Japan cleaves to the United States

Author: Yoichiro Sato, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University

The United States and Japan recently agreed to revise their Guidelines for Defense Cooperation. The Guidelines provide a broad framework for cooperation between the US military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, and revision is expected to realign the two countries’ joint military operations to changes in the regional security environment. But any changes must strike the right balance between tactical considerations and broader diplomatic strategy.

When the Guidelines were last revised in 1997 the days of Japan’s alleged ‘cheap ride’ on the security alliance during the Cold War were long gone, and revision focused on what Japan could do for the alliance. The 1997 guidelines set a framework for the ‘Regional Contingency Law’, which enabled the Self-Defense Forces to engage in rear support for US forces (including logistics, intelligence, medical services, and search and rescue) in situations that were deemed to affect Japan’s security. These changes were made in the context of crises on the Korean Peninsula and over the Taiwan Strait, but the guidelines avoided explicitly referencing specific dangers to avoid offending China, North Korea, and South Korea.

The likelihood of conflict in the region has not diminished since 1997. Nowadays Japan explicitly identifies China as a potential threat — referring to China’s maritime incursions in the East China Sea, threats to use force in the disputed South China Sea, naval buildup and the expansion of its operating area, development of space weaponries, and suspected use of cyber warfare. The ‘rebalancing’ of US foreign policy to the Pacific is a military check on China, but the United States expects its allies to share the load. Its expectations weigh most heavily upon Japan, but US efforts to economically and politically engage China offer insufficient comfort to Japan at a time when China’s provocations around the Senkaku Islands are becoming more serious.

Still, while Japan’s regional security environment has become more difficult, it is important not to see the challenge in narrow military terms. As Masahiro Sakamoto of the Tokyo Foundation points out, China’s challenges on the Senkaku Islands and in the East China Sea are not just about military strength. They also involve international law and international public opinion. New guidelines should address political and diplomatic cooperation to deter China’s use of force. Discussions about various tactical cooperation scenarios in the event deterrence fails should follow, not precede, the broader discussions about diplomatic strategy.

After all, bilateral military cooperation can have positive multilateral diplomatic implications. Japanese and US experience in joint disaster responses — from the Indian Ocean Tsunami to the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster — need to be shared throughout Asia. The United States and Japan have an opportunity to promote their alliance in this way within the regional multilateral context to raise the level of regional acceptance of the alliance. If China is included in this framework its perception of the US–Japan bilateral alliance as a mere tool of containment could be mollified.

Japan’s security challenges go beyond military affairs, and the framework of US–Japan cooperation needs to be broadened. Unfortunately, bureaucratic rivalry in Tokyo is expected to be a major obstacle to the Guidelines’ revision process. The Defense Ministry dislikes the Foreign Ministry intruding into ‘defence’ matters, whereas the Foreign Ministry insists on its jurisdiction over ‘security’ matters, which tends implicitly to include ‘defence’ issues. Japanese negotiations on drafting are to be led by a preparatory committee headed by the Defense Minister. On one hand this structure will enable negotiators to discuss detailed tactical-level military cooperation between the two countries. But at the same time, the Defense Ministry’s narrow perspective is likely to lead to a narrow focus on China and North Korea. The Defense Ministry has an unimaginatively reactive perception of the threats originating in these countries.

The move toward revising the Defense Cooperation Guidelines will help repair the bilateral relationship. The 2009–10 Hatoyama government damaged the relationship by demanding US troops pull out of Okinawa. The Futenma Air Station saga showed the danger of discussing tactical details without an agreed strategy. Shinzo Abe’s election has also resulted in some bilateral disagreement on a strategic level: where Hatoyama and other Democratic Party of Japan prime ministers were at times softer than Obama on China and North Korea, Abe is harder than Obama on both. Abe’s poor relationship with South Korea, led by the conservative Park Guen-hye, is another complicating factor. Before the US–Japan Guidelines for Security Cooperation can be revised, Japan must sort out its strategy and make sure it fits with the US plans for Asia.

Yoichiro Sato is Professor of International Strategic Studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University and Hennebach Visiting Researcher at Colorado School of Mines. He is a co-editor of The US–Japan Security Alliance: Regional Multilateralism (Palgrave, 2011), available here.