Going Beyond a “Faith-Based” US-Japan Alliance

Suzuki Yoshikatsu [Profile]

[2012.08.07] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

The US-Japan security arrangement created by the United States after the end of World War II had two primary aims: to create a bulwark against communism and to prevent the remilitarization of Japan (referred to as keeping the “cap in the bottle”). Sixty years later, with the end of the Cold War between the United States and former Soviet Union, the role of the US-Japan security arrangement changed against the backdrop of the advance of US-led globalization. In that process the bilateral alliance steadily grew deeper—but it also eventually reached a major turning point.

Will Deterrence Really Be Strengthened?

The power game between the United States and China over the building of a new world order is unfolding on a complex stage of global politics, with the two countries deepening their mutual interdependence in the economic realm but adopting an increasingly confrontational military stance toward each other at the same time.

One example of this dynamic can be seen in the South China Sea, where a two-month standoff took place between the US-backed Philippines and China with regard to the Scarborough Shoal (called Huangyan Island by China). Along with that development, the US secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, recently paid a visit to the strategic port Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam, the first such visit since the end of the Vietnam War, reflecting the robust Chinese and American maneuvering in the region.

Given such developments, it is worth considering the joint statement released on April 27, 2012, by the Japan-US Security Consultative Committee as an interim report on the realignment of the two countries’ military alliance. The report emphasizes the following: “The United States plans to locate Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTF) in Okinawa, Guam, and Hawaii and intends to establish a rotational presence in Australia in order to establish a geographically distributed force posture while sustaining the forward presence of U.S. Marine Corps forces in the region.” And the revised posture is specifically described as “strengthening deterrence.”

With the realignment, some 9,000 US Marines will be reposted outside of Japan, leaving around 10,000 troops in Okinawa. Such moves are clearly an expression of the tougher stance of the United States to deter China. But how effective will this deterrent truly be?

Avoiding a Direct China Confrontation

At the heart of the measures outlined in the interim report are the joint US-Japan military exercises carried out on Tinian Island, located in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The Chinese navy, meanwhile, is trying to extend its normal operating area beyond the “first island chain,” which stretches from Okinawa to Taiwan and the Philippines, to also include the “second island chain” that extends from the Ogasawara Islands to the Mariana Islands in the South Pacific. The struggle between the United States and China is beginning to heat up in the area between the first and second island chains.

But the problem revolves around the content of the US strategy toward China, which is centered on avoiding a direct confrontation with China. If this is the key principle, then the joint Japan-US military exercises in the North Marianas Islands, as stipulated in the interim report—as well as the live-fire drills of the Air Self-Defense Force and US Army currently underway in Guam—would have to be seen as strategic moves that withdraw the “forward presence” of US military forces to the second island chain.

The United States may be engaging in a makeshift plan in adopting the new measure of dispersing its forces on a rotational basis across its network that includes Okinawa, Guam, Hawaii, Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines, while leaving 10,000 marines stationed in Okinawa.

The Limits of a “Faith-Based” Alliance

Official sources regarding the Japan-US security relationship have indicated that even though the United States is placing an emphasis on the Pacific region, we should not overlook how public finance factors into the equation.

The rebalancing of US military forces in line with the new emphasis on the Asia-Pacific will involve the aspect of incorporating Asia’s economic power, but there is no question that another factor strongly influencing the strategic shift is the desire to avert troop reductions as much as possible in the face of the long-term pressure of expected reductions in the US defense budget.

What will ultimately be of central importance is the active role of Japan. In the case of an emergency arising in the Senkakus, for example, Japan cannot expect US forces to automatically become involved directly. According to official sources, the blood of American youth will not be shed to protect those islands. If Japan’s reliance on the bilateral alliance becomes too great, the alliance itself will be nothing more than an article of faith.

Even the success of the US forces’ Operation Tomodachi relief effort to assist Japan after the March 11 earthquake, praised as proof of a mature bilateral relationship, seems to have deepened the “faith-based” Japan-US alliance. A security arrangement that loses its appetite for mutual autonomy is one that is beginning to deteriorate.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 25, 2012.)

  • [2012.08.07]

Senior commentator at Jiji Press and editor-in-chief of Diplomacy magazine. Analyzes Japan’s foreign affairs and domestic policies. Joined the Political Affairs Department at Jiji Press after graduating from Waseda University. Served two stints in the United States, one based in Washington, DC, and the other as bureau chief in New York. Works include Imada ni tsuzuku “haisenkoku gaikō” (A Defeated Nation’s Diplomacy: Japanese Relations with Two Great Powers) and Ozawa Ichirō wa naze TV de nagurareta ka (Why Ichiro Ozawa Was Hit on TV: Visible Politics and Invisible Politics in a Televised Age).

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