The most surprising aspect of the dust-up between the U.S. and Japan is that anyone is surprised. It was obvious that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) security policies ran counter not only to long-standing U.S. priorities but also to American strategic interests. Yet, the common post-election view among analysts and in the press was complacency. Most held that there was little likelihood for strains in the military relationship and that any potential for tension would be further reduced if Washington only accommodated its policies to those of the new Japanese government.
It was also very apparent that DPJ policy pronouncements were causing the U.S. anxiety. While public statements may have downplayed concerns, private comments by Obama officials reflected angst over potential “very serious problems” with the new Japanese government. These concerns only increased after meeting with their DPJ counterparts. The DPJ, however, misinterpreted the U.S. public reticence as endorsement for redefining the alliance and Japan’s commitments.
It is now obvious that beyond differences on military operational issues, the DPJ has a significantly different strategic vision that presages a greater potential for divergent priorities between Japan and the United States. The DPJ has demanded a more equal role in the alliance yet is unable to define what it wants. The bilateral alliance can never truly be equal as long as Japan remains heavily dependent on the U.S. for its defense. The DPJ should understand that overcoming inequalities requires Japan to assume additional security responsibilities – with a commensurate increase in defense spending – both of which Tokyo has long been loath to do.
The U.S. should continue to make clear, in private more often than in public, that Japan cannot withdraw from global security responsibilities challenges nor rely on others to defend Tokyo’s overseas interests. As Barack Obama stated during the presidential campaign, he would be looking for greater contributions in Afghanistan with fewer restrictions from our allies, including those in Asia.
Washington should also counsel the DPJ about the danger of unintended consequences and that there are ramifications to its statements and policies. For example, DPJ insistence on moving Marine air units or even all U.S. forces from Okinawa would degrade U.S. deterrent and warfighting capabilities to defend Japan and maintain peace and stability in Asia.
Similarly, Foreign Minister Okada’s advocacy of a northeast Asian nuclear-free zone, probing historic secret U.S.-Japan nuclear arrangements, and pressing Washington to adopt a “no first use” policy all risk undermining the U.S. extended deterrence (“nuclear umbrella”) protection of Japan and South Korea.
While careful alliance management by both countries can mitigate further problems, it is clear that Japan under DPJ leadership will be even more risk averse than its predecessor and resistant to adopting international security responsibilities commensurate with its status as a major nation. Washington now faces greater uncertainty in its military relations with Japan. As a result, the U.S. will be forced to be more reliant on other allies or its own forces as it faces growing regional and international security threats.