It is Time to Talk Honestly About the U.S.-Japanese Alliance

Image source: “The New Cold War: China vs. Japan,” The Diplomat (25 January 2014)

Peter Lee, who writes columns for Asia Times Online, International Policy Digest, and Counterpunch, is one of the more astute observers of East Asian affairs I have the pleasure to read. He is also a staunch contrarian whose columns are almost always devoted to tearing down the  standard narratives American analysts rely on to make sense of Asian geopolitics. I often disagree with Mr. Lee’s take on things (and sometimes find his tone a tad exasperating), but I have gained a great deal from taking his arguments seriously.

 Last week Lee published a lengthy thought-dump on his personal blog about China’s current security environment and the growing militarization of both China’s international disputes and internal conflicts. The entire post is worth reading and I strongly recommend that you do so. It is long, however, and in this post I focus on only on the section that deals with Japan. Therein Lee expresses perfectly why I–in contrast to most other Americans writing about Asian great power politics–have found Tokyo’s decision to “reinterpret” Article 9 to be an unsettling development. To quote:

I find the US obsession with “CSD”—the idea that Japanese military forces must engage in war stuff not directly related to defense of the Japanese homeland—somewhat mystifying.  Apparently, Pentagon planners are getting extremely nervous about the arms buildup in Asia—which tracks GDP growth and, therefore, is getting pretty darn big—and its implications for US military hegemony. 

The idea is to combine US and Japanese muscle and field a bigger, more deterrent-credible force (in fact, I wonder if AirSea Battle—the total war with the PRC from the Malacca Straits up to Hokkaido scenario—was cooked up simply to demonstrate the impossibility of the US funding and implementing a completely dominant force in Asia by itself).
Japan is supposed to contribute its local strengths in minesweeping, anti-submarine warfare, and aerial surveillance, at least in the initial stage.
I guess the idea was “Japan can’t be a freerider anymore and needs to have some skin in the Asia-Pacific security game”.
Well, as far as I can tell, Japan under so-called “pacifist” constitution already had plenty of skin in the game—because it seems most credible US-PRC WWIII scenarios all involve US bases on Honshu and, in particular, long-suffering Okinawa, getting nuked.
That’s an agency problem—people on the same team but bringing divergent objectives–a problem the US avoided when it ran the military show unilaterally.  Now, by trying to integrate Japanese forces into the US command, we’re giving an operational voice to people who face an immediate threat of getting blown up during the implementation of our grand strategy.  Collective self-defense, to my mind, complicates and compromises the US deterrent posture.
In my opinion, if we feel we need to field more minesweepers and ASW and Orions to deter the Chicom menace, we should pay for them ourselves instead of hoping for a perfect understanding with our Japanese allies if and when World War III rolls around.
The agency problem has already revealed itself with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to re-establish Japan as a “normal” nation i.e. not constrained by the pacifist constitution imposed by the US after Japan’s defeat in World War II and able to necessary/useful/useless/and/or catastrophically stupid things in the realm of security affairs, just like any other regional power.
CSD—since it permitted the Japanese military to abandon a pure territorial-defense posture—was embraced by the Abe administration. The Abe administration swung behind CSD and sold it—rather unsuccessfully, I should say, to an extremely skeptical Japanese public—with fanciful justifications like “without CSD Japan couldn’t shoot down a North Korean ballistic missile headed for the United States”.
Actually, the genuine attraction of CSD is that it allows Japan to pursue military relationships with neighboring countries i.e. implement a full-feature foreign policy including defense and security elements as well as the economic and other soft power carrots that sustained Japan’s regional presence over the last half-century.
And these foreign policy tools also allow Prime Minister Abe to pursue his preferred regional strategy—exacerbating tensions with the PRC just enough to push the Pacific democracies plus Vietnam away from the PRC and onto the Japanese security and, most importantly, economic side of a zero-sum equation.
Abe, it should be noted, is no America-firster. Like many Japanese conservatives, he rejects the World War II victor’s narrative and, like Putin, considers his nation’s diminished international clout as a tragedy and not a matter of geopolitical justice.  In his US preferences, Abe is politically and emotionally inclined toward the Dick Cheney end of the ideological spectrum and does not consider it his main obligation and mission to smooth the way for Barack Obama in Asia.  He’s looking out for Number 1—Japan—and caters to—and exploits—US preoccupations accordingly.
For those who pay attention, the CSD shoe dropped in July, as Japan’s ambassador to the Philippines addressed the significance of the cabinet decision that “reinterpreted” the constitution to allow CSD:
Japan’s ambassador to the Philippines, Toshinao Urabe, says the proposed “reinterpretation” of Japan’s pacifist constitution would allow it to help if a country it has a “close relationship” with is attacked.

This means it would help defend the U.S., which is its only mutual defense treaty ally.  Urabe said under the treaty, Japan is not obligated to use force in helping.  The reinterpretation would enable it to do so.

