American influence is facing another challenge in East Asia. The latest loss of U.S. power may occur in Japan.
Last month, the Democratic Party of Japan ousted the Liberal Democratic Party, which had held power for most of the last 54 years. Exactly how policy will change is uncertain: The DPJ is a diverse and fractious coalition.
But Washington is nervous. U.S. policymakers have grown used to Tokyo playing the role of pliant ally, backing American priorities and hosting American bases.
That era may be over. Although Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama insists that he wants to strengthen the alliance, before taking office he wrote in the New York Times: "As a result of the failure of the Iraq war and the financial crisis, the era of U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end."
Of course, there are significant barriers to any dramatic transformation of Japanese policy. Indeed, during the campaign the DPJ platform dropped its earlier pledge 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."
Nevertheless, the DPJ possesses a strong left wing and vigorously opposed the ousted government's logistical support for U.S. naval operations in the Indian Ocean.
Other potentially contentious issues include reducing the military presence on Okinawa, renegotiating the relocation of the Marines' Futenma Airfield to Guam at the Japanese expense, cutting so-called host nation support, and amending the Status of Forces Agreement.
Some Obama administration officials privately acknowledge that adjustments will be necessary. However, the day after the election State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that there would be no renegotiation of the Okinawa accord.
This might seem like a good negotiating tactic, but it didn't go over well in Tokyo. Washington's dismissive response gives the Japanese one more reason to want to escape dependence on the U.S.
Actually, Americans should support a transformation of the alliance. The current relationship remains trapped in a world that no longer exists.
Japan has the world's second (or third, based on purchasing power parity) largest economy, yet Tokyo remains dependent on America for its security, a minor military player despite having global economic and political interests.
There are historical reasons for Tokyo's stunted international role, but it is time for East Asian countries to work together to dispel the remaining ghosts of Japan's imperialist past rather than to expect America to continue acting as the defender of the last resort.
Since Japan and Asia have changed, so should America's defense strategy. There should be no more troops based on Japanese soil. No more military units tasked for Japan's defense. No more security guarantee for Japan.
The U.S. should adopt a strategy of offshore balancer, expecting friendly states to defend themselves, while being ready to act if an overwhelming, hegemonic threat eventually arises. China is the most, but still unlikely, plausible candidate for such a role — and even then not for many years.
Washington's job is not to tell Japan — which devotes about one-fourth the U.S level to the military — to do more. Washington's job is to do less.
Tokyo should spend whatever it believes to be necessary on its so-called "Self-Defense Force." Better relations with China and reform in North Korea would lower that number. Japan should assess the risks and act accordingly.
In any case, the U.S. should indicate its willingness to accommodate Tokyo's changing priorities.
It's the same strategy that Washington should adopt elsewhere around the globe. The Marine Expeditionary Force stationed on Okinawa is primarily intended to back up America's commitment to South Korea. Yet, the South has some 40 times the GDP of North Korea. Seoul should take over responsibility for its own defense.
Even more so the Europeans, who possess more than 10 times Russia's GDP. If they don't feel at risk, there's no reason for an American defense guarantee. If they do feel at risk, there's no reason for them not to do more — a lot more.
Defending populous and prosperous allies made little sense in good economic times. But with Uncle Sam's 2009 deficit at $1.6 trillion and another $10 trillion in red ink likely over the next decade — without counting the impact of any additional financial disasters — current policy is unsustainable. The U.S. essentially is borrowing money from China for use to defend Japan from China.
In Washington, officials are rounding the wagons to protect the status quo. But America's alliance with Japan — like most U.S. defense relationships — is outdated. Both America and Japan would benefit from ending Tokyo's unnatural defense dependence on the U.S.