Tokyo Drift

August 31, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in National Interest (Online) on August 31, 2009.

For but one eleven‐​month period, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has ruled Japan for the last fifty‐​four years. During that time the U.S.-Japan alliance has been a mainstay for both countries. But with the overwhelming victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a fractious amalgam of socialists and former LDP members, Japanese foreign policy could change dramatically. Such a transformation is long overdue.

In August 1945, Japan was disarmed and occupied. General Douglas MacArthur acted as regent, overseeing reconstruction of the Japanese economy and government. As part of that process Japan proclaimed pacifism to be its new foreign policy: Article 9 of the U.S.-drafted constitution stated that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

The unstated political corollary was that Washington would be responsible for Japan’s defense. This arrangement seemed logical when the United States, and other nations in East Asia, assumed that a revived Japan was the most likely future security threat. But as the cold war deepened — and especially after Mao Zedong and the Communist Party ousted the pro‐​American Kuomintang from China’s mainland — disarming a nearby American ally was increasingly seen as counterproductive.

Moreover, some Japanese also grew dissatisfied with the “peace constitution,” bridling at the assumption that the Japanese people possessed a double dose of original sin. Tokyo established a “Self‐​Defense Force” (SDF) to maintain the pretense of complying with Article 9. Some academics and politicians debated moving further, but the establishment view, embodied in the LDP, was to leave the heavy lifting in security policy to Washington. Tokyo instead used bilateral assistance and participation in global financial institutions to institute a “checkbook foreign policy.”

Along the way, the United States and Tokyo engaged in an oft‐​frustrating dialogue. Washington routinely asked Japan to do more militarily, but only in following America’s lead. In Japan the government resisted Washington’s entreaties as pacifists and nationalists battled over even modest augmentation of Japan’s SDF and limited involvement in international missions.

Japan has edged towards a more active role in response to China’s growing economy and more assertive foreign policy, as well as North Korea’s unremitting hostility amid ongoing missile and nuclear programs. Yet Japanese military spending remains anemic and polls suggest that a plurality of Japanese want to cut the SDF budget even further. Proposals to revise Article 9 have gone nowhere. Kent Calder of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies contends that we have “likely seen the high‐​water mark of Japan’s international presence and assertiveness.”

What now with a new government taking control in Tokyo? Dramatic change has been rare in this consensus‐​oriented society, and incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama ran towards the center, terming the U.S.-Japan alliance a “top priority.” The DPJ platform calls for a “close and equal Japan-U.S. alliance to serve as the foundation of Japan’s foreign policy.” Indeed, before the election, Abraham Denmark of the Center for a New American Security argued: “Despite its provocative statements in the past, the DPJ has several reasons to moderate its approach to foreign policy and the alliance.” Nevertheless, the DPJ reaches much further to the left than does the LDP. In opposition the party opposed refueling U.S. ships in the Indian Ocean and Ichiro Ozawa, until March party leader, proclaimed that “it will be the age of Asia, and in that context it is important for Japan to have its own stance, to play its role in the region.” The 2005 party platform promised to “do away with the dependent relationship in which Japan ultimately has no alternative but to act in accordance with U.S. wishes, replacing it with a mature alliance based on independence and equality.” There is broad support for amending the Status of Forces Agreement, cutting host nation support and reducing the U.S. military presence on Okinawa.

The factional battle over the DJP’s approach is likely to be complicated, since the spectrum of views runs well beyond socialist pacifists and conservative hawks. Wrote Dan Twining of the George Marshall Fund:

Some DPJ members support a trans‐​Pacific foreign policy in keeping with American priorities, but want Japan to assume a more equal and capable role within the alliance. Other DPJ leaders define a future in which Japan orients itself toward China and pursues Asian economic integration as its external priority, thereby diminishing the alliance with the United States. The DPJ’s political alliance with the Socialist Party in Japan’s upper house will pull its foreign and security policy further to the left — and further away from the broad consensus that has defined the U.S.-Japan alliance for three generations.

