Draconian defense budget cuts of at least $450 billion—and possibly as much as $1.2 trillion under sequestration—are casting doubt on the U.S. commitment to peace and security in the Asia–Pacific. Japan’s inability to come to agreement with its principle ally complicates this already disconcerting picture. It only increases insecurity in a region groping for ways to cope with a rapidly modernizing Chinese military, an unstable North Korea, and other security threats, according to Heritage expert Bruce Klingner.
Kevin Maher, former director of the Japan desk at the State Department, highlighted the foremost reason for the Japanese conundrum at a Heritage discussion of his book, “The Japan That Can’t Decide.” Maher said Japan’s inability to make decisions has negatively impacted the U.S.–Japan alliance through mishandling of the Okinawa base relocation, hindered Tokyo’s initial response to the March 2011 natural disasters, and contributed to the phenomenon of “disposable prime ministers,” in which the position has been akin to a revolving door.
Japanese officials have become so fraught with indecision, he said, that Japan is mired in a perennial policy stalemate. Maher identified several reasons for this situation, including a consensus-building parliamentary system that empowers small minorities to block major decisions, a loss of confidence among politicians resulting from Japan’s lost decades of economic stagnation, and an aversion to taking risks and assuming responsibility.
Maher blamed Japan’s consensus-building approach and emphasis on domestic political concerns for the ongoing stalemate over the planned U.S. military realignment on Okinawa, particularly the Marine Corps Futenma Replacement Facility. Japan has passed the buck on implementing the previously agreed-upon plan of relocating Futenma’s air assets to Camp Schwab, transferring 8,000 Marines to Guam, and reducing the burden on the local population.
Maher emphasized that Japan’s populace and political leadership must take security issues more seriously—a weakness underscored by the meager 1 percent of GDP spent on defense. Maher condemned proposals to relocate Futenma’s helicopters off Okinawa, noting that Marine Corps units must constantly train with integrated air, ground, and logistics assets. In his words, “if they don’t train together, they die, and we will not sacrifice Marines’ lives for Japan’s domestic political concerns.” Japan must simply wake up to its security environment and understand why U.S. Marines on Okinawa are essential to peace and security in the Pacific.
Finally, regarding Japan’s future, Maher noted that Prime Minister Noda is more of a realist than his predecessors, making decisions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the F-35 program, but he is still hindered by small interest groups and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. With Japan besieged by numerous economic and demographic problems, Maher noted that voters have tired of this indecisiveness, with 49 percent of the Japanese public not supporting any political party.
America’s longstanding commitment to peace and security in the Asia–Pacific relies on capable allies, and while the U.S.–Japan alliance is not in a state of crisis, it is beleaguered by Japan’s indecision on the base relocation issue. Japan needs a leader who can make the tough decisions and weather the political fallout. And for its part, the U.S. must stand firm in supporting this alliance, especially in troubled times.