Normalizing Relations
With Japan

Shinzo Abe has become the youngest postwar prime minister of Japan. He is seen as a reformer, following the lead of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. Of greater significance to the U.S. and the rest of world, Abe also is a nationalist dedicated increasing his country’s global role. By encouraging Japan to become a normal nation with normal defense responsibilities, Washington can shed some of its outdated Asian military commitments.

Koizumi was a favored friend of George W. Bush, providing 550 noncombatant “soldiers” for Iraq, backed logistically by another 200 in Kuwait (the troops recently returned home). Tokyo went along with the Bush administration in Iraq – despite popular opposition to the war – largely to protect its security ties with America. Admitted Koizumi, “Japan’s policy to cooperate with the United States based on the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance has never changed and will not change.”

The operation would have been a bad joke for any government but that of Japan: the “soldiers,” who weren’t allowed to defend themselves, had to be guarded first by the Dutch, and then by the Australians. Nevertheless, the deployment was a step outward for a nation bound by a pacifist constitution imposed by the U.S. a half-century ago, which by its literal terms bars the creation of a military.

America’s relationship with Japan remains heavily freighted by history. As the dominant victor in World War II, Washington used its postwar occupation to remake Japanese society. Douglas MacArthur’s regency included a rewrite of the constitution, in which Article 9 proclaims that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

At first, American officials meant what the Japanese constitution said. (Rather like how American officials originally meant what the U.S. Constitution said.) Japan became a significant consumer of U.S. military resources, hosting 172,000 personnel and much materiel during the Korean War. The bases played a useful regional role then and later, but defense of Japan was paramount. Having disarmed Japan, the U.S. was bound to protect its ally from the Soviet Union, and later Maoist China. With Japanese nuclear weapons out of the question, Washington opened a nuclear umbrella. The U.S. presence also was intended to reassure Japan’s neighbors that the imperial navy would no longer ply the seas – the famed “cap in the bottle.”

However, Japanese pacifism soon lost its appeal to Washington. The expansion of the Cold War and the press of global commitments soon led the U.S. to urge Tokyo to rearm. Over the years, American officials have regularly pressed Japan to spend more. Washington still hopes to run the show, but it no longer wants to pay the entire bill. Article 9 was creatively reinterpreted, allowing military expenditures of roughly $45 billion annually, fourth in the world after America, China, and Great Britain, and development of a potent “self-defense force.”

Still, up to the 1990s Japan drew a red line between domestic defense and foreign intervention. However, with increased economic wealth came new pressure to play a greater international role. Even more important has been a growing sense of vulnerability from North Korea, which regularly spews invective and tests missiles, and China, which mixes a desire for Japanese investment with anger over Japan’s past aggressions.

Tokyo reacted with some irritation at being treated like a cash machine, to the tune of $13 billion, during the first Gulf War. Over the past decade Japan has steadily edged into a more active role. Despite significant political controversy at home, Japan has joined UN peacekeeping efforts in Cambodia and elsewhere, deployed ships to help refuel American vessels in the Indian Ocean as part of the Afghanistan war (an operation that continues), successively updated its defense guidelines (most recently to include contingencies in the Taiwan Strait), adopted economic sanctions and threatened military preemption against North Korea, and inserted humanitarian “soldiers” in Iraq.

Alas, several of Japan’s bilateral relationships have become more truculent. Some wounds have been self-inflicted: Japanese officials, including Abe before his elevation to prime minister, have continued to visit the Yasukuni war shrine in which the remains of 14 convicted war criminals are interred. This behavior, alongside controversy over Japanese textbooks which fail to accurately reflect Tokyo’s conduct in World War II, routinely angers Japan’s neighbors.

But it isn’t all Japan’s fault. Countries like China and South Korea themselves are increasingly nationalistic and have used anti-Japanese sentiment for their own political ends. Neither can they seriously believe that Tokyo is likely to again invade and occupy them. The stench of hypocrisy is particularly strong when Beijing, a nuclear-armed power that displays public amnesia about its own past, ranging from murderous Maoist madness to mass shootings in Tiananmen Square, whines about Tokyo’s increasing assertiveness.

Even as it begins to act more like a normal country – and especially a nation with the world’s second largest economy and a variety of global interests – Japan hopes to hold onto its American defense subsidy. Indeed, doing so was the reason for the otherwise useless Iraq deployment. Tokyo recognized that it would be difficult to get Washington to continue underwriting its security if Japan wasn’t willing to aid Washington when the latter came calling. (These days the Bush administration is easily satisfied: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently visited Montenegro, with a population on par with that of North Dakota, to request troops for Iraq.)

