A New Type of U.S.-Japan Relations

Sino-American ties are not the only relations that are changing in the region.

At 9:30 AM on April 28, 1952 the U.S.-Japan alliance stood up as the U.S. occupation of Japan stood down. At the end of this month, the U.S.-Japan alliance will step up as Japan steps out as a more normal state, capable of both defending itself and others.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s address to a joint session of Congress on April 29 should go down in history as a day of glory, not of infamy. Some serious critics will remain dissatisfied over perceived historical revisionism. Yet the fact will remain that the biggest antagonists in the Pacific War have forged a prosperous postwar system and a vigorous alliance. When the Prime Minister speaks to a full house of Senators and Representatives, he can be expected to offer humble remorse for the past, quiet pride in Japan’s remarkable seven-decade-long contribution to global order, and a roadmap for how the alliance can perpetuate a rules-based system well into the 21st century.

The latest evolution of the alliance will be encapsulated in new defense guidelines issued on the eve of the oration, which will be delivered in English. To be sure, the guidelines document itself will be unremarkable. Twenty-five pages of prose written by a bureaucratic committee describing allied roles and missions are not meant to be Shakespearean. Those seeking a coherent statement of strategic clarity will also be disappointed. Nonetheless, the guidelines will provide a gateway to an unprecedented degree of alliance capacity, comprehensiveness, and coordination.

In short, the new guidelines will mark a milestone along the path of converting a relationship between a victor and the vanquished into a mature security partnership between the world’s two richest democracies, capable of acting swiftly and in concert to address a full array of contingencies, from humanitarian disaster to war.

Although Japan’s search for an independent identity is longstanding, Prime Minister Abe has reified that identity and accelerated that quest. He has prevailed within his Liberal Democratic Party and seems likely to bring along his pacifist-minded Komeito ruling coalition partner by retaining Japan’s inherent defensive posture while simultaneously putting Japan on an equal footing with other major powers.

Many Japanese reasonably assume their contributions to international security deserve as much respect as those of other powers. When these Japanese reflect on the conceit of some Great Powers who assume that might makes right, and that the rule of law applies only to others, they can see the difference that democratic Japan can make.

Yet many Japanese also sense a perhaps equally gnawing fear that Japan could find itself marginalized on the world stage. It would not have been possible for Abe to advance a “proactive” contribution to peace without a widely shared assessment that the security environment in Northeast Asia is deteriorating, not least because of the uncertainty created by China’s rapid rise and growing assertiveness. Doubling down on the alliance with the United States while building up Japan’s national capabilities are the byproduct of this assessment.

It is necessary to undertake a quick review of the alliance’s two treaties and two previous sets of defense guidelines before briefly discussing the significant features of this new, third set of defense guidelines.

Although Japan surrendered to the United States on September 2, 1945, peace between the former foes did not become official until April 28, 1952, when the San Francisco Peace Treaty signed the previous September took effect. This original alliance agreement was necessarily provisional, recognizing that Japan had been disarmed and was therefore incapable of exercising effective right of self-defense.

Eight years alter, the 1960 U.S.-Japan treaty (formally, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America) took into account a more equal partnership, albeit one in which the division of labor was complimentary but utterly different (viz., Japanese bases for American defense).

The 1960 treaty is a model of concision and can be summarized in a single paragraph. The allies pledge to uphold the United Nations Charter, to settle international disputes peacefully, and to refrain from “the use of force against the territorial integrity of political independence of any state.” Both vow to strengthen “free institutions” and promote “stability and well-being.” “By means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid [the allies] will maintain and develop…their capacities to resist armed attack.” They will consult regularly “whenever the security of Japan or international peace and security in the Far East is threatened.” The treaty’s famous Article V clause stipulates that each “recognizes that an armed attack…in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous…and declares that it would act to meet the common danger….” Finally, U.S. forces would gain access to land, air, and naval bases, the terms of which would be governed by a separate agreement.

The alliance framework has held up all these decades, but periodic guidelines have been drafted to help define the roles and missions of the two allies.

The first set of guidelines, in 1978, was essential to modify roles in missions in light of a dramatically altered security environment.