U.S.-Japan Alliance Is Doing Fine, But…

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Photo by U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Jose D. Lujano

A Marine sniper takes aim during a joint U.S.-Japan training exercise at the Hijudai Maneuver Area, Japan, in August 2012.

TOKYO – With both Japan and the United States squarely in the cross hairs of the latest North Korea missile crisis, a new report concludes that the U.S.-Japan defense alliance is in pretty good shape – thank goodness for that — but will come under increasing pressure in the coming years. Worst-case scenario: A nervous Japan looks to acquire first-strike capabilty, maybe even nukes.

Some two-dozen scholars, government officials and military leaders from the United States and Japan met in Hawaii in early February to assess the state of the alliance and talk about issues like the U.S. rebalance in Asia, the growing assertiveness of China and the ongoing menace of North Korea.

To allow for candor, no names were included in the report’s findings (download available here), but participants include the likes of Tetsuya Ito, director of the Strategic Planning Office for the Japan Ministry of Defense; Noboru Yamaguchi, a retired three-star in the Ground Self Defense Force and former special advisor to the Cabinet; and Ralph Cossa and Brad Glosserman of the Pacific Forum CSIS, which sponsored the two-day event.

Following are some of the key findings, released last week.

North Korea:

– Japanese (participants) identify North Korea as a primary threat, referring to Pyongyang’s military breakthroughs in missile technology and its growing ability to deliver nuclear-tipped missiles. Some complained about the “volatility” of U.S. policy (citing the Bush administration’s 180 degree turn in dealing with the North); they warned that failure to check DPRK capabilities could shift Japanese public opinion about the desirability of indigenous power projection capabilities and perhaps even nuclear weapons.

– After a lull of four years, there is again talk among Japanese of the need to acquire an offensive/ pre-emptive strike option against North Korean missile and nuclear facilities, despite the complexities or implications of such capabilities, which they generally did not acknowledge.

Senkaku Islands dispute with China:

– Japanese seek a stronger U.S. statement in support of their claim to the Senkakus. The traditional U.S. position – that the islands fall under Article 5 of the treaty as territory administered by Japan – is welcomed and appreciated but they remain concerned about the U.S. caveat; namely that the U.S. makes no judgment on the validity of any sovereignty claim.

– Most Japanese failed to appreciate the significance of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement opposing “any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration of the islands.” Beijing has not missed its significance, accusing Washington of “taking sides.”

– In an attempt to put the territorial dispute in perspective, some U.S. participants urged caution, insisting that the U.S. is unlikely to go to war over some insignificant islands. This raised concerns about the credibility of the U.S. commitment and warnings that failure to draw a line at the Senkakus would only embolden Chinese elsewhere (especially the South China Sea).

U.S.-Japan alliance:

– All Japanese stressed that they have no doubts about the credibility and effectiveness of U.S. extended deterrence, which they want to preserve. But there is growing frustration with the continuing “two-pronged” attack emanating from Beijing and Pyongyang, who may be emboldened by the realization that Japan cannot credibly fight back. Japanese voiced strong worries, in particular, about China’s assertiveness over the Senkaku islands. They stressed that “pushing” from China is a test for the U.S.-Japan alliance.

– U.S. and Japanese perceptions of U.S. policy continuity toward China differ. While U.S. participants explained that policy has generally followed the same path since 1972, some Japanese highlighted inconsistencies, in particular moves to promote “strategic reassurance” between Washington and Beijing.

US rebalance:

– Japanese have many questions about the U.S. rebalance to Asia, notably its sustainability given U.S. fiscal constraints and commitments elsewhere in the world, especially the Middle East; some Japanese worry that the future of the rebalance depends on the new U.S. foreign policy team.

– Japanese are unclear about the role expected of their country in the rebalance and what their contribution is expected to be. They acknowledge there is a need and opportunity for Japan to “step up.” Although questions remain about its operationalization, applicability, and integration into alliance mechanisms, “Dynamic Defense” is meant to address this issue.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe/Japan politics:

– Japanese participants argued that the U.S. media image of Abe as a hardcore, right-wing nationalist is a caricature; in fact, he is a pragmatic realist. American participants countered that Abe’s image of himself as restoring sanity to the bilateral relationship is also exaggerated. His election has raised expectations in Washington as well as anxieties.

– Japanese participants warned that the Abe administration is focused on winning the summer 2013 Upper House elections and the U.S. should expect no early decisions from Tokyo that might jeopardize that prospect. To Americans, this was an all too familiar refrain.

South Korea:

– Japanese stressed that institutionalized U.S.-Japan-ROK cooperation is unlikely anytime soon. It seems doubtful that the incoming Park administration will make any significant early overtures and Abe will be focused on the Upper House election. Nonetheless, it was hoped that both sides would refrain from actions that would reignite tensions (since Tokyo did not want a “three front war”). Japanese also expressed concern about a U.S.-ROK-China dialogue (an apparent Park priority), fearing that it would be used by Seoul and Beijing to beat up on Tokyo.