Japan and the U.S.: It's Time to Rethink Your Relationship

Their Cold War-era alliance is outdated. How can they build a security agreement for a new century?


Issei Kato/Reuters

Fifty-two years ago, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Forged just 15 years after a brutal, racially charged war between the two nations, the treaty was an exercise in realpolitik. It was written with an eye toward not only Japan's security but the containment of communism across Asia. The U.S.-Japan alliance is credited with nipping a resurgent Japanese militarism in the bud, providing a backbone of stability for postwar Asia, and giving the United States a base from which to confront China, Russia, and its satellites.

Today, Japan has fully recovered from the war to become the third-largest economy in the world. The threat of communism has evaporated. Yet despite the alliance's past successes, it's hard to conclude that it continues to serve the United States and Japan well. The alliance freezes the relationship in time, forcing both to adhere to antiquated policies. It views the regional security environment through a Cold War lens, distorting how other countries are perceived. Perhaps most importantly, it prevents Japan from evolving into a modern state and accepting the responsibilities that come with it.

It's accordingly time to shelve the old security agreement between America and Japan. Replacing it should be a new agreement in which both countries share equal responsibilities and the Japanese people are encouraged to take on a greater role worldwide. Scrapping the old treaty and replacing it with a new one would make the alliance -- and the security of both countries -- even stronger than before.

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With a single sentence, Article 9 of the Japanese constitution turned Japan into a pacifist country. "The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." Written by Americans and signed by Japan in 1947, the constitution forbids the island nation from maintaining a military and using force to achieve political goals. In the place of armed forces were "self-defense forces," an organization of essentially civil servants armed with defensive weapons.

Japan's limited offensive capabilities meant it needed the United States for additional support, which came in the form of an official alliance ushered in in 1960. The mutual security treaty cemented a permanent security relationship between the two countries. It's unique among bilateral treaties in that it gives each party separate responsibilities. The United States pledged to defend Japan from the communist threat, and in return, Japan granted it use of Japanese territory as a base for "maintenance of the peace and security of the Far East." Unlike NATO, there is little reciprocity: Japan is not obligated to defend American territory.

The security alliance with the United States is the best strategic decision Japan made since it opened to the West in the nineteenth century. Postwar Japan, restyled as an exporter of consumer goods, signed a security treaty with the one country that could sever -- or guarantee -- sea and air links with the outside world. The alliance with the United States meant flows of raw materials and energy in, and finished goods out, would be unimpeded. Japan was able to concentrate on postwar economic recovery and rebuild from the devastation of World War II with astonishing speed.

The ability to avoid foreign policy issues meant a concentration on political reforms that would prevent the resurgence of a junta. American occupation allowed democracy to flourish in Japan, and perhaps just as importantly, cemented the separation between the military and the state. Civilian control of the Self-Defense Forces has been enshrined in Japanese society to the extent that another military dictatorship is highly unlikely.

The alliance allowed Japan to offload its broader foreign policy concerns -- and commiserate military commitments -- to the United States. Instability in the Persian Gulf, North Korea, even the concept of nuclear deterrence -- things that should have concerned a regional power with few natural resources and nuclear-armed neighbors -- were not direct concerns for Japan. As a result, Japan has been able to live with defense spending capped at 1 percent of GDP, among the lowest of the industrialized world.

The United States, too, was well-served by the alliance. America needed a strong Japan as a regional partner, where it served as an anchor on the far side of the Pacific and a gateway to Asia. Washington was able to station large air and naval forces off the coast of Asia where they were invulnerable to ground attack, and use them to fight communism on the mainland. Without the use of Japanese territory, deterrence of the Soviet Union in Asia, as well as the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia, would likely have been beyond America's ability to undertake.

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Things are different today, and the treaty that used to encourage Japan to grow unfortunately now does the opposite. The treaty caps Japan's political maturation by separating Japan's responsibilities from its interests. A modern state is responsible for all aspects of its own defense, including defense of its allies and interests abroad. When Japan cedes overseas defense responsibilities to the United States, it reduces the scope of Japan's foreign policy accordingly.

This has far-reaching implications. A government disengaged from Japan's foreign interests creates a people uninterested in engaging the outside world. The Japanese outlook is narrowed to a world in which threats are rare and national interests abroad are taken care of by someone else. As a nation reliant on the global system (99.6 percent of Japan's petroleum is imported) to ensure survival, let alone prosperity, an inward-turning Japan is unacceptable.

Japan's reliance on the United States for protection undermines Japanese credibility in the world. It projects the image of an economically strong country that is unable to defend itself. It doesn't matter that Japan finances many of the U.S. forces based in its country, or that it supplies the land. What matters is the fact that Vietnam is fully responsible for its own defense, and yet somehow Japan is not. A country not responsible for its own defense is not the equal of a country that is.

It's not that Japan doesn't have a reason to defend itself. Japan does live in a dangerous neighborhood: three neighbors possess nuclear weapons, with one openly hostile (North Korea) and the other two having long-standing territorial disputes with Japan. As the third largest economy in the world, Japan no longer needs another country to protect it and its interests. Japan has the ability to build a force capable of defending itself, but it chooses not to.

