Cato Foreign Policy Briefing No. 7 March 14, 1991

Foreign Policy Briefing

U.S.-Japanese Security Relations:
Adjusting to Change

by Christopher A. Preble

Christopher A. Preble is an independent defense analyst who has written for a variety of publications.

Executive Summary

Japan remained aloof while the U.S.-led international coalition waged war against Iraq, and Tokyo's cautious policy has attracted a great deal of criticism. The contributions of the Japanese, relative to their capabilities and to what they stand to lose from a protracted struggle in the Persian Gulf region, have raised serious questions about the nature of the U.S.-Japanese relationship and about Japanese foreign policy as a whole.

Long before the onset of Operation Desert Storm, members of Congress, as well as the people who elected them, asked why Japan, a nation clearly capable of providing substantial military and economic assistance for the massive military build-up in the gulf, remained only a nominal player. With the federal budget deficit and other economic problems looming ever larger, there is no shortage of criticism of Japan. "The Japanese," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), during the early weeks of the Persian Gulf crisis, "are laughing all the way to the bank."(1) Tokyo's initial pledge of $4 billion to help offset the costs of Operation Desert Shield and its subsequent pledge of an additional $9 billion to defray some of the $500 million to $1 billion a day expenses of Operation Desert Storm have only marginally placated American critics.

The reluctance of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu's government to provide greater support for the U.S.-led intervention in the Persian Gulf is not entirely due to the influence of domestic constituencies that have traditionally opposed the use of military force. To be sure, those constituencies remain strong, but Kaifu and his ministers have insisted that Japan, which receives over 60 percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf, has too much at stake to remain on the sidelines, and at one point the government cautiously proposed sending a small contingent of noncombat personnel to the gulf.

Resistance to Kaifu's message on the part of a significant portion of the Japanese population is one reason for Japan's relative inaction.(2) There is another as well--the policy "hangover" from the longstanding U.S. opposition to any manifestation of Japanese military initiative. It is inappropriate for U.S. leaders who created, nurtured, and insisted upon Japanese diffidence regarding military affairs for four and a half decades to now complain about that diffidence.

The Need for a Policy Change

The crisis in the gulf offers both nations opportunities for a complete reassessment of their security relationship. The imbalance between what is at stake for the Japanese and what they have been willing to contribute militarily and economically only underscores the imbalance in all U.S. security agreements with Japan.

Domestic political factors in Japan will not, alone, lead to a major foreign policy shift. Also needed is Washington's encouragement of a departure from the current security arrangement whereby the United States assumes most of the responsibility for Japan's defense. With budget pressures weighing heavily on President Bush and the congressional leadership, the push for cuts in the U.S. defense budget now that the gulf war has ended will inevitably affect the support given to overseas allies. The administration would be wise to ease the Japanese into defensive self-sufficiency.

The Bush administration is aware of the political pressures on Kaifu and his government. It is unlikely, however, that members of Congress, still smarting from the budget fiasco and facing even more red ink because of the expensive Persian Gulf operation, will deal with the Japanese so delicately. One early indication of growing impatience came in September when the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to withdraw U.S. troops from Japan unless Tokyo greatly increased its financial support for the maintenance of those forces.(3)

Three months later the Japanese announced a change of policy. Presumably in response to U.S. objections, the Japanese agreed to increase their contribution to the cost of maintaining U.S. forces in Japan from 40 to 50 percent.(4) Whether or not a 10-percentage-point increase will constitute a "significant" increase in the eyes of U.S. congressional leaders remains to be seen. However, the Japanese response to U.S. demands does indicate that the Japanese are sensitive to and acutely aware of the new financial pressures that are being exerted on U.S. policy toward Japan.

A prerequisite to a shift in the current U.S.-Japanese strategic relationship is a change in attitude on the U.S. side. In spite of growing public sentiment demanding that Japan contribute more to its own defense and the defense of Western interests generally, some U.S. policymakers have been extremely reluctant to allow the Japanese to assume a more significant role in world affairs. In March 1990, Maj. Gen. Henry C. Stackpole, commander of Marine Corps bases in Japan stated: "No one wants a rearmed, resurgent Japan . . . so we are the cap in the bottle, if you will. . . . If we were to pull out of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, it would definitely be a destabilizing factor in Asia."(5) As long as America's policy toward Japan is based on such irrational and anachronistic assessments of Japanese intentions and abilities, no productive changes can take place. Simply put, Americans must overcome their latent fears of Japan, and American leaders must appreciate the degree to which U.S. opposition to greater Japanese military power unnecessarily increases America's own security burdens. Equally important, such reflexive obstructionism threatens to do irreparable harm to the relationship of trust and cooperation so carefully cultivated since the end of World War II.

Beginning in the late 1940s, Japanese will and determination, which only a few years before had made Japan a military power unrivaled in the Western Pacific, were directed to the task of reconstruction. One of the most important changes was a new aversion to the use of force and a determination on the part of the Japanese to forever maintain firm control over the nation's military. Those principles were institutionalized in Japan's "peace" constitution, which declares that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation." That constitution, drafted by American occupation forces immediately after the war and initially imposed by force, is now extremely popular.(6)

Largely as a result of the pervasive Japanese aversion to an independent military capability, the need for an American military presence in Japan has been a foregone conclusion in Tokyo's military planning. Remnants of the American occupying force that presided over the initial rebuilding of Japan still remain in place. All told, more than 49,000 Americans are currently stationed on bases in Japan, along with another 24,000 sailors of the Seventh Fleet.(7) The tremendous success of Japan's recovery, and the special relationship between Japan and the United States that has grown out of it, provides the United States with the opportunity to reassess policy without fear of reprisals or resentment.

Japan's Capabilities

It is evident that Japan has the resources to once again become an active military player in the world scene. Indeed, the Japanese GNP ranks second only to that of the United States. In addition to its great economic strength, Japan has created the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, including a modern navy of over 200 ships. Although the use of the JSDF is ostensibly constrained by the constitution, it is a formidable force.

There is a growing inclination in Japan to play an active role in world affairs, in spite of the supposed constitutional restrictions on the use of military force. One manifestation of activism has been Japan's aggressive foreign aid budget. In 1989 Japan contributed over $6.77 billion in bilateral foreign aid and another $1.7 billion through multilateral aid programs--more than any other nation in the world.(8) It is also pertinent to note that Tokyo's military spending and the size of the JSDF have increased markedly since the mid-1970s despite the supposed strictures of the peace constitution.

Unfortunately, uneasiness about growing Japanese influence as the result of such activity is used by some Americans to justify the continuation of the U.S. military presence in Japan and Washington's dominant role in the overall U.S.-Japanese security relationship. In some cases, it has even reinforced fears of the resurgence of Japan as a military threat to the United States.(9) Consequently, arbitrary U.S. obstacles to a larger Japanese military role have remained entrenched. Some U.S. officials seem to believe that the Japanese nation is, by nature, inordinately oriented toward world domination.

Overcoming Old Animosities

Memories of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor persist and visions of the ruthless subjugation of virtually the entire Far East by the armies of imperial Japan still burn in the minds of millions of Americans. Those fears are even more deeply felt by the Asian nations that were occupied by the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s. Most Americans, except the roughly 1 million servicemen who fought in the Pacific during World War II, learned the details of Japan's actions largely from history books, photos, and newsreels. Koreans, Filipinos, Thais, and others, however, remember the barbarism firsthand. They would be the first to object to any alteration of the current U.S.-Japanese relationship, particularly if such a change allowed the use of Japanese forces abroad.

It would be unwise to discount the extent to which Japanese armies terrorized East Asia during the war years and unsympathetic to ignore the psychological impact the war had on the invaded nations. But it is also unwise to allow the ghosts of the imperial armies to forever dictate the conduct of U.S. policy on rearmament of Japan. With an appreciation for the special concerns voiced by Japan's neighbors, the United States can, in good faith, negotiate the specifics of a U.S. military withdrawal and a corresponding Japanese build-up.

