December 1, 2005  

Transforming the alliance

While the American public and most policymakers have fixated on the war in Iraq, and Asian hands flagellate themselves over the rise of China, the Bush administration has been quietly and successfully negotiating a fundamental transformation of the U.S.-Japanese alliance. This strategic realignment, underway since 2001, promises to break through the myriad organizational, fiscal and legal barriers that traditionally have limited bilateral security cooperation between Washington and Tokyo. In doing so, the two countries finally will harness their combined power to respond to the threats of Islamic terrorism and nuclear North Korea, as well as the rising military power of the People’s Republic of China.

You might call it — take a deep breath — a moment of strategic “transformation.”

The re-invigoration of the alliance has been driven foremost by a genuine partnership between Japan’s dynamic Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President Bush. But it’s also been prompted by a series of crises. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had a deep resonance in Japan as well as the United States. Despite Japan’s distance from the Middle East, the region and its oil are crucial to Japan’s economic well-being, and after the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the threat of terrorism has appeared very real to the Japanese people.

The fall 2002 acknowledgement by North Korea that it possessed a secret uranium enrichment program and had abducted more than a dozen Japanese citizens brought the reality of rogue states closer to home. And the global diplomatic contretemps concerning the war in Iraq suggested to Japanese leaders that the “international community” was ill-prepared to deal with these growing dangers and unable to agree on the role of military force. In each of these cases, Bush and Koizumi have strongly reinforced each others’ positions — including, in the case of Japan, the unprecedented step of dispatching its Self-Defense Forces to support the war on terrorism.


Since 2001, Japan has maintained a flotilla of Maritime Self-Defense Forces supply ships in the Indian Ocean to support U.S. and coalition operations against al-Qaida linked arms and drug smugglers. Since December 2002, Japanese destroyers equipped with Aegis weapons systems have provided security for the supply ships, marking the first time since the Pacific War that the Japanese Navy has conducted wartime operations. It’s not as though the U.S. Navy lacked sufficient firepower to deal with these problems: Japan’s greatest contributions to ongoing coalition operations have been the shared situational awareness that the Japanese Aegis system allows to U.S. forces. Aegis interoperability permits the use of Japanese sensor data in U.S. military operations. Already, Japan has crossed the threshold of its longstanding prohibition on collective self-defense, playing a crucial role in U.S. maritime patrol and picketing operations in the region.

Koizumi was likewise an outspoken supporter of the American position in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, an act of alliance loyalty for which the Bush administration has been especially grateful. After the war began, the Koizumi government was also at the center of a conciliatory effort to engage the international community in supporting the reconstruction of Iraq after the war, setting an example with pledges of billions of dollars in grants to the nascent Iraqi government.

Moreover, when the United Nations Security Council formally authorized multinational participation in the reconstruction of Iraq in October 2003, Japan promptly organized a task force of the Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) to provide humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in the southern Iraqi city of Samawa. The main body of the GSDF troops arrived in spring 2004, shattering a symbolic taboo on Japanese military activities, but to mixed results. Although the GSDF has avoided any loss of life in Iraq, an obsession with force protection and highly restrictive rules of engagement have forced the troops there to depend upon Dutch and Australian forces to defend them against insurgents, and have repeatedly halted their reconstruction efforts after sporadic mortar and rocket attacks.

In sum, Japan’s role during the war on terrorism has demonstrated Japan’s potential as a security partner as well as its present shortcomings. Japan has both a rising interest in closer military and security ties to the United States and tremendous potential, but realizing this goal will take years. Although Japan provided financial and diplomatic support when U.S. war plans were suffering widespread opposition, it was only able to take a supporting role in coalition operations. Where Japan has acted, legal and constitutional restrictions have kept it out of the main effort. A ban on the distribution of arms, for instance, has prevented Japan from fielding a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan, while Japanese troops in Iraq have been hamstrung by serving the fiction that Iraq is not a war zone.

If Japan is to overcome these shortcomings and realize its potential as an alliance partner, the nature of the U.S.-Japanese security relationship will have to undergo fundamental change. While the greater onus for action will fall upon Japan, which has traditionally been the more reluctant partner, the United States government can facilitate this transformation. Fortunately, a significant step in this direction was taken this year.


Since its launch in December 2003, the U.S.-Japanese Security Consultative Committee — commonly known as the “Two-plus-Two” meetings between the U.S. secretaries of state and defense and their Japanese counterparts — has undertaken a comprehensive review of the two countries national strategies as well as the roles, missions and force structures of their armed forces. In this past year, the meetings reached a pair of landmark agreements that have the potential, in the words of lead negotiator Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Richard Lawless, to “transform our alliance.”