The alliance also compromises Japanese sovereignty in a way that is no longer justifiable. Under the terms of the 1960 treaty Japan has no veto rights over American deployments of troops and equipment to Japanese territory. There are good reasons for this: American forces and personnel rotate in and out of Japan so often that it would be inefficient to negotiate the transfer of every ship and squadron. But theoretically the United States could deploy its entire armed forces to Japan, so long as it "contributes to the security of Japan and the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East."

Such a provision was a good idea when Japan was politically, economically, and militarily weak, but it was justified by Japan's weakness. Today, Japan is not weak. Japanese citizens must live with the reality that a foreign power can send military forces to Japan at will, without their having a say in the matter. If we want the Japanese to assume the role of an equal partner, they must have greater input on what happens on their own soil.

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Like Japan, the United States has benefitted greatly from the bilateral relationship. Changing times however have made the treaty a dangerous anachronism for America. While the notion of defending Japan's Home Islands during the Cold War was clearly in the American interest, today the United States risks being drawn into territorial disputes in which it has no clear national interest, with an ally unprepared for war.

The alliance shackles the United States to a total commitment of Japan's defense. This was appropriate when the primary adversary was the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent North Korea and China. Today, however, America risks conflict over longstanding territorial grievances in Asia. Japan has territorial disputes with most of its neighbors, several of which are nuclear armed (China, Russia) and some, awkwardly, are key American allies (South Korea, Taiwan.) One need look no farther than the current crisis over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to see a situation where America might be dragged into a conflict. Very few Americans see the Senkaku dispute as America's problem.

The alliance also risks drawing America into conflict alongside a Japanese ally that is unprepared to do its share of the fighting. Japan's self-defense forces, while well equipped and trained, are crippled by a lack of offensive weapons and doctrine. Japanese forces know only the defense; offense-minded American forces would be obliged to assume responsibility for the offense in any conflict. The idea of America counter-attacking China or some other Asian country over a handful of tiny islands is ludicrous, but here we are.

There is also the issue of the fundamental unfairness of the alliance to the American people. Should America be compelled to defend Japan for an indefinite period without reciprocity? Even Luxembourg is bound to defend American territory if the latter invokes Article 5 of the NATO charter. The inclusion of Japan under the American nuclear umbrella adds to the uneasiness and raises the question: Is it fair to the American people to ask them to risk trading Seattle for Shanghai because Japan believes itself too principled to own nuclear weapons?

After the Cold War, the alliance sputtered along until the rise of China made it the de facto potential adversary. The problem is, while it is generally agreed that China is a potential adversary, it is not openly hostile to Japan and America to the extent that the Soviet Union and Maoist China were. In fact, Chinese and Japanese strategic interests, particularly concerning trade and reliance on freedom of the seas, are often very similar. China is Japan's number one trading partner, and Japan is China's third, after Hong Kong. The economies of both countries rely heavily on one another. Now, what happens when the alliance views China through its outdated lens? China is not the Soviet Union. China is something new. An obsolete alliance and its engendering strategic outlook cannot be allowed to drive Japanese or American strategy.

Finally, America's allies in Asia have expressed concern over whether or not it is committed to staying engaged with the region. After a decade of war in the Middle East and Central Asia, with only occasional glances back at the rest of Asia, this is understandable. Allowing the old rules to linger makes the United States look inattentive in Asia and reinforces concerns. A new U.S.-Japan security agreement would demonstrate to Asia that the United States understands the fundamental rules have changed and that America is renewing its commitment to the region.

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What would a revised U.S.-Japan security agreement look like? Firstly, reform would be based on the mutual interests of both countries. Furthermore, each would have equal, as opposed to complementary, responsibilities, even if those responsibilities were initially symbolic. Allow the United States to continue to transfer forces to Japan, but give Japan the ability to veto a transfer. The veto would be largely symbolic, but the symbolism would be an important step.

Another aspect of a revised agreement would be that Japan institutionalize collective self-defense and commit to the defense of the United States. Since both Japan and the United States face the same ballistic missile threat in Asia, why not make Japan a member of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD)? Why not a joint U.S.-Japanese ground forces unit, much like the Franco-German Brigade? Integration would demonstrate a greater common resolve, and perhaps save both sides money.

Need an example for Japan to follow? Think the United Kingdom. The U.K. has an independent foreign policy, independent nuclear deterrent, and can handle its own territorial disputes, e.g. the 1982 Falklands War. Were the U.K. placed in Japan's geography, it could handle itself very well in the region while still remaining a strong United States ally. Even better, the United States would be reasonably insulated from all but the absolute worst of Britain's crises.

As surely as World War II is over, so is the Cold War -- yet the United States and Japan are still working together under a framework that's totally outdated. The alliance between the two countries is as important as ever, but it needs retuning if it's going to be effective in facing the challenges it needs to face today. It's time for a new Japan-United States security agreement, one that renews the security relationship between the two countries while allowing for the complexities of the post-Cold War era. For more than half a century, the United States and Japan worked together to help create a secure and prosperous Asia. That mission isn't over at all.