October 1, 2008  

Turmoil in Tokyo

Military bases and the nuclear deterrent are key to reinvigorating the U.S.-Japan alliance

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s recent decision to step down in the face of implacable indecision in Tokyo has confounded alliance management. What should Washington do about a key ally that appears incapable of more than riding the coattails of the United States? American observers could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that Japan simply is not up to decision-making, or even governance, and has reverted to a series of rotating prime ministers, each incapable of strong leadership.

However, the political turmoil in Tokyo, and the unfortunately familiar adversity in the alliance caused by having to deal with four Japanese governments in three years, can be the catalyst for very constructive discussions and significant progress if its implications are accepted as a basis for future cooperation.

When Fukuda visited Washington, D.C., in November 2007, in essence he told the Bush administration that Japan would be taking on fewer far-abroad security responsibilities.

Expectations for the visit were low. The “special relationship” between President Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi, who stepped down in 2006, was a fading memory; the highly touted tenure of his successor, Shinzo Abe, was a disappointment. But Fukuda did a better job than most of his predecessors in clarifying the terms of discussion for his visit. In a Washington Post interview published before his departure for the U.S., he laid out the basis for security discussions that could not have been more direct, or more at odds with the Bush administration’s expectations for a more muscular Japanese military contribution to shared interests. In response to Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ request in Tokyo that Japan shoulder global responsibilities “commensurate with its wealth and military strength,” the prime minister replied in his interview before his visit that Japan would narrow the main focus of its security policy to East Asia.

Whatever one thinks of the Fukuda’s response to Gates, it serves to highlight Tokyo’s and Washington’s different perspectives on international security. One hopes that alliance managers and policymakers in the White House and the Pentagon are following the press.

It is no revelation that Japan and the U.S. see the world from very different perspectives, but their partnership has far more interests in common than it has disagreements over strategy and resources. American geostrategic influence and numerous advantages depend on the security of Japan. By the same token, American security strategy and deterrence posture are vitally important to Japan’s national security. These are the chief reasons, deep economic ties aside, why it is vitally important to evaluate on a continual basis the modalities, objectives and operations of the bilateral security alliance.

Fukuda had been Japan’s de facto national security adviser for many years, and has been a great support of the alliance and its security relationship. His reassertion of the facts of alliance life helped to frame not only the prime minister’s tenure, but also any ongoing alliance debate. It is important to re-emphasize these fundamental realities during a period of alliance retrenchment and domestic political campaigning in both countries in order that we can continue to emphasize what is important to the alliance.

So how should the alliance proceed from here? Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo, makes the point in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that Japan should concentrate on building relationships in Washington, with the Congress and elsewhere, that will prepare for dealing with the next president’s administration. This is a welcome commentary and always a useful approach, but it does not deal with fundamental alliance circumstances. We Americans have gotten ahead of ourselves in emphasizing the externalities of the alliance, manifested in the strategic emphasis on greater international roles and responsibilities for Japan to “do more,” without attending to the internal structure of the alliance, which always has rested on a formula of U.S. bases in Japan provided in return for American strategic security guarantees, the so-called nuclear umbrella.

Nothing has been said or done to change this fundamental formula. No arrangement can last forever, but it has been an article of faith in both capitals for many years that this is one that works superbly at the strategic level. That said, if the next prime minister and president want to preserve its benefits for posterity, at a time when the strategic environment is changing rapidly around them and new bilateral political, military and economic challenges are emerging, they first will have to consider together how to satisfy the alliance’s internal requirements.

What may be different is that Japan has an often overlooked strategic deterrence role to play, as well. In a formula in which deterrence has been seen as an exclusive American responsibility, the longstanding reality is that Tokyo’s constructive management of America’s military posture in Japan has a significant strategic effect on regional and global stability and security. This linkage puts the formula of bases for security in a new, constructive light.


