February 1, 2007  

A blossoming relationship

For all the recent developments in the U.S.-Japan alliance, perhaps the most striking is that the alliance managers have made it look so easy. This is no mean accomplishment — the relationship with Japan has bedeviled such luminaries as John Foster Dulles, who was consistently maneuvered by wily Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida into accepting far less from Tokyo than he expected.

But during the past five years, Japan’s overseas role has grown faster than ever, including substantive — albeit qualified — commitments from all its military services in support of the war on terrorism. Meanwhile, a series of bilateral agreements has laid out the terms for restructuring the posture of the alliance, with a significant drawdown of U.S. troops in exchange for Japan taking on enhanced responsibilities, and the two sides have been grappling to devise a common response to North Korea’s ever more belligerent behavior.

Although significant challenges remain before the alliance, ranging from perception gaps to the lack of mutual trust indicated by Tokyo’s recent nuclear ruminations, it is fair to say the relationship has not only “never been better,” as the two countries’ leaders like to reassure each other and their publics, but that the prospects for the relationship have never been much brighter.

For almost 60 years, alliance relations between the U.S. and Japan have been characterized by a series of U.S. efforts to prod Japan into taking more responsibility for its (and the region’s) security, while Japan has sought the return of territory and military bases administered by the U.S. after 1945. For instance, at the 1969 summit between President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Eisuke Sato, the latter pledged to take responsibility for the defense of Okinawa in exchange for retrocession of the islands to Japanese administration.

Along with this pattern of exchanging Japanese security commitments for American concessions, another perennial issue has been the question of “collective self-defense,” or the notion that in addition to each state’s inherent right — and obligation — to defend its own territory, all states also possess the right to defend victims of aggression. Nonetheless, Tokyo has determined that Japan’s “Peace Constitution” bars it from exercising its right to collective self-defense, i.e., Japan is unable to come to the assistance of U.S. forces despite the American commitment to defend Japan.

These two trends were molded to fit the exigencies of the Cold War period when, under the so-called “shield and spear” concept of security cooperation, Tokyo was expected to defend itself against the Soviet invasion that would accompany a third world war, while the U.S. was responsible for fighting elsewhere and providing a nuclear umbrella for Japan. A key challenge of the post-Cold War era in U.S.-Japan alliance relations has been to construct a balance of responsibilities so that the alliance could play an active role in promoting regional peace and security.

In 1996-97, for example, Washington and Tokyo negotiated a summit-level statement reaffirming the relevance of the alliance in the post-Cold War world and a new set of guidelines for cooperation in “situations in areas surrounding Japan,” a none-too-subtle euphemism for potential conflicts on the Korean peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait. But the negotiations on the guidelines were overshadowed by the fallout of the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa, and Washington’s strategic fancy shifted from Japan to “strategic partnership” with China no sooner than the ink had dried on the bilateral agreements.

In contrast, the negotiations that have taken place since December 2002 under the auspices of the Security Consultative Committee (SCC), a body comprising the secretaries of state and defense along with their Japanese counterparts and that is often known as the “two-plus-two,” have tied a variety of strategic threads into a more robust process that has allowed Washington and Tokyo to reassess the purposes of the alliance and discuss the means to reach those ends. The December 2002 SCC meeting called upon the two sides to work through a process of articulating common strategic objectives, exploring the allocation of roles and missions that would be necessary to achieve those goals, and realign U.S. and Japanese forces as necessary to facilitate those roles and missions. In a series of negotiations toward conclusive SCC statements on those topics in February and October 2005 and May 2006, the two sides did just that.

Posture as Policy

“Base politics” has always been a double entendre. Whether at home, where the horse-trading among congressional districts rules the day, or abroad, where the allocation of U.S. forces symbolizes the unequal power between Washington and its allies, the determination of troop levels and their locations is never a simple equation of strategic necessity. Accordingly, force structure talks have always been a major part of the relationship with Japan, stealing time from the substantive security issues, in the opinion of most U.S. alliance managers, to address the needs of Japan’s domestic politics.

