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Paths Diverging? The Next Decade in the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance

Authored by LTC William E. Rapp. | January 2004

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Although the United States is the sole superpower in the world, it increasingly faces an objectives-means shortfall in attaining its global interests unilaterally. Sustaining its engagement in the far reaches of the world requires the partnership of capable, willing and like-minded states. In the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance will remain vital to achieving both countries? national interests in the next 2 decades because of a lack of strategic options, though the commitment of both partners is likely to be sorely tested. Should conditions arise that give either the United States or Japan a viable alternative to advance stability and national interests, the alliance could be in doubt.

Having depended on the United States for security for over 50 years, Japan is now actively trying to chart its new path for the future. Japan is in the midst of a fundamental reexamination of its security policy and its role in international relations that will have a dramatic impact on East Asia and the Pacific. Within Japan, many see the traditional means of security policy as being out of balance and vulnerable in the post-Cold War environment. The triad of economic diplomacy, engagement with international organizations, and a minimalist military posture predicated on a capable self-defense force with American guarantees of protection, heavily weighted toward economic diplomacy, is not seen by the Japanese to be adequately achieving the national interests and influence that country seeks.

Regardless of the more realist imperatives, Japan remains deeply ambivalent toward security expansion. However, despite domestic restraints, Japan will continue slowly and incrementally to remove the shackles on its military security policy. Attitudinal barriers, such as pacifism, anti-militarism, security insulation, and desire for consensus combine with institutional barriers, like coalition politics, lack of budget space, and entrenched bureaucracy, to confound rapid shifts in security policy, though those changes will eventually occur.

The ambivalence Japan feels clouds the ideal path to the future for the nation in trying to find a way forward among competing goals of preventing either entrapment or abandonment by the United States and pursuing self-interest. Because Japan is risk-averse, but increasingly self-aware, dramatic (in Japanese terms) security policy changes will continue to be made in small, but cumulative steps. These changes in security policy and public acquiescence to them will create pressure on the alliance to reduce asymmetries and offensive burdens since the ideal, long-term security future for Japan does not rely on the current role vis-à-vis the United States. Both Japan and the United States must move out of their comfort zones to create a more balanced relationship that involves substantial consultation and policy accommodation, a greater risk-taking Japanese role in the maintenance of peace and stability of the region, and coordinated action to resolve conflicts and promote prosperity in the region.

Because neither country has a viable alternative to the alliance for the promotion of security and national interests in the region, especially given the uncertainties of the future trends in China and the Korean Peninsula, for the next couple of decades the alliance will remain central to achieving the interests of both Japan and the United States. A more symmetrical alliance can be a positive force for regional stability and prosperity in areas of engagement of China, proactive shaping of the security environment, the protection of maritime commerce routes, and the countering of weapons proliferation, terrorism, and drug trafficking. Without substantive change, though, the centrality of the alliance will diminish as strategic alternatives develop for either the United States or Japan.


The United States and Japan face a tremendously important, strategic decision in the coming 10 years about the security future in Northeast Asia and the changing role of the alliance. Should the alliance substantively strengthen into a more outward looking alliance, or maintain the status quo and muddle on and thus become simply one of several strategies each nation uses to ensure its security interests are met?

Several critical subordinate decisions on the part of both the United States and Japan are coming within the next decade that will indicate the direction the alliance will take. First, the Japanese must decide whether or not to accept the stationing of the nuclear powered USS Carl Vinson as the replacement for the USS Kittyhawk at Yokosuka Naval Base in the next couple of years. If the Japanese play the ?nuclear card? and balk at the Carl Vinson, then the Seventh Fleet will be forced to find an alternative anchorage for that carrier battle group?a move that will have dramatically negative effects on the alliance. Second, the Japanese will need to decide if they will field an integrated or stand alone BMD capability. Since a ballistic missile strike on Hawaii from either North Korea or China would pass over Japan, the decision not to pursue collective defense and thus allow passage of the missile by the Japanese would end the alliance. Third, the status of basing in Okinawa, the renegotiation of the Status of Forces Agreement, and the renegotiation of host nation support arrangements will strongly indicate the future centrality of the alliance for both countries. Although I argue that some USMC presence in Okinawa should be withdrawn for symbolic reasons, a demand for full withdrawal of the Marines on the island would force an alternative grand Asian security plan on the United States. These future decisions are good weathervanes for determining the future path of the alliance.

Although the initiative for acceptance of a greater role in the alliance lies largely with Japan, the United States has a considerable number of policy options that can enhance the alliance, allay Japanese fears, and carefully push this critical ally toward a more active role in international security?a strategy that if adroitly managed will decrease American requirements for security action in the region. Some important policy recommendations are:

  • Push combined ballistic missile development and fielding in a manner that requires Japan to resolve its political dilemma on collective defense without overtly practicing gaiatsu (foreign pressure.)
  • Mirror Japanese emergency legislation and increase in SDF roles with substantively increased bilateral command, control, and consultation mechanisms in Japan, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) headquarters, and in the Pentagon.
  • Understand that Japan is in the midst of a fundamental debate on the role of the JDA in its own security and Japan?s role in the larger global stage and continue to appoint top officials and enact policies that recognize the delicate nature of this debate.
  • Avoid perceptions of blatant security unilateralism that will markedly increase the Japanese fear of entanglement in a potential conflict outside their interests.
  • Continue the Bush administration practice of frequent high level consultations with Japan so as to emphasize to both Japanese and Asian audiences the importance the United States places on the relationship.
  • Earnestly address Japanese concerns with the Status of Forces Agreement and make a substantive, though largely symbolic, withdrawal of some portion of the USMC presence in Okinawa. Move two infantry battalions to alternative basing sites in Asia.
  • If and when Japan ?legalizes? its armed forces, make a highly public recognition of the legitimacy of that act for Asian audiences.
  • Work through or create a fabric of multilateral institutions to enhance security transparency in Asia and create opportunities for collective action on regional issues.
  • Hedge against a divergent path future and seek alternative basing and military access arrangements in East and Southeast Asia.

Regardless of tactical irritants that come with close contact between states on myriad levels, the long-term strategic future of both nations is best served by a vital and responsive alliance. As Secretary Powell said at the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the alliance in September 2001,

I am firmly convinced that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and our alliance will be just as critical to peace and prosperity in Asia for the next 50 years as it has been in the last 50 years. The diplomats who crafted both the Peace Treaty and the U.S-Japan Security Treaty left us a lasting and valuable legacy. It is up to us to build on that legacy and work hard to keep the peace.215

The alliance between the United States and Japan is vital to the future interests of both nations and to the peace, prosperity, and human progress in East Asia. It can and must be more than it is at present. The failure of either country to recognize and act upon this need for change in order to avoid the divergence of strategic paths will have a significant future impact on the peace and stability of Northeast Asia.


215. Secretary Colin Powell, Remarks at Ceremony Commemorating the Signing of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, The Golden Gate Club at the Presidio, San Francisco, CA, September 8, 2001.