America’s nuclear security guarantee to Japan is the bedrock of the bilateral alliance and fundamental to regional stability and to U.S. counterproliferation strategies.

Tokyo-based Australian commentator Robyn Lim has been tireless in her argument that the strategic circumstances surrounding the bilateral security relationship have changed and that deterrence assumptions and arrangements that are the bedrock for bilateral cooperation are outdated and perhaps obsolete. This is an important point for American strategic planners: Deterrence works only if it is accepted in the minds of its beholders. Not only must deterrent strategies and capabilities change to conform to new circumstances. They must satisfy beneficiaries, in this case Japan, as well as compel opponents. American rhetorical assurances of strategic commitment to Japan are necessary but, by themselves, woefully insufficient to reassure an increasingly insecure and anxious Japanese body politic and public. Neither are closed-door arrangements and developments sufficient. Security guarantees and deterrence capabilities have to be sufficiently public to have the necessary desired psychological effect. This is one of two essential internal elements of the bilateral security relationship that needs considerable attention, not least because Japan no longer can track and be assured by external strategic capabilities and modalities that were the result of U.S. arrangements with NATO during the Cold War.

After 1945, even though U.S.-Japanese strategic or technical discussions on deterrence never occurred, Tokyo could track U.S. strategic nuclear force doctrines and operations with NATO and was assured of the credibility of American guarantees. Lately, however, Washington has been relatively silent on nuclear deterrence, the Nuclear Posture Review not withstanding, and unease in Japan has overtaken confidence in the nuclear umbrella. This is an unprecedented and troubling development.

Furthermore, military, bureaucratic and diplomatic practices, procedures and institutional structures do not exist for the discussion of nuclear matters. To the contrary, they have been avoided assiduously in the alliance because of nuclear politics (the so-called “nuclear allergy”) in Japan.

While Japan’s preference for American extended deterrence, to the exclusion of its own independent capabilities, has precluded Japanese serious remilitarization and escalation since the end of World War II, this posture cannot be taken for granted. Japan is increasingly insecure as a result of North Korean truculence and the emergence of China as a great power.

More recently, Japanese critics and strategic commentary have questioned the reliability of the nuclear umbrella given changed strategic circumstances, and posited the requirement for Japan’s own deterrent, including nuclear weapons and organic Japanese pre-emptive strategic strike capabilities. At Japan’s request, the October 2005 Joint Statement by the U.S. and Japanese secretaries of state and defense explicitly highlighted the importance of nuclear deterrence for Japan’s security, but American responses have been rhetorical and declaratory rather than detailed and reassuring.

Within Japan’s Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry there also are clear indications of growing interest in a more formal and institutionalized U.S.-Japan dialogue on Japan’s nuclear security. Japanese Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry officials have raised questions to American interlocutors regarding the credibility of the U.S. nuclear guarantee and about how to demonstrate that credibility.

One idea that has arisen is a joint dialogue on nuclear scenarios that might entail U.S. deterrence of nuclear threats to Japan. Particular concern focused on possible marginal scenarios in which U.S. readiness to bring its nuclear deterrent to bear on Japan’s behalf could be in question — or thought by an adversary to be in question. Closely related, some Japanese also have highlighted the issue of U.S.-Japan decision-making in a nuclear or missile crisis.

These are appropriate but speculative approaches, given the absence of appropriate terms and structures for a bilateral dialogue on the nuclear umbrella. Furthermore, U.S. policymakers have been virtually silent on the issue since the publication of the Nuclear Posture Review in 2001, which unnecessarily and seriously undercuts that pronouncement.

For the U.S., the stakes are very high. As long as the U.S. commitment to Japan’s security (including nuclear security) remains strong and credible, it is very probable that Japan will continue to choose not to seek nuclear weapons. By contrast, an erosion of that credibility almost certainly would lead to a reversal of Japan’s long-standing non-nuclear posture, triggering wider proliferation chains, nuclear competition and instabilities throughout Asia, and a virtual collapse of a half-century of U.S. global efforts to contain proliferation.

