and stability not only of the Asia-Pacific but also of America, which is Washington’s highest responsibility.