What has distinguished the post-2002 series of bilateral talks was that, unlike the post-1995 round, there was no single crisis that propelled them along. Instead, the U.S. and Japan could set their agendas with reference to their long-term requirements rather than the political needs of the day. The multistep approach, beginning with the joint statement on common strategic objectives, reflected the opportunity to take a more studied view on the purpose of the alliance.

The talks on realignment also benefited from the confluence of unilateral initiatives taken in Washington and Tokyo. In November 2003, President Bush announced the Global Force Posture Review, pledging to “place the right capabilities in the most appropriate locations,” or, in the words of then-Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith: “Everything is going to move everywhere.” Washington’s commitment to rethink its entire global force disposition gave Japan a unique opportunity to be a participant in U.S. policymaking rather than a supplicant for U.S. policy revision.

While the U.S. was looking to move its forces, Japan was looking to reorganize its force posture to address the new threat environment in which its extended southern and western possessions are at far greater risk than the Hokkaido plain opposite the former Soviet Union. This geographical shift will be accompanied by drastic budget reallocations (tank and artillery forces will be cut by a third over the next five years) to make the Ground Self-Defense Forces more deployable and to bolster the Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces.

Perhaps the most important of Japan’s recent military reform efforts was Tokyo’s decision to reorganize its chain of command along lines that should be familiar to American readers. In March, Japan established a joint operational system in which the orders run directly from the director general of the Defense Agency to joint task force commanders, rather than through the service chiefs. Japanese planners understand that the best source of experience on the costs and benefits of greater jointness will be interaction with the American officers who have witnessed the process in their own force.

The net result of this confluence of events is that the U.S. and Japan were able to negotiate an outcome on realignment of forces that ties together these disparate requirements, as well as the omnipresent Japanese imperative for reducing the burden of the U.S. military presence on the people of Okinawa.

Thus, the U.S. has pledged to remove 8,000 Marine Expeditionary Force personnel (and their 9,000 dependents) from Okinawa to Guam. This measure will not only result in the closure of the highly unpopular Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, but also was tied to a pledge for Japan’s SDF troops to travel to Guam to engage in joint training with the relocated forces there. Meanwhile, the agreement further stipulates that Camp Hansen and Kadena Air Base will be used for bilateral SDF training with their U.S. counterparts.

In addition to shifting troops, the SCC statements also pave the way for collocation of U.S. and Japanese forces. At Camp Zama, the U.S. Army headquarters will be modernized to be a deployable, joint-task capable headquarters and will be collocated with Japan’s Central Readiness Force Command, a recently created element responsible for nationwide operations and special responses ranging from natural disasters to foreign attacks. The two most important ground force headquarters in Japan thus will be on a single piece of ground and linked together.

No single issue better illustrates the nature of the current realignment effort than Yokota Air Base in Tokyo. Because the base gives U.S. forces control over a large sector of the city’s airspace, it has long been criticized by Japanese politicians. Under the SCC agreements, however, Yokota will be transformed into a locus of U.S.-Japanese security cooperation. Already the home of the U.S. 5th Air Force, the base now will host the collocated Japanese Air Defense Command and a newly established bilateral joint operations coordination center. The reorganized command structure at Yokota will take responsibility for bilateral missile defense (MD), one of the most important missions the alliance is pursuing today.

Although the negotiating process on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan has been subject to interagency bickering in Tokyo and a constant source of frustration for U.S. negotiators, the outcome has set the stage for the two sides to initiate a serious dialogue on the roles and missions they will pursue. And for better or worse, the changing international balance in Asia has put the importance of that dialogue in sharp relief.

