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A Liberal Vision for the US-Japanese Alliance


Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press

Even as NATO transforms itself in Europe, policy-makers give little thought to how the US-Japanese alliance might be fundamentally reshaped. This mistake has been made for too long. The US and Japan should endeavour to make their alliance as close, balanced, and principle-based as the US-UK special relationship. Doing so requires that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDFs) expand their role across a broad range of military missions. It also requires that Tokyo and Washington work towards a multilateral collective-security arrangement for the region as their explicit long-term goal.

The Case for a Liberal Alliance

To ensure its longevity and its usefulness, the US-Japanese alliance needs greater balance and burden-sharing (where Japan now does too little), and greater mutuality in crisis decision-making terms (where the US does too much). That is not to say that Japan must rise to the American level of military engagement. It should, however, be willing to conduct sea operations to enforce sanctions or freedom of navigation, shallow-water minesweeping, and deploy modestly sized units for land operations.

Such an agenda is unlikely to be welcomed in Japan and North-east Asia if justified mainly on traditional, national-interest grounds. It therefore needs to be part of an effort to underpin the military alliance more explicitly in terms of democratic principles and shared political values, and to focus Japan’s military forces not just on deterring inter-state conflict but on other missions that advance liberal objectives. This approach would stand a better chance of tapping into – rather than meeting resistance from – the strong currents of pacifism and idealism in contemporary Japanese politics. It could also provide Japan with a clear security identity, more appropriate to modern times and more politically sustainable than post-Second World War pacifism, as it considers pursuing a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC).

A liberal philosophy for the alliance’s future would offer other concrete advantages. It could help the US and Japan prepare joint responses to humanitarian tragedies. It could help them to contain and resolve internal conflicts through peacekeeping and perhaps even the forcible prevention of genocide. Over time, such a philosophy might be the basis for gradually extending security commitments to a broader community of nations. A growing core community of like-minded states would reduce the odds of inter-state war; it could also dampen pressures for nuclear proliferation and other destabilizing measures that independent nation-states might well take if without allies and unsure of their own security.

A liberal vision could also provide Japan and the US with a better guide to relations with China. It would provide a strategically sound framework for a policy of engagement. Without weakening their deterrent capabilities in the near term, the two countries could then tell China that, if it continues to evolve into a democratic state that ensures civilian control of the military and agrees not to resolve disagreements by force, it could and should be part of a regional collective-security arrangement with them.

Pursuing this liberal vision will be time-consuming and gradual, so it is important to begin it soon. Some analysts may agree with our long-term goals but wonder about the need for haste; we are anxious to see the process begin precisely because it will take so long, even once under way. Countries do not develop new strategic cultures quickly or easily. Adding further impetus to the need for prompt attention is the delicate state of relations with China and somewhat unsteady hand that Tokyo and Washington have recently displayed in their dealings with it. Finally, should the Korean conflict end soon, Tokyo and Washington could find themselves suddenly struggling to explain why a strong alliance with a large US military presence in Japan was still needed.

In the near future, the US and Japan should develop mechanisms for getting Japan’s armed forces more involved in international activities – such as humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, hostage rescue, non-combatant evacuation operations, and counter-piracy and counter-terrorism efforts. Pursuing such activities could necessitate at least a revised interpretation of Japan’s Constitution to allow it to exercise the rights of collective security and collective defense as legitimated in the UN Charter. It could also require a strengthened role within the Japanese government for the Japanese Defense Agency and the Prime Minister’s own security advisers. In the medium term, Japan and the US should increasingly work with other US allies in the region to train for and conduct multilaterally some of the above-mentioned security missions. The approach would be similar to NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PFP) programme with Central and Eastern European countries. In addition, Japan could take increasingly strong roles in the above set of missions. For example, it could prepare to contribute combat troops to multilateral military missions such as forcible humanitarian interventions – sometimes also known as ‘peace enforcement’ operations.

In the long term, the US-Japanese alliance could be a cornerstone for a regional collective-security organisation. If a country such as China demonstrated support for the principles of democratic governance, law-based justice systems, civilian control of the military and peaceful resolution of international disputes, it could join the organisation. Tokyo and Washington should articulate this goal soon, vigorously and repeatedly, even though it might take decades to realise.

Beyond the 1997 Guidelines Review

On 23 September 1997, the US and Japan announced revisions of the Defense Cooperation Guidelines, the basic rules and regulations that had governed their day-to-day military collaboration since 1978. The Japanese Diet must still pass legislation, possibly sometime in 1998, to authorise Japan’s SDFs to undertake new missions and to allow US forces to profit fully from Japanese civil airfields and ports.

The new guidelines’ most notable revisions concern conflicts that do not directly endanger Japan. Under the previous guidelines, Japan was able to do little more than allow US forces to use bases on its territory. Now, it will also be able to provide those forces such non-lethal supplies as fuel, and open up other ports and airfields to them as well. It could resupply US ships during a crisis and evacuate civilians or wounded US soldiers from dangerous situations, provided its own forces stayed out of range of hostilities. In addition, Japanese warships will be authorised to remove mines from the high seas, and to help monitor compliance with UN economic sanctions.