It’s an odd relationship. Tokyo provided the temporary assistance of 550 Japanese “soldiers,” while modestly increasing its own defense efforts – even though Japan’s constitution technically bars that nation from aiding its chief ally, America, even if the latter is under attack. As Tokyo demanded increased international respect (including a seat on the UN Security Council), it needlessly irritated its neighbors, including an incipient superpower, the People’s Republic of China. However, all was well, since it need neither devote more resources to the military nor act more responsibly since Washington maintains 35,000 troops in Japan, the Seventh Fleet on station, and a nuclear-backed security guarantee.

Prime Minister Abe appears committed to pursuing the same course. After taking office, he declared, “The Japan-United States alliance forms the foundation of our foreign and security policy.” At the same time, he explained that “I would like to follow a more assertive foreign policy,” that is, “ask what role Japan can play in the region and world.”

In particular, he wants to revise the “peace” constitution – a controversial position, but one apparently with substantial popular support – and strengthen the alliance with America. He hopes to improve relations with China, recently named by Tokyo as a potential threat in its 2005 defense white paper. The countries also have been snarling at each other over Tokyo’s historical responsibility, Japan’s desire to join the UN Security Council, primacy in Asian economic leadership, participation in a Russian oil pipeline through Siberia, and North Korean policy. Having made his reputation in 2002 pushing Pyongyang to release the scores and perhaps hundreds of Japanese kidnapped over the years by that regime, Abe is likely to remain tough on the North. In short, Abe hopes to have Japan do more while dampening regional concerns, even as he convinces the U.S. to remain Japan’s great defense benefactor.

The benefits of this policy are obvious for Tokyo. But not for Washington. Abe’s ascension to power should spur the U.S. as well as Japan to reevaluate Japan’s role in the world.

The subject is highly sensitive throughout East Asia. It comes as no surprise that most of Japan’s neighbors like having a reasonably benevolent Uncle Sam as the local cop. They can spend less on the military; they need not work through the complicated politics of creating a more stable regional order; they can continue winning domestic points from Japan-bashing rather than confronting the past.

It comes as no surprise, but this situation is not in America’s interest. First, every security commitment is expensive, since the U.S. has to create force structure so Washington can make good on its defense promises. That’s an important reason why Washington now spends as much as the rest of the world combined on the military. America had little choice but to bear a disproportionate burden of defending the West in the aftermath of World War II. But not today.

Second, defense guarantees risk war. The hope, of course, is that Washington’s promise to fight will deter anyone else from risking war. However, deterrence can fail, in which case American involvement is inevitable, or almost so. Moreover, providing superpower backing for small client states encourages them to engage in more risky and potentially irresponsible behavior. It’s easier to be unreasonable and obnoxious if you’ve got Uncle Sam behind you, brandishing a few nukes.

Third, America’s military commitments reduce the incentive for its allies to invest in their own forces. If Washington is willing to loan you its navy and air force, why build your own? For instance, the Philippines, with a decrepit military, was quite explicit in hoping that a simple visiting forces agreement would again tie the U.S. to its defense. Taiwan, facing insistent Chinese demands for reunification, has suffered persistent political deadlock over proposals to upgrade its military.

Finally, acting as everyone’s protector puts Washington in the front lines of virtually every regional controversy. There is no intrinsic reason why America should, for instance, care who controls the Paracel, Spratly, or Dokdo/Takeshima Islands. But if its defense clients care, the U.S. is inevitably involved.

In short, military alliances risk becoming transmission belts of war. The chances of a fuse being lit might be smaller if America looms in the background, but the resulting explosion if the fuse is lit will be commensurately greater.

The risk might matter less if the U.S. wasn’t already very busy. Troops remain in Europe, despite the absence of any serious threat of war. A few remain in Kosovo, a territory of no security issue to America. Nearly 30,000 troops are in South Korea, even though Seoul perceives little threat from the North and vastly outranks its potential antagonist in most measures of national power.

Then there’s Iraq. America is tied down, with the Army and Marine Corps under great pressure. The Pentagon has had to reduce recruiting standards to keep the ranks filled. Washington could ill handle a crisis in Iran or North Korea. There’s little room for error.

Most important, however, is the question of China, a rising power. Its future is not certain. Its economy could tank; the country conceivably could even fall apart.

Most likely, however, the People’s Republic of China will become a peer competitor of America. It is likely to take decades. But it is likely to happen.

In a world of an assertive, powerful PRC, determined to be the predominant nation in East Asia, is the U.S. better off with a gaggle of weak allies dependent upon it, or a coalition of strong, independent friends able to constrain Beijing on their own? Obviously the latter.