If the success of talks on realignment of U.S. and Japanese forces were the prerequisite, then it is work on the allocation of roles and missions between the two sides that has been the heart of the SCC agreements. For example, the Oct. 29, 2005, joint statement identified 16 specific areas that require improved bilateral cooperation, ranging from such traditional fields as air defense to humanitarian relief operations, protection of critical infrastructure and enhanced effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Realistically, Japan brings an unusual combination of policy and legal constraints as well as some unique assets that largely predetermine what roles it can be expected to play. For example, the restrictions imposed on SDF operations mean the U.S. cannot expect Japan to conduct offensive military operations against a common enemy, but Japan has well-developed strengths in tracking and neutralizing some of the most dangerous asymmetric threats to the U.S. Navy, including advanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities and a robust mine-clearing flotilla.

But the most important defense capabilities are as often determined by circumstance as by design, and North Korea’s continued development of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, as well as its record of selling drugs, counterfeit money and goods, and weapons on the world market have determined the immediate requirements of the alliance in sharp contrast.

Transformation Put to the Test

When North Korea launched multiple salvos of ballistic missiles in July, U.S. reportage focused on the midcourse disintegration of the Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile. The concern with the Taepodong-2 made sense, as that is the specific platform that, if developed successfully, may be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to American soil.

But while Washington could take some solace in the failure of one of Pyongyang’s most vaunted weapons, the Japanese government and press were much more concerned by the evident success of the Nodong intermediate range ballistic missiles that North Korea launched simultaneously. According to Japanese intelligence sources, some of these missiles landed in almost a perfect row in the Sea of Japan (indicating that they were targeted with relatively high accuracy) and were launched from mobile launchers. This latter development is particularly problematic in light of the difficulty the U.S. has experienced hunting mobile Scud missile launchers in the deserts of Iraq, let alone rugged North Korea.

In light of this rapidly developing threat, the U.S. and Japan have moved to expedite missile defense collaboration. By October, the U.S. deployed Patriot Advanced Capability 3 batteries near its bases in Japan as well as several major cities and established an X-band radar station at Camp Shariki in northern Honshu island, significantly enhancing tracking capabilities for U.S. missile defenses.

Simultaneously, the U.S. is working to supply Japan with Aegis-equipped destroyers carrying the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), which is capable of intercepting ballistic missiles at their maximum arc and will make up half of Japan’s eventual two-tier MD system. Washington is operating a pair of SM-3-equipped guided missile cruisers off Japan’s coast in that role while Japan’s ships are under construction.

However, as Japan works to assume more responsibility for the missile-defense mission, it faces several challenges. First, Tokyo will have difficulty balancing the costs of MD development and deployment in light of Japan’s restricted defense budget. Although the “1 percent of gross domestic product” defense spending cap is a policy line and not mandated by law, Tokyo’s deteriorated fiscal health and bureaucratic politics indicate that it will not be breached soon. As a consequence, work toward an effective MD system will force Japan to make difficult spending choices among its defense priorities.

Even more important perhaps is the collective self-defense question discussed above. As Japan’s MD capability comes online, the possibility of a North Korean missile launch means that Tokyo may someday have to decide whether to attempt to use its SM-3 equipped destroyers to intercept a missile that is clearly headed toward U.S. territory — a currently prohibited act. The government has formally adopted regulations giving naval officers the authority to intercept a missile when there is no time to receive orders from the civilian government, raising the even less pleasant prospect that a service member will be forced to decide between what has been described to him as an unconstitutional act or allowing a missile to fly toward an ally’s territory without responding.

Even if missiles do not fly, it will be up to two years before the U.S. is able to deliver the SM-3-equipped destroyers to Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF). While U.S. Navy cruisers fill the missile-intercepting gap, they will be operating with their radars pointed “up” toward possible missile intercept targets rather than “out” toward potentially hostile ships. Given the historically provocative behavior of North Korean ships, it is plausible that Japan’s MSDF will be called upon to provide escort duty for the U.S. Navy. Again, this is an instance where a MSDF captain will be forced to choose between what has been proscribed as unconstitutional behavior and allowing an allied ship to be put at risk.