These compelling circumstances require proactive American steps to articulate and communicate its strategic intentions in a deliberate process that is reassuring both politically and militarily, coupled with realistic Japanese diplomatic, military and public engagement.


The other internal element of bilateral security cooperation that the next prime minister and U.S. president should be discussing is the issue of American bases in Japan. Japan and the U.S. depend upon one another: Japan provides base access and the U.S. provides strategic deterrence and security guarantees. Often these contributions are seen as different and mutually exclusive: “Japan has no role in deterrence — that is an American responsibility.”

In fact, Japan’s deterrence roles and responsibilities are profound and far-reaching in many ways. Providing effective, useful, sustainable bases for U.S. forces and for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces is fundamental to credible and effective alliance deterrence. This is so because successful base management is a fundamental aspect of successful strategic deterrence, highlighting an often-overlooked Japanese deterrent role and responsibility. The U.S.-Japan base structure is one way by which we demonstrate as an alliance that we mean what we say: We will defend Japan, support regional security and stability, and maintain a global deterrent posture.

Bases in Japan are a profound Japanese commitment to deterrence — and a vital contribution to self-defense and global stability. Working out viable base solutions that permit effective operations and long-term planning is a practical requirement and outcome of alliance cooperation, and an important part of the deterrence equation. Workable base solutions add to effective deterrence.

American bases in Japan are concentrations of U.S. military capability in East Asia that are the basis for America’s forward-deployed defense strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Despite their importance, however, much more needs to be done to ensure their longevity and usefulness. As a general proposition, the U.S. should consider that it will have to integrate those American bases in Japan that it wishes to preserve in the long term.

This presents a particular problem for American military commanders and those in the U.S. who are charged with managing base issues: Virtually every bilateral base negotiation leads to reversion. Neither U.S. forces nor the Self-Defense Forces have enough bases as it is, and neither military establishment can afford to relinquish any currently in use. We can, and must, do better than this, first by highlighting the operational rather than the political basis for negotiations and long-range planning.

In the bilateral context, over many years, U.S. bases in Japan have become a so-called “American problem.” Socially and culturally, they are too often exclusive and segregated U.S. enclaves, surrounded by large municipal populations that are pressing naturally and inexorably upon base perimeters. Despite the imperative for engaging Japan on the base issue at the local and national level, American military leaders have been reluctant to tinker with existing arrangements, not least because the modalities for sharing arrangements have not been put into place that would guarantee access for greatly increased crisis surge forces flowing forward from the U.S.

There are precedents for this concern, such as at the naval base in Sasebo, where sharing pier space with Japanese civilian shipbuilding companies under ostensibly restricted peacetime agreements became problematic when the U.S. Navy wanted to borrow back the loaned facility. Fukuoka Air Base is another example often quoted by experienced observers, where American equities were not protected and operational access was lost over time.

There are, however, numerous examples of successful base-sharing arrangements in Japan that point toward a successful base integration policy. These precedents start at home, where many American bases are, in fact, shared military and civilian facilities. For example, anyone who has flown into Honolulu International Airport in Hawaii also has landed at Hickam Air Force Base. Civil-military cooperation there is smooth, the arrangements are virtually invisible, and the reintroduction of U.S. Air Force C-17 strategic airlifters to Hickam after many years of no operational presence there other than the Air National Guard has gone off without a hitch.

Japan has its own successful precedents for base integration. Atsugi Air Base and Yokosuka Naval Base are obvious examples where Japanese Self-Defense forces and U.S. forces have operated from the same facilities. Misawa Air Base in northern Japan is an even better example. Not only do Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces and American forces operate together, but the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force fly from the same airfield, no mean feat in itself. To top it all, Japanese civilian airlines operate from Misawa Air Base, as well.

