A Plea for Normalcy

A Plea for Normalcy

Mini Teaser: Given its competing commitments, Washington must reduce its military patronage. Japan, with its economic strength, must fortify capabilities.

by Author(s): Christopher A. Preble

The United States and Japan have cooperated to address East Asian security issues for many years, and the relationship continues to evolve. Policymakers in Tokyo have grown more confident and assertive. By refining the concept of "self-defense", they have redefined the uses of military force that are considered legitimate under Japan's officially pacifist constitution. These are useful changes, but they have not fundamentally altered the character of the relationship as one between a dominant security patron, the United States, and a vulnerable client, Japan. Washington and Tokyo must work harder to establish Japan as a nation responsible for its own security and capable of assuming a wider strategic role in East Asia.

Outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has set the stage for this transition, strengthening the ties between the United States and Japan, while also carving out a unique role for Japan that could expand in the near future. The prime minister has been one of the Bush Administration's most enthusiastic supporters. In the wake of 9/11, he dispatched Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) ships to the Indian Ocean in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In late 2003, Japan sent over 500 members of the ground JSDF to Iraq--the first such deployment of Japanese personnel to a conflict zone since the end of World War II. These two signature foreign policy initiatives enjoyed only lukewarm support among the Japanese public, but Koizumi's popularity provided him with the necessary latitude to largely define Japan's new security role. His successor will almost certainly lack Koizumi's charisma, and will therefore suffer by comparison; but notwithstanding this handicap, the next prime minister is likely to continue to move Japanese politics, and especially Japan's foreign policy, along the trajectory established by the flamboyant Koizumi.

This prospect worries many in East Asia, where people, especially in China and Korea, fear that Japanese assertiveness is a manifestation of, or a precursor to, Japanese nationalism, or even revanchism. Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine seem to fit a pattern whereby Japan plays down the gravity of the Imperial Army's abuses during World War II. In another well-publicized instance, a controversy over several Japanese textbooks that overlook Japan's past conduct has contributed to a sense in Asia, particularly in Korea and China, that some Japanese have not fully accepted guilt for the war.

But Japan's emergence as a regional power is welcomed in Washington, where the focus is on burden sharing. So Koizumi's successor will have to strike a delicate balance--satisfying American requests for Japan to become a more active player in regional security while assuaging concerns in key East Asian countries that a greater strategic role for Japan does not pose a threat to their national security.

Burden Sharing, Burden Shedding

Despite the popular conception of Japan as a "pacifist" country that is constitutionally required by Article 9 to pursue a peaceful foreign policy, the Japanese boast one of the most capable militaries on the planet. Japan's defense expenditures trail those of the United States, China and the United Kingdom, but are nearly equivalent to France's military budget. Japan spends more than Russia and more than twice as much as India, the country often seen as a rising power (and a prospective U.S. strategic ally) in the region.

While Japan's budget deficits have been the focus of recent attention, the burden of its defense expenditures is not any greater than that born by other liberal democratic states facing a demographic crunch. Japanese per capita defense spending is comparable to that of Germany and South Korea. Citizens in the United Kingdom pay more than twice as much per person, as do the French. In other words, Japan's defense spending could be expanded if changing strategic circumstances so dictated.

The budgetary costs tell only part of the story. For example, the deployment of U.S. troops in Japan does not pose much of a financial burden to the United States, particularly when considered relative to total U.S. defense spending. Japanese host-nation support covers about 75 percent of the costs of keeping U.S. forces in Japan. Japan claims to pay the United States about $150,000 per U.S. service member on its soil.

 But monetary compensation, even if it covered 100 percent of the costs of the troops in question, cannot account for the risks that the United States absorbs through its military presence in Japan and the security guarantee extended to the Japanese. The United States is not in the business of contracting out security services to foreign countries, nor should it be.

If the United States is to focus on a few areas of particular concern related to the War on Terror, especially the Middle East, then U.S. policymakers must seek ways to quietly devolve security responsibilities to wealthy, stable, democratic allies. Japan is at the top of that list. The object of U.S.-Japanese strategic relations should be a more equitable distribution of the burdens of defense between the two allies, with each assuming primary responsibility for its most urgent security interests.

Japan's interests in East Asia greatly exceed those of the United States. Japanese businesses have developed extensive economic ties in the region, and Japanese citizens value friendly, peaceful relations with their Asian neighbors. They are also mindful of potential threats. North Korea's nuclear program, and its ongoing missile development, is an urgent concern. According to some polls, the Japanese public is impatient with the Koizumi government for having not taken a harder line against Kim Jong-il.

Then there is Taiwan. The island is less than 175 miles west of Ishigaki, the southernmost island in the Japanese archipelago, and it sits astride crucial sea-lanes. Military conflict there would disrupt the free flow of raw materials and goods to and from Japan. A Chinese takeover of Taiwan would likely alter the strategic balance in East Asia. Thus, it is not surprising that Japan cares greatly about the ongoing dispute between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan.

Japan is well positioned to address the myriad security challenges in East Asia. Its existing capacity for projecting military power beyond its shores is considerable, and could be expanded. Because of Japan's deep and abiding interest in continued peace in the region, and because it has more at stake in the region than the United States, Japan should increasingly take the lead, with the United States moving into a secondary and supporting role.

A Normal Relationship?

To its credit, the Bush Administration has encouraged a more assertive stance on the part of the Japanese government. Although regional fears of a resurgent Japan cannot and should not be dismissed entirely, both the United States and Japan have made some progress in efforts to establish Japan as an independent pole of power in East Asia, a "normal country" that is no longer dependent on a distant patron for its defense. But this process is far from complete, and today Japan's dependency upon the United States alters the public debate, with politicians generating support--or circumventing opposition--by tapping into a feeling of vulnerability.

Consider, for example, the very different circumstances surrounding the first and second Gulf Wars. In 1990, when President George H. W. Bush was assembling an international coalition to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the Japanese took a pass. Facing a public that was unalterably opposed to military participation in the conflict, Tokyo was initially unwilling to make even a serious financial contribution. They ultimately relented, in part due to pressure from the U.S. Congress, providing $13 billion to the war effort.

Twelve years later, Saddam Hussein's Iraq posed no greater threat to Japan than it had in the earlier period. But the second time around, Japan's leaders--and particularly Prime Minister Koizumi--were anxious to prove their loyalty to the United States. "When the United States, an absolutely invaluable ally of our country, is sacrificing itself", the prime minister explained, "it is natural for our country to back the move as much as possible."

The Bush Administration framed the JSDF deployment to Iraq in similar terms. Then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in June 2003 that it was essential that Japan be seen as standing side-by-side with the United States in the War on Terror, and expressed his hope that Japan would decide to put "boots on the ground" in Iraq. Tokyo's primary interest, it could easily be interpreted, was not in bringing stability to Iraq, per se, but rather in maintaining good relations with the United States.

While a majority of Japanese disapproved of the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, opposition to their government's support of postwar reconstruction was far more muted. Koizumi even managed to stare down public opposition in December 2005, when he extended the legislative mandate for the Japanese troops in Iraq. The Iraq deployment has not been a dominant issue in the minds of most Japanese voters. Even so, a smart politician knows when not to push his luck: Koizumi announced in June that the Japanese contingent would be withdrawn from Iraq, and all JSDF personnel were pulled out in July.

Essay Types: Essay