Sanctions, Interdictions and Self-Defense

While the U.S. and Japan prepare for the upper-end threat posed by North Korean missiles, they have also enhanced their preparations to address the lower-end threat posed by Pyongyang’s trafficking in illegal drugs, counterfeit goods and currency, and weapons. Since 2000, for example, Japan has adopted a ship inspection operations law, has demonstrated its resolve with the sinking of a North Korean spy ship in 2001, and has both joined the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and hosted a 2004 exercise, “Team Samurai 04.”

Despite these steps, which make Japan appear well placed to take a leading role in either implementing PSI or U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718’s call upon states to inspect cargo bound to or from North Korea, Japan’s ability to participate in interdiction operations remains quite limited. Japan’s rules of engagement in such operations are set by criminal rather than the self-defense law and are thus extremely restrictive. The hodgepodge of laws and regulations surrounding Japan’s interdiction activities are simultaneously restrictive and ill-defined, meaning that a special measures law would have to be passed before Japan could take a major role. And of course, there is always the question of collective self-defense.

When Japan Defense Agency chief Fumio Kyuma was asked in a mid-October Diet debate about whether Japan could support U.S. ships that came under attack during interdiction operations, he presented a unique response. Answering that he could not clearly distinguish between “individual self-defense” and “collective self-defense” in the context of conducting allied operations, he suggested the analogy that one cannot easily tell who among two friends is the victim when a criminal accosts them on the street. Kyuma thus raised the prospect that the ban on collective self-defense could no longer apply to situations in which Japan is working closely with an ally.

But just as it appeared that Japan was working toward the steps necessary to creation an “operational” exception to the prohibition on collective self-defense, the diplomatic pressure to lower regional tensions overtook planning for an international interdiction campaign, and Tokyo quietly shelved the issue following Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Oct. 17-22 visit to Asia.

While the U.S. and Japan work through the details on their respective roles and missions under the SCC agreements, however, the relationship may be facing an even more dangerous threat. The protection provided by the U.S. nuclear umbrella has been the foundation of Japan’s defense policy for six decades, but it is now coming under a sustained and serious threat for the first time.

Japan’s Nuclear Option

On Oct. 16, one week after North Korea’s nuclear test and as Rice flew to Asia to begin coordinating a regional response, senior Liberal Democratic Party politician Shoichi Nakagawa commented that, in light of North Korea’s nuclear test and the threat that nuclear-tipped missiles may pose, Japan should begin a debate about the advisability of possessing its own nuclear weapons, further observing that a series of earlier Supreme Court cases had determined that nuclear capabilities would fall within the boundaries of the constitution.

The fallout from Nakagawa’s remarks was immediate and immense. Although Foreign Minister Taro Aso and a large number of public intellectuals came out in support of having a debate, Nakagawa and Aso were also the targets of opprobrium from the opposition party, regionally, and from much of the public.

Eventually, Prime Minister Abe reiterated his support for the three non-nuclear principles and stated that there would be no review of Japan’s nuclear policy. But Kyuma issued a slightly cagier statement: “We have advanced technology and missile capabilities so perhaps we do have the potential to make nuclear arms. But we are not going to do so.” In short, he reiterated Japan’s nascent nuclear weapons capability, effectively dismissing the next step of development as unnecessary.

This debate about a debate demonstrated two things. First, it showed that that Japan has developed finely honed strategic instincts vis-à-vis China and that its leadership places value on using its nuclear option to make Beijing think more seriously about the costs of a nuclear North Korea. The debate secondly showed that Japan is willing to take a surprisingly risky stance toward the U.S., where the response to the Nakagawa and Aso comments was generally negative.

Nick Eberstadt has discussed the scenario of a limited North Korean artillery strike on a single U.S. military installation in the Republic of Korea, arguing that a discrete strike would leave Washington and Seoul unable to counterattack — because Pyongyang would exercise escalation dominance to any U.S. response — and would demonstrate the uselessness of the American security guarantee. The prospects for a demonstrative missile attack against Japan could prove even more dangerous — ironically because it would be less provocative.