These are all positive changes. But Japan’s military is still banned from conducting most dangerous missions outside its national territory. Even if US units were in dire danger, or if a UNSC resolution authorised military actions, Japan could not put its own armed forces in harm’s way. In practical terms, its ability to support a liberal, non-traditional security agenda is little improved. Even such missions as humanitarian relief and peacekeeping will remain difficult for Japan to help conduct robustly. Contribution to sanctions enforcement will probably be limited to monitoring compliance rather than apprehending violators. In effect, the new guidelines will simply help the alliance do better what it has done before – with the US in the clear lead role and Japan providing support.

Many observers, struck by the fact that the US-Japanese alliance is strengthening itself despite the end of the Cold War, are concerned that even these new guidelines go too far. Rather than shore up old-fashioned alliances, they believe that such arrangements can be dispensed with for good. Although understandable, that perspective is wrong on several counts.

The Benefits of Liberal Alliances

In addition to deterring specific threats, alliances in general and the US-Japanese alliance in particular have many positive features. They are not just bulwarks against specific dangers, but the foundations for a strong international community in which like-minded, peaceful states consciously do what they can to reassure and protect each other.

Both political theory and twentieth-century history suggest that strong security structures among ‘liberal democracies’ – established democratic states with good legal systems and open politics – are the most reliable mechanisms available for keeping the peace. They are much better than individual states manoeuvering independently in an anarchical international environment, concerts of power among authoritarian regimes, ‘paper alliances’ lacking solid military underpinnings, or last-minute public commitments to defend friends under duress. Each of these latter approaches has failed catastrophically at least once within the last 100 years. ithout alliances, countries have more reason to be paranoid about their security because they do not know who will fight with or against them. For prudence’s sake, they generally have to assume the worst, and sometimes take desperate actions as a result.

It is possible that twenty-first century Asia might avoid these mistakes, even without alliances or strong collective-security structures. The region’s emphasis on economic and human development, China’s primary focus on the strength and cohesiveness of its own society rather than external adventures, and Japan’s great transformation since the Second World War to a genuinely democratic and non-aggressive state are all favourable conditions. But placing complete faith in the belief that nation-states of the future will avoid the mistakes of the past would take this line of reasoning too far. Since inter-state conflict has historically been most likely at times of major shifts in economic capability and power, countries in the dynamic east Asia-Pacific should be especially concerned about developing strong security anchors for the region at this moment in time.

It is also possible that the Asia-Pacific region can thrive in a situation where the US carries most of the military burden for maintaining stability and a country like Japan plays a facilitating role. But it is risky to assume that this approach will work indefinitely. As already noted, the alliance could self-destruct due to US resentment at Japanese ‘free- riding’ during a serious conflict, or to Japanese resentment that the US was pulling it into an unnecessary military crisis with China. Lacking a positive, forward-looking vision for the alliance, Japan could wonder why the US needed to keep forces forward-deployed on its densely populated islands in a relatively peaceful international environment. In addition, Washington could face increasing resistance from countries in the region who perceive the US role as hegemonic. Finally, the US could develop a type of leadership fatigue – signs of which are apparent already, notably in the US Congress – and be increasingly unwilling to ask its military to conduct operations like humanitarian relief and peacekeeping in the absence of a greater sense of shared international sacrifice. As a result, the goals of protecting human life and human rights, and furthering respect for and compliance with international law, could suffer.

Some might agree with the goal of an integrated Asia-Pacific security community, but prefer to achieve this by developing looser and more inclusive structures – perhaps building on an existing multilateral dialogue like the Association of South-east Asian Nations’ Regional Forum (ARF) – and down-playing or weakening the role of alliances. But such dialogues and associated confidence-building measures are better at preserving a widely endorsed status quo than at solving fundamental disputes between countries. Unlike formal alliances, they do not reflect a solemn commitment by countries to defend each other’s security.

Nor would it make sense, even once the Korean dispute had ended, to disband the US-Japanese – and US-Korean – alliance, and hope that a regional treaty arrangement might then supplant it. Alliances between various Asian powers are by no means impossible. They do not appear imminent, however, given the still-tense relations between great regional powers such as China, Japan and Korea.

Broadening the Scope of the Bilateral Alliance

Although the general arguments outlined above tend to support the US-Japanese alliance, they do not establish that it will inevitably be a positive influence in the region. Countries that tend to do the right thing do not always in fact do so.

To ensure that its policies are desirable and demonstrate to other countries that they are, the US-Japanese alliance needs to grapple more directly with the new security challenges of the post-Cold War world. And it needs to do so in a way that serves not only the narrow national interests of Japan and the US, but the international community more broadly – to the extent that is practical.

Some of these missions would serve the purposes of preventing humanitarian tragedies; they include humanitarian relief and peace operations. Others, like counter-terrorist strikes and non-combatant evacuations, could protect more traditional national interests. Still others could combat international crime or the drug trade.

Most of these missions are difficult, and need to be trained for in advance rather than attempted on an ad hoc basis. Those who would underestimate the difficulty of such multilateral operations should recall that even different branches of the US military have had trouble working together in the past. Examples include the failed hostage-rescue mission in Iran in 1980, as well as the inability of different US units to communicate with each other during the invasion of Grenada in 1983.

