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Friday, May 6, 2011

The challenges facing an expanded Japanese role in US-Japan security alliance

Ani Akinbiyi, MPA

Following the conclusion of World War II, Japan became one of the United States’ most important global allies, and ever since the US-Japan security alliance has grown increasingly more important to maintaining the stability of the East Asia. And yet, despite its pivotal role in the US’s global security strategy, there have recently been calls from within the US policymaking establishment to reevaluate America’s security partnership with Japan. Officials claim that Japan has not carried its equal weight within the alliance, and that the Japanese have come to take the American security umbrella for granted. They conclude that Japanese unwillingness to take on more responsibility within the alliance indicates their lack of commitment to the partnership, and that perhaps the US should consider downgrading its military ties to the island nation. However, this view fails to consider the possibility that Japan is simply unable to assume greater responsibility within this relationship because it is bound by domestic political realities and because the two countries may not share the same objectives for the alliance itself. In essence, Japan has yet to decide, one way or the other, what its defense posture will be and what role the US security alliance will play in that strategy.

Since the end of World War II, the Japanese government has had a difficult time galvanizing public support for an increased role for its military, in self-defense matters or otherwise. After the war, not only did the people of Japan have to deal with the consequences of a nuclear attack, they also had to come to terms with the aftermath of a US firebombing campaign in which, according to former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, “50-90% of the people in 67 Japanese cities” were killed, and more than two-thirds of those cities were between 40-99% destroyed. This profound level of physical and human destruction left the nation with a deep-seated mistrust of the military – which many Japanese blamed for taking the country to war – and a sense that their government did not have the capacity to adequately control it.

This sense of mistrust has lingered over the course of the 60 years since the post-war constitution came into effect. During that time, attempts to increase the range and scope of military responsibility have been met with significant popular resistance, and what has emerged is a society where anti-militarism is so profound that successive Japanese governments have gone beyond constitutional restrictions to impose additional restraints on its military potential, such as banning the pursuit of nuclear weapons, the development of power-projection capabilities, and arms exportation. Thus, in the face of such popular support for a debilitated military, it is no surprise that the democratically-elected Japanese government has had trouble mustering the political will necessary to make changes to its military structure.

Japan’s squeamishness with militarism is also evident from its limited overseas operations, which are only approved on a case-by-case basis. In early 2010 the newly-empowered Democratic Party of Japan cancelled its Indian Ocean refueling mission, stationed in support of the US’s war in Afghanistan. While shifts in foreign policy are expected with the introduction of a new administration, such flip-flopping gives the impression that Japan lacks a vision for its military and makes Tokyo’s allies and enemies alike question why Japan seems so intent on remaining defensively castrated.

This is further baffling when one looks at the very real threats in Japan’s front yard. Japan may be taking for granted America’s willingness to remain a regional protector indefinitely, gambling that as long as the US protects its own interests in the region Japan’s interests will also be served. While this gambit has proved successful in the past, there is no guarantee that the US’s strategic configuration will remain unchanged, especially as Washington tries its best to avoid military postures that antagonize China and increase the likelihood of entanglement with its second-largest trading partner.

Given this reluctance for military assertiveness, it is no surprise that there is a disconnect between what Washington wants from its alliance with Japan and what Tokyo is able to provide. The US wants to see the Diet contribute more to Japan’s homeland defense and increase its out-of-area military commitments. Unfortunately, it seems that the US would do well to have Japan focus solely on its domestic defense, as the Japanese parliament has shown diminished capacity to successfully juggle both security objectives. The Liberal Democratic Party, Japan’s former ruling political party, tried to use the success of recent overseas engagements to bolster arguments for an expansion of the Self-Defense Forces mandate. However, it was unable to turn overseas successes into the concrete political will necessary to make the needed changes at home. Exacerbating this dead loss is the fact that these missions have only served to siphon critical resources away from the development of Japan’s domestic defense capabilities.

In sum, Japan’s self-defense policy appears directionless, with policymakers seemingly not knowing where best to focus the government’s efforts. With a new political party in control, an emboldened China, a sabre-rattling North Korea, and an increasingly impatient US, the Japanese need to get their act together and demonstrate some decisiveness about their desired defense posture. Currently it is a hodge-podge of components that together do not make an impressive statement. The new government must also find a way to move the Japanese citizenry past the fear and pacifism that shackle Tokyo’s ability to increase its military capability. Only with these two obstacles behind them will the Japanese be able to support the US-Japan alliance in a meaningful way.

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