The Japanese, for their part, are mindful of the continuing animosity of the nations of the Pacific Rim. Perhaps that is one reason such a large portion of the Japanese foreign aid budget has been given to the countries occupied by Japanese forces during World War II--Thailand, Korea, the Philippines, and China. Japanese business has also developed economic ties with those nations, investing billions of dollars yearly. In 1989 applications for foreign investment by the Japanese in Thailand alone totaled over $4 billion. Other nations that benefit from Japan's economic expansion include Malaysia, which received $992 million in direct investment in 1989, and China, which received $515 million.(10)

Accepting a Larger Japanese Role

With the decline of the Soviet threat, Japanese military forces should be capable of defending Japan's security and playing a wider security role with only modest expansion. The size and composition of the military must be decided by the Japanese government and people. But the United States should not oppose the development of Japanese forces capable of military actions in support of their interests abroad.

The economics of the current U.S.-Japanese defense arrangement cannot be overstated. Although Japan's contribution to its defense appears sufficient in absolute terms, roughly $26 billion, it is inadequate in relative terms. Tokyo's allocation of slightly over 1 percent of GNP to defense contrasts sharply with the 6 percent spent by the South Koreans, for example, and the 5.3 percent spent by the United States, Japan's protector. An appreciation of how the U.S. defense of Japan affects competition between the number-one and number-two economic powers in the world is paramount. Edward A. Olsen writes:

The United States cannot mandate Japan's future strategy any more than Japan can shirk its responsibilities indefinitely. Neither should the United States subsidize a prosperous ally's economy, providing funds for Japan's defense so that Tokyo does not need to spend from its own resources on Japan's defense and can allocate them to economic purposes.(11)

Much is still made of Japanese domestic fears of the resurgence of military power. At times the Japanese seem even more concerned about militarism than are the nations formerly occupied by the armies of the Rising Sun. And, given the resentment and mistrust of the military that still persist in Japan more than 45 years after the end of World War II, it could be argued that the Japanese will never willingly assume a greater military role. Today domestic opinion in Japan sends mixed signals. The Japanese people as a whole remain wary of military action; in a recent poll, 67 percent opposed sending Japanese forces to the Persian Gulf, even in noncombat roles.(12) At the same time, younger Japanese voters, those born after World War II, press for greater Japanese autonomy.

Japan's reluctance to assume a military role in the gulf must also be placed in a larger context. After all, the United States has obligingly assumed the costs and risks of defending Japanese interests there, thus sparing the Japanese government and people difficult decisions about how to defend their interests.

Moreover, even if there is still substantial Japanese reluctance to assume a larger military role in general, U.S. needs must also be addressed. The United States simply cannot continue to subsidize Japan's defense as it did throughout the cold war. Given America's pressing domestic problems, Washington cannot retain its vast global security commitments. Indeed, with the Soviet threat diminishing, the emphasis in the United States will be on "bringing the boys home." Both Tokyo and Washington must appreciate those realities and begin now to plan for the substitution of Japanese for U.S. military power where appropriate.

The Dangers of U.S. Obstructionism

If the Japanese inclination to influence world events, as indicated by recent foreign aid policy, develops into a more assertive military posture, the United States may simply be left behind. In that scenario, the Japanese resentment of perceived U.S.-imposed political barriers to Japan's military development--and the distrust of Japan Washington's obstruction implies--could do damage to the entire range of U.S.-Japanese relationships. Japanese discontent over domestic economic dislocations and Tokyo's obvious inability to orchestrate a favorable outcome of the Persian Gulf crisis through economic or diplomatic means could bring that latent resentment to a boil.

The probable reaction (both in Japan and in the United States) to Japan's military impotence in the gulf presents either an opportunity or a calamity for policymakers of both nations, depending on their responses. Now is the time for Washington to encourage, or at least cease opposing, Japan's departure from the obsolete policy of depending on the United States for the defense of Japanese security interests.

