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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (October 27, 2003)

Japan-U.S. alliance faces an identity crisis

Weston S. Konishi (Senior Research and Program Officer, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation)

U.S. President George Bush's brief visit to Japan last week provided an opportunity for the president to praise Japan for its recent support of U.S. policy in Iraq. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has pledged $1.5 billion in aid as well as a deployment of Self-Defense Forces to support reconstruction efforts in the war torn nation. The SDF deployment is the latest plan Japan has taken since 2001 to provide military support for U.S.-led operations in Iraq and the ongoing war on terror.

Despite these unprecedented measures, there is a sense that the current positive trend in bilateral defense cooperation has been made on a reactive, ad hoc basis - without a clear strategic vision or plan in place. No one can doubt that the Japan-U.S. alliance is on track, but the direction of that track is far from clear.

Indeed, even as the Middle East is becoming the staging ground for rapid developments in alliance cooperation, the hard question of where the Pacific alliance fits in the long term Middle East equation is not being asked.

The Japan-U.S. alliance risks facing a similar identity crisis that it had throughout the 1990s. The alliance was then considered adrift in the post-cold war security environment, losing focus and direction in the absence of a Soviet rival.

Ironically, the war on terror sidelined what was to be the anecdote for alliance drift: the 2000 Armitage-Nye report. The report, co-authored by current U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, outlined a blueprint for bilateral strategic relations, with Japan being the vanguard ally, no less, in containing China's rise as a regional and global power.

Circumstances have changed dramatically since the terrorist attacks on 9/11. China's preeminence as the number one security concern for Washington has been supplanted by the threat of terrorism and the precariousness of postwar Iraq. Japan, at the forefront of U.S. strategic plans three years ago, is now merely a peripheral member of the "coalition of the willing."

Japan has done an admirable enough job responding to its new role as a member of this coalition. President Bush's gratitude for Japan is echoed among uniformed U.S. officers, who praise Japan's dispatch of naval vessels in the Indian Ocean and pending deployment of troops to Iraq.

But Japan's downgrade from vanguard to peripheral ally has not been followed by a corresponding review of bilateral strategic relations. As with many other members of the coalition of the willing, Washington has been vague about its expectations of allies in the field - stating in public that it is up to the allies themselves to determine what they will contribute.

Certainly, U.S. allies must have the prerogative to determine what they will contribute but the bottom line is that Washington is calling the shots in coalition operations. Its reticence to spell out expectations of allied support has only led to confusion.

This is no less the case with Japan. Bush administration officials, including Armitage, have rhetorically called for Tokyo to "show the flag" in Afghanistan, "put boots on the ground" and provide "generous" economic aid in Iraq, but have avoided public requests for specific contributions - presumably so that U.S. demands do not become lightening rod political issues in Japan. It is hard to blame the Bush administration for avoiding controversy in Japan, especially if it wants to shield Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi from political opposition. Yet setting the alliance on autopilot, without a clear set of objectives or a corresponding direction, seems equally dangerous in the long run.

One potential problem is that the alliance may suffer from unrealistic expectations. Brad Glosserman, of the Pacific Forum CSIS, believes that Japan's recent military contributions have raised U.S. expectations to unsustainable levels and that Tokyo has neither the will nor ability to continue propitiating Washington. The alliance may rupture, Glosserman argues, if Tokyo does not live up to the Washington's implicit requests.

Although less severe, frustrations have already emerged among defense officials in the United States. Tokyo's dithering over the SDF deployment to Iraq has tested the otherwise amicable ties between U.S. and Japanese defense officials, according to a SDF officer involved in a recent fact-finding mission to Iraq.

Tensions in the bilateral alliance have thus far been contained at the working level and have not perceptibly risen to the political sphere. But all this could change rapidly if lawmakers in Tokyo and Washington develop opposing impressions of the purpose and direction of bilateral defense cooperation in the field.

Several steps could be taken to stave off future misunderstandings and provide a clearer direction for Japan-U.S. alliance cooperation.

First, a new strategic review, similar to the Armitage-Nye report, should be launched in order to take the post-9/11 security paradigm into account. Many of the recommendations made in 2000 still hold true and do not require adjustments, such as the need to enhance bilateral intelligence sharing and improve joint coordination between the two forces.

However, it is critical that Japan and the United States develop a new blueprint for strategic cooperation, especially as the allies increasingly operate in regions beyond the Asia-Pacific.

Among some of the important issues that must be clearly defined is where Japan - and by extension the bilateral alliance with the United States - fits in the reshaping of the Middle East. Further definition should be given to Japan's role in the coalition of the willing and how it will evolve in the future. And both allies need to give serious thought to how enhanced bilateral cooperation in the Middle East will impact their more tradition security roles in Northeast Asia.

Second, both allies should review the implementation of their Defense Guidelines in light of new contingencies in the war on terror and extra-regional operations. The 1978 and 1997 Guidelines addressed the defense of Japan as well as "areas surrounding Japan," and are now loosely applied as the basis for Japan's military deployments in the Indian Ocean and Iraq.

Yet the nature of the threat and the extent of Japan's security commitments have changed dramatically since the last Guidelines review; Japan is embarking on missions beyond the strict scope of previous security frameworks. Both allies need to flesh out how the Guidelines can be implemented to reflect current needs, such as planning for joint anti-terror operations and post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

The Japan-U.S. alliance has proven to be remarkably flexible. Two years ago, it was hardly imaginable that Japan would be working side by side with U.S. forces in the most dangerous regions in the world. Flexibility was certainly the key ingredient of this cooperation. But flexibility can soon lead to aimlessness. And aimlessness is not what Japan and the United States should make of their recent progress in defense cooperation.

(This commentary first appeared in the Washington Japanwatch section of The Daily Yomiuri, October 23, 2003)

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