But Urabe told reporters at a forum in Manila Thursday that in the case of other countries like the Philippines, which he said Japan also has a close relationship with, it would “depend on the situation.”  He said Japan is most concerned with protecting its nationals if they are in vulnerable security situations.

….There you have it.  Instead of a unitary hub and spoke arrangement by which the United States, as the big kahuna, manages its ROK, Japan, and Philippines alliances bilaterally and monopolizes the Asian security space, CSD lays the foundation for a dual-hub system by which Japan constructs its own security arrangements with the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, and India in order to advance its own diplomatic, security, and economic agenda in Asia…which may involve working with Japan’s local interlocutors to accentuate the polarity between the PRC and its neighbors even when the United States for reasons of its own might be trying to wind down tensions.
CSD, in other words, accelerates the marginalization of the United States, rather than assuring its ascendancy.  So, I don’t think the US foreign policy establishment should be slapping itself on the back for its great job in finally getting CSD on the books. (Emphasis added[1]

Part of the problem here is that very few Americans are willing to look at the nature of the U.S.-Japanese alliance honestly. We may speak of America’s relations with Japan in terms of ‘friendship,’ ‘partnership,’ and other jolly words of that sort, but the cold reality is that the structure and conditions of the U.S.-Japanese alliance set up in the wake of World War II were not imposed upon Japan to protect it but to control it. Kenneth Pyle made a similar point in an interview with Dispatch Japan last month:

DISPATCH JAPAN: You have long argued that Japan’s defeat in World War II, and the subsequent Yoshida Doctrine, put Japan in an unnatural, subordinate position vis a vis the US. To what extent is the new collective self-defense policy a reflection of Japan emerging from that status? In other words, a Japan defeated after World War II now asserting a new identity.

PYLE: For conservatives in Japan, the entire postwar order has been a bitter pill. The US-Japan alliance was signed while we Americans still had over 200,000 troops in Japan. It was a price that Yoshida and other Japanese leaders at the time had to pay to end the US Occupation. It is easy to forget those circumstances, but they remain a factor in debates in Japan these days.

Remember: John Foster Dulles said to one of his aides: The 1952 security treaty amounted to Japan voluntarily accepting continuation of the Occupation.

The US has subordinated Japan. This is unique within the American-led, postwar order. The alliance has been a tool to manage and control Japan, as much as anything else.

I think we, Americans in general, have a weak self-awareness of the roots of our postwar relationship with Japan.

We tend to make it sentimental, calling it a “partnership.” Ambassador Reischauer liked to call it an “equal partnership.”

Of course, it has never been an equal partnership.

For Japanese conservative elites, going back to the Meiji Restoration, the goal has always been national autonomy. That has been a goal of modern Japan from the beginning.

The unequal nature of the alliance has bothered conservatives in Japan, and now Abe, for a long time.
In general, Japanese leaders of all sorts want a much more equal alliance, with much more autonomy for Japan in the making of foreign policy. Americans should not see this as unusual. It is quite natural that an independent country would want to have its full sovereignty. (Emphasis added) [2]

This needs to be remembered when we discuss the revision of Japan’s constitution or the more prominent role we wished Japan played in the region’s “Collective Self Defense.”  American analysts tend to see these things as necessary changes that will help the American led alliance muster the military heft it needs to balance China’s growing power. But it is not clear that these changes will do anything of the sort. The old constitutional order did not stop Japan from modernizing its Naval forces or selling military technology and armaments to regional allies. These changes do not increase Japan’s industrial capacity or require a larger percentage of Japan’s GDP to be used for military purposes. And as Peter Lee notes above, the mere presence of the 23 American military bases in Japan (and the 50,000 Americans stationed there) guarantees that Japan will be embroiled in any conflict between America and China from the get-go. 

The piece-meal dismantling of the post-war security order does not automatically lead to greater military strength. What it does lead to is greater Japanese autonomy in both its foreign policy and self defense. This is the most important consequence of Shinzo Abe and co.’s reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution. When Americans celebrate this move–or any other baby-step Japan takes away from the old post-war system–they are celebrating the surrender of American control over the alliance.

In the long run such a transition is probably inevitable. It may be that if the matter was put to intense debate and discussion all would eventually agree that American interests are best served and regional stability best preserved by freeing Japan from American control. But this discussion has not happened. Debates have raged about how the United States should respond to China’s rise and how the United States can leverage Japanese power to deter Chinese aggression, but no one seems interested in slowing down and thinking about the consequences of doing so. 

It may seem rude and impolitic to speak of a a close ally with such frankness, but it must be done. Once abandoned the post-war security order will not be reborn. The decision to consign it to the ash-bin of history deserves far greater discussion and thought than the chattering classes have yet given it.


[1] Peter Lee, “When You’ve Got a Military Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail, US-China EditionChina Matters (6 August 2014). The article he quotes is, Simone Orendain, ” Japan Outlines Constitutional Change Change Impact“, Voice of America News (17 July 2014).

[2] Peter Ennis, “Kenneth Pyle: ‘Japan seeks sovereignty’,Japan Dispatch (7 July 2014).

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