Over the last half century Japan has changed far more than has the alliance. It is time to adjust the U.S.-Japan relationship accordingly. Some on the Right point out that Tokyo cannot demand equality unless it does more. Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation observed: “Neither country is well served by endlessly repeated bromides of the strength of the alliance as it becomes increasingly apparent that Japan will not fulfill the security role required to address increasing global security threats.” However, the real problem is not that Tokyo does too little, but the United States does too much. Japan’s security dependence is not in America’s interest.

Why preserve a military relationship created in a very different world? Klingner contended that “the alliance is critical to fulfilling current U.S. strategic objectives,” since “The forward deployment of a large U.S. military force in Japan deters military aggression by North Korea, signals Washington’s resolve in defending U.S. allies, and provides an irreplaceable staging area should military action be necessary.”

Yet South Korea, with forty times the GDP, twice the population, and far greater military spending than Pyongyang, should be the one deterring threats from the North. America should not demonstrate resolve in defending allies — Japan as well as South Korea — which should be defending themselves. And Tokyo is unlikely to allow the United States to use facilities in Japan for American purposes — especially to initiate war against China over Taiwan or to otherwise maintain U.S. primacy.

In fact, America’s aggressive foreign policy and force structure, oriented to offense rather than defense, is why the United States spends so much on the military — roughly half of the global total. Washington has eleven carrier groups in order to attack other nations, such as Iran, North Korea and China, not to prevent them from attacking America. Even more so, the role of U.S. bases and forces abroad is offensive, to intervene. Protecting war‐​torn allied states in the aftermath of the greatest conflict of human history made sense. Doing the same today, when allied states have prospered and the most serious hegemonic threat has disappeared, does not make sense. Washington should return to Japan responsibility for its defense. Even today, Tokyo, though spending just one percent of GDP ($47 billion last year) on the military, is on par with the leading European states. But with the world’s second largest economy (third based on purchasing power parity), Japan could do much more. Doubling its defense effort — which would still be half of America’s burden — would match Chinese military spending.

Whether Japan needs to do so is, of course, up to Japan. The more persuasive Beijing’s so‐​called peaceful rise, the less pressure on Tokyo to act militarily. The more provocative North Korea in developing and testing both missiles and nuclear weapons, the greater the need for Japan to augment its forces. Whatever the Japanese people wish to do, they should pay the cost of and take responsibility for doing so.

Particularly important is the future of so‐​called extended deterrence. Analysts like Harvard’s Joseph Nye take the policy for granted, worrying only about whether or not it is credible. However, as Beijing develops its own strategic nuclear deterrent against America, the question will arise: should the United States risk Los Angeles for Tokyo?

The increasing unpredictability of North Korean behavior has led to more discussion in Japan about the possibility of developing a countervailing weapon. The potential for further proliferation in the region is worrisome, but no more so than the possibility of a confrontation between the United States and nuclear‐​armed China over the interests of other nations. Deterrence can fail. And protecting other nations can lead them to be dangerously irresponsible. In any case, the United States would be less likely to have to rely on nuclear deterrence for Japan if that nation possessed an adequate conventional defense.

With the rise of prosperous and/​or populous allied states (Japan, South Korea, Australia, and several ASEAN nations) as well as friendly powers (India and Indonesia, most notably), Washington is in the position to act as an off‐​shore balancer, prepared to act against an aggressive hegemonic power should one arise, but not entangled in daily geopolitical controversies. America’s overwhelming power and geographic isolation give Washington greater flexibility in defending its own security.

Expecting Tokyo to protect itself doesn’t mean severing bilateral security relationships. The United States and Japan should cooperate on issues ranging from intelligence sharing to emergency base access. Nye also writes of “a new set of transnational challenges to our vital interests, such as pandemics, terrorism, and human outflows from failed states. Chief among these challenges is the threat posed by global warming.” None of these, however, compares to the importance of preserving the nation from attack. And none are relevant to a military alliance. In fact, today’s emphasis on military issues may inhibit bilateral cooperation elsewhere.

The DPJ intends to change Tokyo’s relationship with the United States. In what direction will the new government move? Washington should take the lead, turning defense responsibilities over to Japan, which would benefit both countries.

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