The first significant agreement to emerge from the talks, announced in a Feb. 19 joint statement, reflected the increasingly common strategic worldview that Japan and the United States now share. The document announced such ambitious regional goals as supporting “the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula … [encouraging] China to improve transparency in its military affairs … and [encouraging] the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait.” Since these common strategic objectives were announced, the two sides have been engaged in intense negotiations to try to find ways to implement these objectives.

It hasn’t been easy or quick. During these negotiations, a fundamental cleavage emerged over the purpose of the talks: Was the aim to find creative ways to strengthen the capabilities of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, or simply to reduce its burdens on the Japanese? While U.S. negotiators saw the talks as an opportunity to plan for the combined capabilities required to meet the ambitious goals of the original joint statement, Japanese officials were principally concerned with political pressure to ease the costs of hosting U.S. troops, particularly in Okinawa.

Public opinion in Japan has concentrated on this issue, and media reportage throughout the negotiations focused almost exclusively on the reallocation of U.S. forces in Japan, with especially detailed reports on the various proposals, counterproposals, and arguments that arose over the future of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which has been a major irritant since the 1995 abduction and rape of a schoolgirl by troops stationed there. Japanese domestic politics further complicated the agenda, as the original Futenma relocation plan involved a massive project to build an offshore air base — a project that would have filled the coffers of the construction firms who bankroll Koizumi’s political rivals.

U.S. and Japanese negotiators worked through a long set of issues, only recently reaching an agreement that merges Washington’s strategic vision and Japan’s political requirements. Formally announced at the Oct. 29 round of the Two-plus-Two talks, the agreement calls for a consolidation of U.S. and Japanese facilities in Japan and lays the groundwork for Japan to shift its forces southwest toward Kyushu and the Ryukyu island chain in anticipation of a greater role for Japan in the alliance. Three elements of the agreement stand out:

1 The agreement provides for establishment of two colocated headquarters, both requiring and facilitating greater jointness among the notoriously uncooperative Japanese Self-Defense Forces. A bilateral and joint operations coordination center at Yokota Air Base will allow the allies to share missile defense responsibilities, sensor data and situational awareness, as well as the coordination of joint operations. Likewise, the U.S. Army command structure at Camp Zama will be upgraded to a “deployable, joint task-force capable operational headquarters element,” while the GSDF will establish a Central Readiness Force Command. The GSDF especially stands to benefit from a colocated headquarters with its U.S. counterparts, as it is going through the most difficult transition under current Japanese defense plans. Long organized to defend the northern island of Hokkaido against a Soviet invasion, the GSDF needs to learn from the U.S. Army what equipment and practices are necessary to conduct joint operations, especially under expeditionary and amphibious scenarios.

2 The agreement marks a major step forward for U.S.-Japanese cooperation on missile defense, a field where operational cooperation will lead to greater strategic coordination. The governments have agreed to create a U.S.-style X-band radar system, which will permit the high degree of information sharing necessary for targeting ballistic missiles. Likewise, the U.S. has agreed to deploy the land-based Patriot Advanced Capability 3 and naval Standard Missile to support its treaty obligations to Japan. This progress on a cooperative missile defense capability will greatly enhance the alliance’s contribution to defense of the United States and open doors to additional collaboration. Indeed, it’s an important step toward creating a serious missile defense network for both the United States and its East Asian allies.

3 The agreement will work toward resolving the legacy posture of U.S. Forces in Japan. The most important terms of the agreement in this regard provide that the U.S. will remove some 7,000 Marines from Okinawa, explore measures to restore civilian aircraft access to the air space over Yokota — and most of Tokyo — which is under U.S. control, and at the forefront of the public’s mind, the relocation of units at Futenma to extended facilities at Camp Schwab in northern, more rural Okinawa.

In sum, the groundbreaking agreements between the U.S. and Japanese governments in 2005 provide a strategic vision and clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the alliance. The key challenges in the near term will be for both governments to maintain the political will to implement these agreements, especially as they involve challenging organizational prerogatives, funding new investments in defense capabilities, and overcoming the legal barriers to a more effective alliance.


The alliance’s way forward in coming years will require overcoming several obstacles, especially in Japan, where the idea of a real defense alliance provokes great political uneasiness. This is a matter of Japanese domestic, political realities, and the United States will only have limited influence in guiding Tokyo through this minefield.

The first set of obstacles will involve parochial responses by Japanese military branches to change. Although the Japanese government is standing up a Joint Staff Office (JSO) under a 2005 revision of Japan’s Self Defense Forces Law, it is not clear what role and influence it will have within the Japanese military system. What has taken the United States decades to accomplish, imperfectly, the Japanese are attempting in a crash course in jointness.