If, for example, Japanese special forces were to deploy into a crisis-afflicted country in Africa or South Asia to protect local civilian populations, or perhaps to rescue Japanese nationals, they might need to deploy from US aircraft carriers – under poor weather conditions or at night.

Similar efforts could apply to the counter-terrorism mission. The multinational assets and operations of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which killed 12 Japanese citizens in its May 1995 sarin nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, illustrate the potential need for a rapid and coordinated strike against such organisations. The allies might need to conduct synchronised military attacks against such a group if it reached a certain threshold of firepower, was believed to possess and know how to use weapons of mass destruction, or otherwise posed an especially severe menace.

Piracy in the Asia-Pacific region is also a threat, albeit perhaps less daunting. But it involves dozens of incidents each year. Militaries in the region could address it by sharing monitoring assets and taking shifts in manning rapid-response teams. The same teams might also be capable of undertaking search and rescue operations after boating accidents or other incidents.

The new alliance agenda proposed here could cause anxiety among the many who fear that the Japanese national character harbours a latent militarism. There are two responses to this concern. First, the forces required for the missions outlined above are generally modest. They may need to be highly modern, combat capable, and deployable, but would generally be far too small to threaten a neighbouring country. Second, and more fundamentally, this type of anxiety overlooks the fact that contemporary Japan is a true democracy in which civilian control of the military is firmly established. Pacifism is an important intellectual and political current, and regret for the country’s past actions is probably greater than in any other major power today apart from Germany – as evidenced by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s public apology for Japan’s war-time atrocities, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s seconding of the apology, and the recent rewriting of textbooks to inform Japanese students of those atrocities.

Would the Japanese polity really accept the increasingly activist role for its armed forces outlined here? It might, especially if a liberal vision that tapped into Japan’s strong idealist-pacifist streak could be coupled with a policy that also protected traditional national interests. For example, a mid-1996 poll found more than one-third of all Diet members in favour of either revising the Constitution or reinterpreting it to allow a major expansion of Japan’s military role in the region.

Only about one-sixth of Diet members are committed pacifists. Many of the remainder are willing to consider change, albeit within the current interpretation of the Japanese Constitution. Public opinion polls reveal similar themes: for example, 75% of citizens surveyed in March 1997 by the Yomiuri Shimbun were for having a broad constitutional debate, and a plurality wanted to revise the Constitution.7 Doing so would not require Japan to reverse its post-1945 repudiation of the right of national belligerence; it would only need to exercise rights granted all nations under the UN Charter, and decide that its military could participate in multilateral operations serving non-aggressive goals.

Beyond Bilateralism

Keeping bilateral alliances intact would hold even more appeal if the US and its current alliance partners envisioned a formal security community that could eventually include countries like China. Leaders in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington should tell Beijing that they do not preclude a collective-security arrangement with China once it satisfies conditions similar to those demanded of new NATO members – notably, civilian control of the military, agreement not to settle disputes with neighbours by force and democratic governance.

For now, though, the alliance would remain bilateral. Other countries would be invited to collaborate, on a case-by-case basis, in those missions where they shared common interests with the US and Japan and possessed adequate capabilities to contribute. Some of the more difficult or sensitive missions, such as training for counter-terrorist or hostage-rescue operations, would probably not be conducted with other countries for some time. But collaboration on certain security tasks, such as counter-piracy, search and rescue operations, and peacekeeping training, should be possible in the near future.

The other major step that should be taken soon is to tighten collaboration between the various bilateral alliances that currently involve the US in East Asia. Among the agenda items for the near future could be the creation of a combined infrastructure and operations fund. It could facilitate new missions, such as training for peace operations or counter-piracy patrols. More significantly, in financial terms, it could help with an eventual redeployment of the US Marines on Okinawa to other places in the Asia-Pacific – Australia, for example.

Conclusion: The Need for Prompt Action

The US-UK alliance does not require an acute external threat to assure its maintenance, but no one yet knows if the same is true for the US-Japanese alliance. Rather than find out when it may be too late, it would benefit Tokyo and Washington to base their security partnership more on common values, vision, shared effort and shared decision-making.

Most international-relations theorists may feel obliged to choose between the realist and liberal schools to describe their own core thinking and writings. Fortunately, the US and Japan are under no such obligation with regard to shaping their security partnership for the twenty-first century. They can hedge against the need for a realist approach to North-east Asian security policy by maintaining deterrence, while simultaneously pursuing a largely liberal agenda that serves the goals of democracy, human rights, economic development and regional inclusiveness. This approach is in some ways already US and Japanese policy today, but the liberal pillar of the alliance is weak, and largely theoretical in character. It is time to strengthen it and make it real.

Mike Mochizuki and Michael O’Hanlon are scholars in the Brookings Institution foreign policy studies program and coauthors, with Satoshi Morimoto and Takuma Takahashi, of Toward a True Alliance: Restructuring U.S.-Japan Security Relations (Brookings, 1997).

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