These are longstanding arrangements. To change arrangements remains a challenge, however. Negotiations over American (largely Marine Corps) redeployments from Okinawa to Guam have taken many years and still are not finalized. Furthermore, replacing the Marine Corps facility at Futenma Air Base with another airfield on Okinawa has dragged on since 1995 and lingers unresolved.

These may seem like technical issues, but base issues such as these impose severe opportunity costs. Base negotiations have sucked the oxygen from other essential bilateral discussions and effectively have precluded vital discussions of strategic purpose and direction for the alliance for the better part of a decade. This is one reason why we are confronted with fundamental bilateral disagreement over Japan’s strategic military posture and contributions to bilateral, regional and global security, and why the alliance has not come to grips with challenges and changes to its tenets of deterrence.


One way ahead is to look for new approaches to opportunities for success that are already on the table. Yokota Air Base presents one such opportunity. It represents every aspect of the neuralgia affecting American bases in Japan. It is virtually an exclusive American enclave, despite the recent movement there of new Japanese Air Self-Defense Force command facilities. Yokota is the headquarters of the commander of U.S. forces in Japan, who also commands the 5th Air Force, but few American operating forces are located at Yokota — it is essentially a logistics and transportation facility of vital strategic importance for surge operations in response to regional crisis and the defense of Japan. Yokota Air Base sits in western Tokyo, amid a burgeoning metropolitan population. It is a prime example of the opportunities for base integration, not just because the Tokyo Metropolitan Government desperately needs another civilian airport, but also as a key strategic issue for the alliance.

These circumstances provide a superb opportunity for the prime minister and the president to drive the alliance in the right direction, by getting base issues moving so they can concentrate on other pressing bilateral concerns. One approach to consider is whether and how to integrate Yokota Air Base, including three alternatives: civil-military integration, thereby making Yokota Air Base available for commercial and general-aviation operations; U.S.-Japanese military-military integration, which would bring Japanese commands and aircraft to Yokota on a permanent basis; and military-civil-military integration, a combination of the first two approaches. Military-civil-military integration at Yokota can work. It remains to be seen whether it will work.

Looking at the history of base negotiations, Americans are justified in their concerns that any discussion of bases will lead to reversion and the departure of U.S. forces.

It is no secret, but not well-known, that American offers are on the table for U.S.-Japanese military base integration across the board, in Okinawa, throughout Japan and on Guam. We should follow up on these offers and make general military base integration a first priority, for broader alliance purposes.

Presently, however, despite the agreement between Bush and successive Japanese prime ministers to sponsor progress toward civil-military integration, bilateral negotiations to make Yokota Air Base available to civilian passenger and cargo operations are constrained by three factors.

The first constraining factor is that the terms of the negotiations have been artificially constrained. Limiting the negotiations to consideration and rejection of the proposal based on operational considerations that ostensibly preclude integration has prevented recognition of the broader opportunities for success that are on the table only implicitly. Two issues that must be part of the discussions immediately come to mind. One is the fact that bilateral civil aviation Open Skies negotiations are stalled. They should be introduced to Yokota base-integration talks as a desired outcome and built into technical arrangements as a major quid pro quo. The other is that Tokyo Metropolitan Government interests must be taken into account. Whether or not he is seated at the table, clearly the governor has a vote on the future of the air base. His implicit veto of bilateral cooperation and good municipal relations should be converted into positive support of the American military presence as a means for constructive change. Tokyo needs another civil airfield. Careful integration of Yokota Air Base can and should be construed as a practical solution to a key Japanese civil aviation requirement.