Latent American and East Asian fears of a resurgent Japan should be calmed by the commitment of the Japanese to their constitution and the underlying democratic values. There is no reason to believe that the domestic political forces that currently handcuff Japanese military policy would collapse and be superseded by rampant imperialism of the kind that was practiced in the 1930s. To the contrary, that domestic pressure will ensure that the use of military power is restricted to the resolution of specific foreign policy conflicts that have substantial connections with important Japanese interests. Japan may play a more active role in world affairs, but it will probably do so with relative caution and prudence.

The Persian Gulf crisis provides a catalyst for a critical break in precedent and a fundamental shift in Japanese strategy and policy. America's leaders must be alert to the forces at work in Japan and recognize the likelihood of change. Failure to do so threatens to perpetuate an increasingly untenable U.S. strategy based on fostering Japan's security dependence on the United States. Given the hostility already demonstrated by Congress and the American people toward Japan's limited military "burden sharing," refusal to adjust U.S. policy could lead to an acrimonious confrontation.

No one should be so naive as to think that the use of Japanese power will forever be dictated by American wishes or American fears. Japan is unlikely to remain a pliant U.S. protectorate indefinitely. U.S. leaders should not allow irrational fears of a long-since dead adversary to hamper sound, rational foreign policy. With America struggling economically to meet military commitments abroad, and with Japan beginning to struggle for military autonomy, a continued unwillingness on the part of American policymakers to accept, indeed to encourage, changes in the current defense arrangement may lead to an abrupt popular rejection of the status quo in both countries, with all the attendant bitterness and mutual recriminations.(13) American and Japanese leaders must appreciate the growing domestic pressures in their respective countries and respond with a new policy that not only more equitably distributes security burdens but restructures the entire Japanese-American security relationship.


(1) "Tin-Cup Diplomacy: As the Cost of Confronting Iraq Mounts, the U.S. Finds Donors," Washington Post, September 17, 1990, pp. A33-34.

(2) T. R. Reid, "Kaifu Abandons Bill to Send Troops to the Gulf," Washington Post, November 8, 1990, A-60.

(3) T. R. Reid and John Burgess, "U.S. Critics Not Satisfied with Japan's $4 Billion contribution," Washington Post, October 6, 1990, p. A24.

(4) Paul Blustein, "Japan to Pay More Costs of GIs Stationed There," Washington Post, December 21, 1990, p. A30.

(5) Fred Hiatt, "Marine General: U.S. Troops Must Stay in Japan," Washington Post, March 27, 1990, pp. A14, 20.

(6) Reid and Burgess.

(7) International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Mili tary Balance, 1989-1990 (London: IISS, 1990), p. 26.

(8) Japan International Cooperation Agency, Of(8) Japan International Cooperation Agency, Official Devel opment Assistance Report, 1989 (Tokyo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1990).

(9) Former army chief of staff Gen. Edward C. Meyer, for example, insisted that an assertive Japan (along with a reunified Germany) will replace the Soviet Union as the principal threat to U.S. security. George Wilson, "U.S. Begins Revamping the Military," Washington Post, November 26, 1989, p. A12.

(10) "Japan's Economic Might Still Is Growing Around the World," Washington Post, February 13, 1990, p. A15.

(11) Edward A. Olsen, "U.S.-Japan Security Relations after Nakasone," in Collective Defense or Strategic Independence, ed. Ted Galen Carpenter (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1989) p. 75.

(12) Reid and Burgess.

(13) Signs of bitterness are already emerging in Japan as well as in the United States. A Yomiuri Shimbun columnist noted in March 1990 that some American officials contended that U.S. forces in Japan were needed to contain Japanese rearmament at the same time Congress and the Bush adminis tration insisted that Japan pay more for those forces. "Some Japanese cannot feel good about paying for a watchdog that watches them," the columnist concluded. Quoted in Kenneth B. Pyle, "The Japanese Question," in Japan and the World: Considerations for U.S. Policymakers (Seattle, Wash.: National Bureau of Asian and Soviet Research, 1990), p. 7.

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