Two Normal Countries: Rethinking the U.S.-Japan Strategic Relationship

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Executive Summary

The U.S.-Japan strategic relationship, formalizedduring the depths of the Cold War and refinedduring the 1980s and 1990s, continues to undergodramatic changes. Although Japan is economicallycapable and now seems politically motivated toassume full responsibility for defending itself fromthreats, it is legally constrained from doing sounder the terms of the Japanese constitution, particularlyArticle 9. The path to defensive self‐​sufficiencyis also impeded by Japan’s continuingdependence on the United States embodied in theU.S.-Japan security alliance.

With the United States struggling to meet militarycommitments abroad, and with Japan increasinglyasserting military autonomy, American policymakersmust shape a new policy that will moreequitably distribute security burdens between thetwo countries. Three recent instances in which theUnited States and Japan have worked together onmatters of mutual interest—Iraq, Taiwan, andNorth Korea—offer useful clues as to how a cooperativestrategic relationship might operate in thefuture.

A new U.S.-Japan strategic relationship will becrafted over a period of several years, but the processshould begin immediately. As a first step, theUnited States should refrain from interfering in thedecisions that the Japanese people may make withrespect to their own defense. Washington shouldremain agnostic on the question of revisions to theJapanese constitution, including the crucial Article9. Further, while U.S. policymakers might advisethe Japanese of the uncertain benefits of acquiringtheir own nuclear weapons relative to the highcosts, the United States should not expect to be ableto prevent the Japanese from developing suchweapons—nor should it try. Finally, the new strategicpartnership should culminate with the removalof U.S forces from Japanese soil. The two countriescould negotiate basing agreements for U.S. navalvessels and aircraft, and possibly also some prepositioningof heavy equipment in depots for rapiddeployment in the region, but such agreementsneed 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 defacto client—will provide a more durable foundationfor addressing the most pressing security challengesin East Asia and beyond.