However, there are inescapable facts of any realistic plan for civil-military integration of Yokota Air Base. First, military operations must take precedence over civil operations. Second, there are significant military technical requirements that must be understood and incorporated into any plan for civil-military integration, for both air operations and ground operations. Inevitably, successful integration will require another runway at Yokota. Third, there will be extensive infrastructure requirements for base facilities and road and rail improvements. To be realistic, they will have to be comprehensive. Fourth, integration will be expensive, and the costs will have to be shared by the government of Japan and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The costs of integration can be justified if negotiations are enlarged to seat all those with a positive stake in the outcome. Currently, the table is not big enough.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s concept of adjunct civil aviation facilities on the periphery of Yokota Air Base is insufficiently integrative. Plans for civil aviation and transportation infrastructure at Yokota Air Base should penetrate the fence line and become substantial elements of base operations. Without doing so, integration loses much of its substantive effect.

The U.S. military’s own interests are not being sufficiently represented, either. Instead of simply protecting current equities, an expanded and self-interested American approach should consider the advantages of new base facilities and surrounding complementary metropolitan infrastructure, paid for and maintained by Japan but designed to American specifications and available for exclusive military use during periods of heavy operational use and surge operations. The objective would be to integrate new dual-use passenger and cargo handling capacity into the base infrastructure, and build new transportation infrastructure that makes Yokota’s logistics support mission feasible over the long term.

The Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the new Ministry of Defense have been bystanders in this process. They should be handed a stake in the positive outcome of civil-military integration negotiations and offered long-denied operational access to Yokota Air Base.


The second constraining factor is that, as a result of this constrained negotiating scope, numerous key stakeholders have been sidelined. Negotiating authority has been vested in the same military commands and agencies that perceive that they have the most to lose, and who at best are the least motivated for change.

Physically present but not engaged are Japanese and American diplomats, who have been sidelined despite their fundamental stake in alliance progress during a crucial period of strategic introspection. This is, after all, a bilateral security issue, at least as much as a bilateral defense issue.

Also not present are municipal leaders from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and civil and governmental transportation leaders from both countries, those stakeholders who have the most to gain. Why shouldn’t Tokyo become a regional air hub without equal, in time for the 2016 Olympics, as a direct result of the alliance mandate?

This is the time to revamp the structure of the debate, broaden participation, and reassign overall responsibility and authority to the foreign Ministry and State Department.

The third constraining factor is that legitimate concerns that sharing with civilian entities might become permanent encroachment upon strategic military requirements could be addressed and solved, but negotiators, diplomats and military officials have not been able to get to this key structural point regarding base integration. We have a poor track record on this issue.

No suggestion for the integration of Yokota Air Base or any other military facility would be realistic or credible without guaranteed exclusive military use of the facility when peacetime and crisis operations warrant. There are myriad positive and successful precedents for such arrangements. To be credible, arrangements for exclusive military use must be based on legitimate military requirements for peacetime, as well as surge operations, both of which are well understood by the Japanese side. Realistic arrangements not only must account for military requirements, but also should anticipate and plan for the interruption of civil aviation operations when necessary. Establishing this latter doctrine would, in itself, be a major accomplishment with beneficial effects much broader than operations at Yokota Air Base. These arrangements must be carefully defined and exercised frequently enough to become custom- tailored to legitimate bilateral interests, and to be a reminder of civil and military equities in peacetime and crisis.

Yokota Air Base civil-military integration is an important opportunity for positive change in the U.S.-Japan security relationship. Civil-military base integration can work at Yokota. Getting to “yes” will require another runway; extensive infrastructure investments; the ever-crucial local municipality concurrence; far more creative military-civil air traffic control cooperation, perhaps even redesigning Tokyo airspace from scratch; working bilaterally to increase capacity at Narita and Haneda; and establishing Tokyo as the premier air traffic hub in East Asia.

If these strategic discussions are handled properly, emphasizing deterrence rather than politics, both sides will come out stronger. The alliance will benefit at a time when internal focus on the basics of deterrence and bases is the first order of business for the prime minister and the president.

PAUL GIARRA is a retired Navy officer and senior program manager at SAIC’s Strategic Assessment Center in McLean, Va. The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Lewis A. Dunn, Maria Farkas and Tamotsu Takase to this article. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and he represents no one other than himself here.