This Brave New U.S.-Japan Alliance

This Brave New U.S.-Japan Alliance
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Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe travels to Washington this week to address a joint session of Congress—the first such address afforded a Japanese prime minister—and meet with President Barack Obama. On the allies’ to-do list is a transpacific trade deal. Renovating the U.S.-Japan “defense guidelines,” which set forth a politico-military framework governing endeavors involving the two nations’ armed forces, is another major undertaking. Indeed, the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers published a revised version of the defense guidelines—the first such amendment since 1997—on Monday.

Among the highlights: Tokyo and Washington vow to “ensure Japan’s peace and security in all phases…including situations when an armed attack against Japan is not involved.” The allies’ armed forces “will provide mutual protection of each other’s assets” when preparing to defend or actually defending Japan. The U.S. armed forces “may conduct operations involving the use of strike power” in support of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF), while the SDF may render those forces mutual support. The partners reserve the right to respond to an armed attack against the United States or another “foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan”—even when Japan hasn’t come under assault.

Sounds pretty humdrum, doesn’t it? Two partners come together to promote their common well-being and provide for the common defense. We might call that, er, an alliance. Curiouser and curiouser. Yet it’s the very banality of such pledges that constitutes this week’s big news. There’s always been a through-the-looking-glass character to the U.S.-Japan security alliance. A more ordinary, more boring alliance promises to be a healthier one. Banal is in!

Look at it this way. For the most part, multinational ententes, coalitions and alliances coalesce around mutual purposes and to counteract mutual threats. Some alliances are alliances of equals. Others bring together dominant with lesser partners. That leaves the stronger ally holding a commanding position in alliance circles. He who has the gold makes the rules, generally speaking. The Washington-Tokyo axis, which dates to 1951, falls into the latter class. Except there’s a wrinkle. The lesser ally, Japan, numbers among the threats the alliance was founded to offset. Japan, that is, poses a hypothetical threat to Asian security—much as democratic Germany poses a hypothetical threat to European security.

After World War II, America allied itself with erstwhile foes not just to advance its own interests but to reassure itself—and other nations that suffered from militarist predations—that Japan and Germany would never again go on the march. War exorcised the demon of militarism. Keeping it exorcised seventy years hence remains a worthwhile endeavor—even apart from the security treaty’s other blessings, such as anchoring the U.S. strategic position in Asia.

This is not a new insight. Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, famously—and aptly—wisecracked  that the Atlantic Alliance existed to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down. Likewise with the U.S.-Japan alliance. The arrangement kept the Americans in, communist ne’er-do-wells like Russia and China out and the Japanese down. Weaker allies tend to free-ride on the largesse of the strong. That’s one baneful effect of lopsided ententes. But in the case of the U.S.-Japan alliance, free-riding is a feature, not a bug. It was designed into the system precisely to discourage the lesser ally from spending lavishly on its own defense—and accumulating new war-making potential.

As Prime Minister Abe’s visit attests, Japan is mutating—slowly, haltingly—into a more normal agent in international politics. Its political leadership, Abe in particular, has made noises about reinterpreting the nation’s post-World War II “peace constitution” to permit something beyond passive self-defense. At the same time Tokyo is making itself into a more normal ally of the United States. And that’s all to the good from the American standpoint. A superpower patron stretched thin by manifold commitments, fiscal stress, and new challengers around the Eurasian rimlands can use the help.

Small wonder Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter spent part of his recent sojourn in the island state touting the virtues of amending the defense guidelines. These are virtues born of necessity. There’s a downside to a more equal partnership, though. As Washington bears a smaller share of the burden for alliance endeavors, it will have to defer to Tokyo more. Influence follows material contributions. And if Japan undertakes a truly robust naval and military buildup—say, by shattering its self-imposed defense spending cap of 1 percent of GDP—then the United States can no longer expect to get its way automatically in debates over allied policy and strategy.

Is that a showstopper? Hardly. Pacifist sentiment is deep-seated in Japanese society. Consequently, any Japanese buildup promises to be a gradual affair, as the populace and elected leaders debate Japan’s power and purposes in Asia and the world. If so, the allies have time to adjust to the new normal, working out new habits and procedures of cooperation. Judging from the new defense guidelines, furthermore, it appears U.S. forces will retain the alliance’s striking power into the indefinite future. This division of labor would confer additional clout on U.S. emissaries, even should Japan someday match the American investment in Asian security. Washington could veto important missions, after all, while Tokyo would have little recourse.

Still, it seems a brave new world of alliance relations is upon us. One hopes the partners are ready for it.

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