The situation in Japan is even further confused because the JSO is a sui generis organization. Unlike in the United States, the Japanese chief of joint staff will only have statutory authority to advise the director-general of the Japan Defense Agency on matters of operations, not policy. And this operational authority will be further compromised because joint headquarters will only be created on an ad hoc basis, with local commanders in peacetime answering to their service superiors rather than a standing joint officer, as in the U.S. combatant commander system. It is for this reason that the collocation of U.S. and Japanese capabilities at Yokota Air Base and Camp Zama will be especially valuable, as they will allow Japanese counterparts to gain working experience with joint operations that the Japanese structure cannot immediately provide.

The primary fiscal barrier to Japan’s realization of the goals and roles set out in the 2005 agreements is that defense spending in the country has long been treated as what long-time Japan observer Kent Calder describes as the “the residual” of the Japanese governmental budget. In part a result of American guidance, Japan traditionally limited its defense expenditures at 1 percent of gross domestic product.

As the U.S. military has learned so painfully, defense transformation, particularly in time of war, is not the cheap solution. Japan set out an ambitious defense procurement agenda in its December review, but the pursuit of U.S.-Japan cooperation on such state-of-the-art projects as missile defense will push the fiscal envelope, at the very least. Already, the anticipated price tag for Japanese participation in missile defense has tripled, raising concerns about how the Japanese government will cut corners in order to maintain the overall defense budget restriction. And, with increased cooperation, the Pentagon needs to watch for the kind of shell games — not unknown in this country — that can create constraints and limit participation in future joint programs.


Money’s not the only problem. Japanese defense transformation is constrained by myriad legal restrictions to participation in international security cooperation. While these restrictions are too numerous to list in detail, two of the most onerous are the prohibition on the exercise of collective self-defense and the so-called “Miki” restraints on the export of weapons and arms technology.

This is an even more basic problem than that of fiscal constraints. The Japanese debate on collective self-defense strikes at the heart of the U.S.-Japan alliance; absent a resolution of the issue, the prospects for a strategic transformation dim considerably. The Cabinet Legislation Bureau, which is responsible for interpreting Japan’s constitution, maintains that although Japan possesses the sovereign right of collective self-defense, the exercise of that right is unconstitutional because it would exceed minimum requirements for national defense. In other words, anything more than the most defensive posture is out of bounds. This interpretation is reinforced by the U.S.-Japanese Mutual Security Treaty, which compels the United States to defend Japan without reciprocal provision for the defense of American territory.

For the duration of the Cold War, this asymmetry in alliance obligations was moot because realistic scenarios pointed to an American defense of and counterattack against the Soviet Union from Japan, hence the common metaphor of Japan as the “shield” for the U.S. military “spear” in Asia. As the two countries field an increasingly capable missile defense capability in the face of growing military challenges from North Korea and China, however, the possibility that Japan might become militarily involved in operations with and on behalf of the United States will become increasingly real. The neat division of labor, the fiction on which the alliance has traditionally rested, is no longer possible — if indeed it ever was. Japanese politicians and public opinion must confront this reality.

A second onerous legal hurdle is the ban on the export of military arms or technology imposed by Prime Minister Takeo Miki in 1976. Although inspired by entirely pacifistic intentions — in truth, such Japanese intentions are at the core of the problem — the result has been that Japan’s defense industry is trapped in short product runs and is incapable of joint ventures with allied countries. Consequently, Japan produces the world’s most expensive tank and mainline fighter aircraft, further eroding the true purchasing power of Japan’s limited budget. Although the Japanese government has made exceptions, including that for bilateral missile defense development, Miki’s export ban, and the approach to defense industrial cooperation that underlies it, must ultimately be rolled back if Japan is to be a full partner of the United States.

Although neither of these changes would, strictly speaking, require constitutional revision, it is clear that the most natural way to approach them would be by rewriting the constitutional article on self-defense to reflect the realities of Japan’s defense requirements. Such a process is both appropriate and required, given the fundamental political questions at issue. Although such a revision will take time — even the icon-busting Koizumi isn’t ready to take this on — it is heartening that a recent poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper found that 65 percent of Japanese would support such changes. In any case, a national debate over the constitution will facilitate a more honest, democratically rooted understanding of the role that Japan should play in the international security system. The reward is probably worth the risk and effort, but there’s no denying the current constraints on the alliance.

But there’s also no denying the optimism and sense of purpose on both sides of the Pacific. The Two-plus-Two agreements this year reflect real progress, and Japan’s participation in the war on terrorism provides a framework for a deeper, consolidated alliance. Thus Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s statement in March that “Japan has earned its honorable place among the nations of the world by its own effort and its own character.”

For a besieged Bush administration that has seen the functional collapse of the traditional Atlantic alliance, this is a welcome bright spot — and so it is for a thinly stretched U.S. military struggling to cope with the strategic demands of the 21st century.