The nearly instantaneous technology of counter-battery fire can result in rapid escalation as shooters are quickly identified and counterattacks are launched at the local level, but the decision-making process in response to a ballistic missile launch is much slower. If North Korea were to launch a Nodong missile at a target in Japan where it would hit an unpopulated but demonstrative area (say, Mount Fuji at night), it would be possible for Pyongyang to get in a single strike and then wait while Washington and Tokyo coordinate a response.

During the time that Washington and Tokyo work through their decision cycles, Pyongyang could issue statements about having launched a necessary pre-emptive strike and its preparedness to respond to any American aggression with overwhelming force — a basic measure that would push the alliance toward paralysis and could undermine the value of Washington’s commitment to Tokyo in the long run.

Current efforts to upgrade joint missile defense capabilities are largely designed to protect against this type of scenario. An effective missile defense system will mean that if Pyongyang hopes to launch an effective strike against Japan, it would have to do so with a robust enough missile barrage to overwhelm the MD system. But such an overwhelming attack would likely trigger a full-scale war, which the regime in Pyongyang likely knows it cannot survive. An effective missile defense will thus raise the costs of aggression for North Korea and consolidate the deterrent value of the alliance, all without requiring Japan to reject its non-nuclear principles.

Charting the Course

Despite the many positive developments in recent years, it is impossible to predict with certainty where the U.S.-Japan alliance is headed. The two countries are notorious for renegotiating settled issues — much of the current SCC agenda, after all, is the result of the failure to fully implement the 1996 Special Action Committee for Okinawa’s recommendation for handling the Marine Air Station Futenma. However, three immediate priorities are clear.

First, the value of successfully executing the current realignment plans is tremendous. Unfortunately, many parts of this effort are out of Washington’s control — the electoral politics of Okinawa (although a recent election turned out well for the realignment plans), the shifting fortunes of interests groups within the Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo, the sheer chance that another crime or aircraft crash could turn the population into the streets against American bases.

What Washington can do, and appears to be doing, to promote the successful resolution of the reallocation question is to work for the maximum mutual benefit from the collocation of U.S. and Japanese forces, as well as from bilateral training opportunities at consolidated bases. One Defense Department briefing slide states the objective clearly enough: “not a base within a base but integration of forces on a single facility.” If that goal can be achieved, the realignment effort will have truly contributed to the success of the alliance.

Second, the U. S. will have to take the lead on pushing forward the exploration of roles and missions within the alliance. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces are undergoing as rapid a set of reforms as they ever have. Inserting American preferences for outcomes throughout the process is essential. Likewise, although Japan’s government has long claimed that the constitutionally allowable target of “minimum sufficient defense” does not rise to the standard of “collective self-defense,” it has become increasing apparent that in an era of ever-close alliance and coalition operations, Japan will not be able to achieve the former without exercising the latter. Semantics and taboos are a challenge on this front, but Tokyo’s leadership has been creative before and can surely be so again.

Finally, the successful implementation of missile-defense cooperation is essential if the U.S. and Japan are to avoid a scenario where Pyongyang could drive a wedge through the alliance. Although many factors have prevented Japan from seriously considering nuclear weapons in the past, it is generally recognized that the credible deterrence offered by Washington’s nuclear umbrella has been a necessary one — it now appears that without an effective MD system, this condition may fail. And if missile defense is to succeed, Washington must be convinced of a reciprocal Japanese obligation to protect the U.S. from North Korea’s missile threat, as well.

There are many other fields in which the U.S. and Japan can enhance their diplomatic and security policy coordination, but addressing these priorities should provide a firm basis for achieving the goals that each nation seeks individually and that the recent SCC talks have done much to promote.

CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN is a research associate in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.