U.S. foreign policy should be adjusted to fit changing circumstances. During the Cold War, in the aftermath of the most destructive conflict in human history, Washington had little choice but to provide a shield behind which friendly states could shelter and prosper. That policy worked – indeed, worked extraordinarily well for both Japan and South Korea, which have become populous, prosperous powerhouses.

Today, they could defend themselves, if only the U.S. required them to so do. Today the U.S. devotes roughly 4 percent of its GDP to the military. Facing a far greater threat, the Republic of Korea spends only 2.4 percent. Japan’s military effort doesn’t even reach an anemic 1 percent. Both could do far more.

Australia, New Zealand, and the ASEAN states also could play a more important role in promoting regional stability. So could India, which has been expanding its ties throughout the region.

Obviously, Washington still has an interest in Asia, but America can best protect its citizens by acting as an offshore balancer, ready to jump across the Pacific if need be, but not entangled in controversies of little importance to the U.S. That means maintaining friendly relationships with and base access in important countries, but not endless security guarantees and permanent military deployments.

Even if it was not in America’s immediate interest to transform its relationship with Japan, and it is, change almost certainly is inevitable. Tokyo benefits from U.S. support, but it nevertheless feels increasingly uncomfortable being America’s military junior. U.S. opposition to an expanded Japanese role will be perceived, correctly, as a sign of distrust, which could eventually poison an otherwise good relationship. Despite a significant coincidence of interests, even close friends can and do differ on specific policies. As Tokyo’s influence grows, it will be less likely to subordinate its views to those of the U.S. Thus, it makes sense for the U.S. to work with Japan to shift defense responsibilities, rather than to resist such a change, thereby inflaming nationalist sensibilities.

Washington should phase out its current troop presence, already scheduled to drop by 8,000 in 2012. At the same time, the two countries should reach an accord maintaining base access for U.S. air and naval forces. There also might be value in pre-positioning some equipment in readiness for unpredictable contingencies. Moreover, Washington should use its diplomatic offices to help smooth the way for a more significant Japanese role, which should be reflected in an increased role in regional organizations and better bilateral ties throughout the Asia-Pacific. Finally, Tokyo should orient any military expansion in defensive directions – augmenting its already potent anti-submarine and minesweeping capabilities, for instance, while eschewing a large army.

Oddly, there is a conventional wisdom against recognizing reality that runs from the liberal Clinton administration through the centrist Council on Foreign Relations to the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. Former Council staffer Eugene Matthews warned of “the rise of a militarized, assertive, and nuclear-armed Japan, which would be a nightmare for the country’s neighbors.”

It’s a stunningly shortsighted argument. Despite the Yasukuni controversy, Japan is not about to embark upon another imperialist rampage throughout East Asia. (Of course, Prime Minister Abe – who has resisted accounting for the past – could help reduce such a concern by confronting his nation’s World War II ghosts.)

Moreover, regional discomfort is no reason for the U.S. to maintain an expensive, risky commitment that has outlived its security usefulness. Ultimately, Washington needs to draft policy to meet its own needs, not the wishes of a bevy of heavily subsidized client states.

So too with America’s East Asian nuclear umbrella. The issue of nuclear weapons ultimately is one for the Japanese people, not the American government. Some wonder whether Tokyo could be trusted with the bomb. Do they mean compared to unstable Pakistan or authoritarian China?

The Japanese do not possess a double dose of original sin. They may come to doubt the willingness of the U.S. government, any U.S. government, to risk Los Angeles or New York to protect Tokyo or Kyoto. And they should doubt America’s willingness to do so, since Washington officials should not do so. Facing down China is not the same as confronting Serbia or Iraq. Americanizing and nuclearizing disputes between China and its neighbors is a policy of potential catastrophe.

Might a regional order no longer dominated by America result in some unpleasant surprises? Certainly, but the existing U.S. presence offers no guarantees either. It just ensures that any geopolitical mess will end up in Uncle Sam’s lap.

There are many reasons for Washington and Tokyo to remain close friends, and many issues upon which the two nations can cooperate. However, the alliance needs to be updated for a new age. Doing so is in the interests of both nations. As the Cato Institute’s Chris Preble argues, “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.”

Former Prime Minister Koizumi has set in motion a revolution in the way the Japanese look at themselves and their neighbors. It is up to Prime Minister Abe to expand their view. That means turning Japan into a normal nation with normal defense responsibilities. The transformation won’t be easy, but it is both necessary and inevitable. Washington’s job is to make the process as smooth as possible.