The U.S.-Japan strategic relationship, formalized during the depths of the Cold War and refined during the 1980s and 1990s, continues to undergo dramatic changes. Although Japan is economically capable and now seems politically motivated to assume full responsibility for defending itself from threats, it is legally constrained from doing so under the terms of the Japanese constitution, particularly Article 9. The path to defensive self-sufficiency is also impeded by Japan’s continuing dependence on the United States embodied in the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
With the United States struggling to meet military commitments abroad, and with Japan increasingly asserting military autonomy, American policymakers must shape a new policy that will more equitably distribute security burdens between the two countries. Three recent instances in which the United States and Japan have worked together on matters of mutual interest—Iraq, Taiwan, and North Korea—offer useful clues as to how a cooperative strategic relationship might operate in the future.
A new U.S.-Japan strategic relationship will be crafted over a period of several years, but the process should begin immediately. As a first step, the United States should refrain from interfering in the decisions that the Japanese people may make with respect to their own defense. Washington should remain agnostic on the question of revisions to the Japanese constitution, including the crucial Article 9. Further, while U.S. policymakers might advise the Japanese of the uncertain benefits of acquiring their own nuclear weapons relative to the high costs, the United States should not expect to be able to prevent the Japanese from developing such weapons—nor should it try. Finally, the new strategic partnership should culminate with the removal of U.S forces from Japanese soil. The two countries could negotiate basing agreements for U.S. naval vessels and aircraft, and possibly also some prepositioning of heavy equipment in depots for rapid deployment in the region, but such agreements need not depend on the continuation of a largescale, and effectively permanent, U.S. troop presence. The new alliance between two normal countries— as opposed to one between a patron and a de facto client—will provide a more durable foundation for addressing the most pressing security challenges in East Asia and beyond.