Japan’s defence burden and the American alliance

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan

The comments made by Tobias Harris and Doug Turner on the United States and Japan’s defence spending deserve a closer look. Their comments are indented below.

The United States has provided a cheap substitute for its [Japan’s] own defence spending

Using figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2007 Year Book on Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, Japan is up there with the UK, France and China with 4-5 per cent of the world total (the United States was 46 per cent of the world total reflecting its own unique set of policy choices). I’m not sure this merits the description: ‘cheap substitute for its own defence spending’. Japan’s defence budget at approximately ¥5 trillion (US$ 50 billion) is hardly ‘cheap’ either, nor is Japan’s large sympathy budget outlaid for the costs of the US bases in Japan (more, as a proportion of the total cost than any other US base-hosting country in the world). The comment has often been made that it is cheaper for the United States to base their military in Japan than at home.

Enabled Japan to avoid tackling the thorny question of acquiring a nuclear arsenal of its own.

This is certainly a ‘thorny’ issue, but the benefits accrue not only to Japan, but to the entire region and the United States itself. Are the authors seriously arguing in favour of a nuclear Japan? It might also be worth pointing out that Japan has tackled this thorny question over the years: it has been both raised politically and researched administratively as a potential security policy option by the Defence Agency/Ministry of Defence and is bound to come up again.

The alliance has allowed it [Japan] to opt out of power politics and has saved Japan from having to think about its national interests.

True, the alliance has enabled Japan to some extent to opt out of power politics at a global level, but this is not to say that Japan is entirely absent from international power politics. It does not ‘lead’ major power politics on security issues, but it certainly engages in power politics across a range of areas, including security, foreign relations, trade, finance, etc.It held the chairmanship of the G8 last year and has been on the UNSC as a non-permanent member, I think, more than any other country. Moreover, to say that the United States has ‘saved Japan from having to think about its national interests’ is both patronising and a travesty of reality. The Japanese government and public do indeed constantly ponder their national interests; one only has to research Japanese trade, defence and foreign policymaking and have a cursory familiarity with the policies made for these sectors to be aware of how the Japanese are deliberating on and defining their national interests at any particular time on any particular policy.

For the United States, Japan has been a reliable ally and provided low-cost bases for power projection throughout Eurasia.

It’s good to see some ‘balance’ in this analysis. What is more, the bases themselves often occupy prime land, which carry a high domestic price tag. It is also worth restating that the United States does not maintain bases in Japan as an act of altruism. These bases have served and continue to serve US strategic objectives. That is their primary purpose. Their ‘defense of Japan’ value is as much political as it is military. They enable the United States to put moral pressure on Japan for contributions to various US-determined strategic causes and they enable the Japanese Government to rationalize the continuing presence of the American military on Japanese soil to their own people – at some tremendous sacrifice on the part of local base-hosting communities, particularly in Okinawa.

Japan’s Yoshida Doctrine continues to apply: Japan will do as much as necessary, but as little as possible. Today, it gladly pockets the U.S. security guarantee and all the benefits that accrue from it, while making token contributions to distant U.S. operations and tolerating the presence of U.S. forces in Japan. [Surely evidence of Japan cleverly pursuing its national interests?] The amount of support the United States considers “necessary” and the amount of support some Japanese politicians are willing to give have increased, but the basic formula remains.

Perhaps the Japanese contributions are ‘token’, which they certainly are because of a) domestic constitutional obstacles, which are not minor, but indeed major; and b) domestic political obstacles insofar as Japanese public opinion would not support greater contributions. Would the United States seriously ask Japan to discount its legitimate democratic constitutional and political processes?

Before the United States and Japan can forge a new bilateral consensus, Japan needs to forge a new foreign policy vision. It should reflect the views of the Japanese public, not just the wishes of a handful of conservative, Washington-friendly politicians who are advancing their vision of an assertive Japan in a vacuum.

If Japanese foreign policy reflected the views of the Japanese public and not just the wishes of a handful of conservative Washington-friendly politicians, Japan would be making far fewer and far more modest so-called ‘contributions’ to the alliance than they are now. If public opinion determined alliance policy, neither the GSDF nor ASDF deployments to Iraq would have been made.

It seems to me that if the US Japan alliance is to be redefined  under the new Obama administration, it is the American side that needs to adjust its views about what Japan is already contributing to the alliance and to put the alliance on a more egalitarian footing. A quick reading of the Japanese press these days seem to suggest that there is a groundswell of Japanese political and public opinion favouring an end to Japan’s ‘subordinate’ relationship to the United States.

See Tobias Harris’s response.