America’s New Strategic Relationship with Japan

This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2005.
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America is moving quietly, but effectively to fashion a new strategic relationship with Japan. Driven largely by the need to persuade Japan to shoulder part of the burden currently borne by the U.S. military especially at a time when America is fighting wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the new relationship should ultimately be more effective in addressing issues of mutual concern — especially North Korea’s nuclear program, tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and China’s growing military capabilities.

Later this month, U.S. President George W. Bush will travel to Japan to highlight the common security objectives shared by both countries. As a precursor to this trip, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently announced a new U.S.-Japan security pact. As part of this, American and Japanese negotiators reached an agreement to remove approximately 7,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa, carrying forward a commitment that Washington made in the late 1990s to substantially reduce its presence on the island. These troops are a historical legacy and not essential to the defense of Japan, or to East Asian security more generally. Indeed America had long indicated its willingness to move a substantial number of them to other U.S. bases such as Guam, but it took until now to reach agreement on the precise details.

Japan, for its part, made clear that it would allow a nuclear‐​powered U.S. aircraft carrier to be stationed in its territorial waters, a move previously made impossible by domestic opposition. That’s crucial for the U.S. Navy because its non‐​nuclear carriers — such as the USS Kitty Hawk, currently based in Yokosuka, Japan — are nearing the end of their service lives and increasingly being replaced by nuclear‐​powered Nimitz‐​class carriers.

More far‐​reaching than these specific issues was the underlying strategic logic behind the agreement. By moving forward with the removal of some U.S. troops from Okinawa, the United States has signaled that Japan will have greater responsibility for its own security. The Japanese have accepted this responsibility, and have also agreed to become more integrated in planning joint activities with the U.S., although there are no details as yet as to precisely what sort of joint activities are envisaged. Yoshinori Ono, director‐​general of the Japanese Defense Agency, spoke only of cooperation “in various areas” to improve peace and security.

These recent negotiations reveal an increasingly mature and sober‐​minded approach to East Asian security on the part of policymakers in both Tokyo and Washington. In recent years, Japan has broadened its horizons beyond its direct defense and is taking an increasing interest in security throughout the region. This transformation has occurred despite the reluctance of some in the United States to allow Japan to assume a more significant role in world affairs. For instance, The Project for the New American Century, a Washington‐​based think tank, declared in a 2000 report that it was “essential to retain the capabilities U.S. forces in Okinawa represent.” It expressed concern that a withdrawal from Cold War‐​era obligations, “would call America’s status as the world’s leading power into question.” Others fear the supposedly innately militaristic nature of Japanese society, and see the U.S. troop presence as a “cap in the bottle” designed to prevent the rise of a more assertive and militarized Japan.

But the Bush administration understands that fears of a new Japanese empire are irrational and anachronistic. While most media coverage focuses on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s controversial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and the adoption of high school textbooks that seem to downplay Japanese crimes during World War II, far less publicity is given to the huge aid that Tokyo has given to countries occupied by Japanese forces during World War II, such as Thailand, Korea, the Philippines and, especially, China. For example, Japan supplied China with more than three trillion yen ($25.5 billion) in official development assistance between 1980 and 2003, although it has begun to reduce its level of assistance in recent years in response to China’s rapid economic growth.

Japanese businesses have also developed extensive ties in these nations, and a renewed surge in foreign direct investment can be expected once the Japanese economy recovers. These spending and investment patterns suggest that Japan places great value on friendly, peaceful relations with its Asian neighbors.

Japan is economically capable, and now seems politically prepared, to assume full responsibility for defending itself from threats. While it is conceivable that a few Japanese might wish to remain dependent on America for their security, either out of a desire to avoid paying more for defense, or for fear of the risks associated with a change from the status quo, many more are now willing to consider a range of options — such as modifying the “pacifist” clause in Japan’s constitution — which would have been unthinkable a generation ago. A reevaluation of the strategic logic of the alliance was a necessary precondition for the latest diplomatic breakthroughs. Equally important was a recognition on the part of U.S. policymakers that Japan must be granted more autonomy over its defense and foreign policies. It is no longer wise to assume that Japan will subordinate its own security to the wishes of a distant patron.

With the U.S. facing numerous other military commitments abroad, and with Japan increasingly asserting military autonomy, the Bush administration is to be commended for shaping a new policy that will more equitably distribute security burdens between the two countries. A new strategic relationship should provide a more durable and credible foundation for addressing the most pressing security challenges facing both countries in East Asia and beyond.