Japan–US alliance: persistent inclinations of a cautious ally

Author: Sourabh Gupta, Samuels International

In October 2000 a select bipartisan group of Washington’s Asia hands issued a provocative policy blueprint known as the Armitage-Nye report which aimed to integrate Japan as a more equal and active security partner in the Asia Pacific and internationally.

The authors laid out a vision of a radically transformed US–Japan relationship modelled on the US–UK alliance.

The response by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Task Force on Foreign Relations was equally forthright. It noted that it was impossible for the Japan–US relationship to become like that between the US and the UK. It said that Japan, while adopting complementary policies, would proceed along its own foreign-policy axis of coordinates.

Nevertheless, with an almost Anglo-Saxon sense of mission Prime Minister Koizumi soon afterwards set in train the most sweeping set of pro-alliance-related adjustments to Japanese security policy since the mid-1980s, including unlimited geographic extension of the Self-Defence Force’s right to conduct international peace cooperation activities.

The task force report and subsequent policy initiative capture in a nutshell various facets of Japanese diplomacy: a restatement of the persistently cautious inclinations of Tokyo’s statecraft; the congruence in US–Japan alliance purposes that will deepen in the foreseeable future; and the persistence of the ingrained separateness within the alliance’s institutional machinery and geopolitical ends that will likely outlive it. Over the next two decades, each of these currents will continue to permeate Japan’s East Asia strategy and its alliance with the US.

First, unlike the British interest in manipulating the continental balance of power, the notion of aligning against the stronger power to contain its influence is at odds with the Japanese tradition. Rather, the inclination of statecraft has been to pursue policies of strategic detachment or isolation. The next best option, when this has not been possible, is to forge amicable ties with whichever foreign state appeared to demonstrate the most impressive combination of military, economic and cultural power. Equally, efforts by Great Britain and US in the modern era and China throughout much of Japanese history to involve Japan in the region’s strategic balance have mostly been unsuccessful because Tokyo has avoided a too-intimate strategic association with its foreign ally or mentor. Japan is not the UK of East Asia and will not assume the role of regional offshore balancer.

Second, the meteoric rise of China at a time of receding US primacy is placing Japan’s choices at odds with its enduring principles.

Adaptive resilience to thereality of Chinese power is not the issue here. The stability of central authority in Beijing has been among the surest guarantors of Japan’s domestic stability and external security. Rather, it is the need to hedge against the destabilization that is rippling through the East Asian periphery, as a by-product of the rise of Chinese power. A stable, ideally prosperous, periphery has been the indispensible condition of Japan’s national security. Historically, the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait have served as the outer ramparts of Japan’s defence perimeter. Time and again power vacuums or instability on the peninsula and within the straits have tempted entanglements in Korea and Taiwan, and stability has allowed Japan’s strategic view to turn homewards.

The extent — or lack of — to which China consolidates its authority over this fluid East Asian periphery during the next two decades will determine the depth to which the essential bargain at the heart of the US–Japan security arrangements — that of ensuring Japan’s defence in exchange for hosting the forward US presence in the Asia Pacific — is operationally deepened.

Finally, deepening the bargain will ironically aggravate the dilemma Tokyo faces in coping with the power transition underway in East Asia, given Japan’s tendency to organise its external relations on a hierarchical basis and ‘move with the powerful’. While the unification of Korea and the incorporation of Taiwan under the mainland’s economic and political ‘loose rein’ hegemony will remedy this dilemma, it will also upend the fundamental bargain that underpins the US–Japan alliance.

To guard against the twin perils of alliance entrapment and abandonment during this unsettled interregnum, the low-cost, risk minimisation strategy that characterises Tokyo’s management of the US–Japan alliance will continue to prevail.

The bilateral strategic bargain between the US and Japan has never been transformed into a fully fledged alliance. There is no fully integrated sharing of risk comparable to that involved in NATO or the US–South Korean alliance, nor is there a joint command structure or attached bureaucracy that could develop a vested interest in perpetuating its institutional character.

The separate approaches in terms of strategic concepts, command, control and battle management systems, operational planning and crisis action procedures will not be abolished. Rather, a fresh division of bilateral roles and mission responsibilities will progressively chip away at the separation – a process that from Tokyo’s point of view will be geared as much to advancing the ‘normal nation’ defence capabilities as to enhancing interoperability within the alliance. Japan used activities conducted under alliance auspices in Iraq and Afghanistan — such as participation in multinational peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, deploying forces overseas during timesof active hostilities, and liberalising rules on supplying weapons and transporting armaments — to push the boundaries of Japanese rearmament.

Similarly, a carefully calculated set of constitutional reinterpretations can be expected to pass into legislation in coming years. The effect of these reinterpretations will be progressively to blur definitional lines between conflict and post-conflict operations, combat and non-combat zones, and military and policing activities, which still limit Japan’s involvement in alliance missions within carefully prescribed thresholds. The right to exercise collective self-defence in narrowly circumscribed situations in areas surrounding Japan will also be admitted. Fundamentally though, the geopolitical separation that is built into the heart of the alliance, and the corresponding flexibility to hedge against entrapment or abandonment, will be preserved.

Whether the US–Japan alliance helps to stabilise the Asia Pacific periphery, whether Japan adopts a more self-reliant defence framework or whether it focuses its energies inwards, all this ultimately hinges on the gravity of Japan’s demographic and economic erosion. Japan’s total population is in absolute decline, nominal gross domestic output is stuck at early-1990s levels, central government tax revenues are trending at mid-1980s level, the welfare recipient list is longer than the early post-War peak, and the defence budget is in its tenth straight year of decline. With that scenario, discretion will remain the better part of valour in Japan’s management of its alliance with the US.

Sourabh Gupta is Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Washington, DC. He is an EAF Distinguished Fellow for 2012.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly