GLOCOM Platform
Debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books & Journals
Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (January 26, 2004)

Japan-U.S. alliance should be balanced

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

Much attention has been paid to Japan's recent steps toward becoming a "normal" nation, culminating in last month's decision to dispatch Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq and undertake an ambitious missile defense system. Although these measures are of obvious significance, they also mark another important aspect of Japan's changing defense posture: an even closer strategic alignment with the United States.

The closer alignment between Japan and the United States is a positive development, particularly in light of security challenges such as the ongoing crisis with North Korea. But both allies must recognize that an ever deepening alignment with the United States may ultimately interfere with Japan's quest to become a more normal nation.

Japan is arguably now a closer ally to the United States than at any time during the Cold War. In the past, however, Tokyo was willing to distance itself from Washington on policy differences, from the Vietnam War to engagement with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries during the oil crises of the early 1970s.

Now, under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's leadership, Japan is virtually an unquestioning partner of the United States. Tokyo has shown full support for Washington in the most controversial and divisive U.S. foreign policy initiative since the Vietnam War: the military overthrow of the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Koizumi has also signed on to U.S. President George W. Bush's hard-line approach toward North Korea.

Some observers point out the remarkable rapport between Koizumi and Bush as the basis for Japan's reinvigorated friendship with the United States. However, it is Japan's current security outlook that best explains the remarkable solidarity now shown in U.S.-Japan alliance relations.

International relations theory stipulates that alliances commonly face two dynamics: the fear of entrapment and fear of abandonment. The fear of entrapment occurs when one ally resists siding with another ally to avoid becoming involved in an unwanted conflict, such as when Japan set limitations on its cooperation with the United States during the Vietnam War.

On the other hand, the fear of abandonment occurs when a nation believes its ally may abandon it in the face of potential threats. The natural response in this scenario is for the nation to placate the other ally in order to maintain a close alliance.

By every indication, Japan appears to be operating under the latter, fear of abandonment, scenario. With its now defunct strategy of looking to the United Nations, other multilateral institutions and its own soft power for security, Japan is acutely aware of its vulnerability without a robust alliance with the United States.

Japan has responded to this situation by moving closer to the United States and taking on greater defense responsibilities within the bilateral alliance framework--thus explaining Koizumi's bold measures over the past three years to support the United States.

These measures have simultaneously served to move Japan away from its rigid pacifist stance and toward becoming a more "normal" nation in the future---that is, one that may someday exercise collective self-defense and take an active role in international security contingencies.

Nevertheless, Japan may be setting itself up for a security dilemma in the long run. Even as Japan takes steps toward becoming a normal nation, it is doing so almost entirely under the aegis of the alliance with the United States.

Indeed, the historic steps that Japan has taken over the past several years to transform its defense posture have all been in support of U.S. initiatives: first, with the 2002 dispatch of the Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Indian Ocean to support the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign, and now with the dispatch of SDF to Iraq as part of the postwar reconstruction effort. In addition, Japan's plan to deploy U.S.-built PAC-3 and sea-based missile defense systems by 2007 is a further commitment toward joint operability with U.S. command and control structures.

Thus with each step toward a more normal defense posture, Japan has become inextricably linked to U.S. security initiatives. That is not to criticize Japan's recent contributions to the alliance or suggest that they have not improved the nation's security outlook for the time being.

But if in fact these measures were taken under the pretext that Japan might be abandoned by the United States if it failed to do so, then it is a troubling trend for the long term. For at some point, Japan must reconcile the fact that the road toward normalcy is not led by an overriding fear of alliance abandonment--nor, for that matter, by a similar fear of entrapment. Rather, any so-called normal ally is one that can strike a balance between both factors as it pursues its national interests.

(This commentary first appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, January 23, 2004)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications