Another Perspective

Shifting Defense Responsibilities to Japan

Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to the U.S. is a good occasion for some straight talk with a key ally.

By 6.28.06

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Outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is making what is expected to be his last official visit to the U.S. Besides visiting Elvis Presley's Graceland, the Elvis-fan Koizumi is likely to discuss ideas for increased security cooperation in Northeast Asia.

Koizumi, who pointedly said that he would not be viewing Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, has become one of President George W. Bush's favorite allies. Yet what Tokyo has most to offer is abundant military capabilities leavened by an interest in maintaining regional stability, which should allow the U.S. to step back and focus on challenges elsewhere around the globe.

Japan will soon bring home its forces from Iraq. The only people who are likely to notice are the Australians, since they've been guarding the Japanese "soldiers." Notes Australian Prime Minister John Howard, his nation's troops will keep "looking after the Japanese until the Japanese have gone, and I expect that to be quite soon."

This operation would have been a bad joke if it had involved any other country. In December 2003 Tokyo decided to send 550 military personnel to Iraq to provide "humanitarian" assistance, so they were not allowed to defend themselves. The soldiers were stationed in the reasonably peaceful city of Samawah, and were confined to their base if anything untoward happened in the surrounding community. Moreover, first the Dutch and then the Australians deployed soldiers to guard the Japanese "soldiers."

In terms of securing Iraq, the mission obviously was a bust, actually wasting military forces that should have been employed elsewhere. Indeed, Canberra plans on moving its 460 soldiers to guard the Iraq-Syria border, a far more important task than protecting soldiers who don't fight.

Still, the Japanese seem pleased with themselves. The humanitarian mission "has achieved its mission," insists Prime Minister Koizumi. (A cursory survey of Iraq suggests that there is a bit more work to do in this regard, but never mind.) Foreign Minister Taro Aso preened cheerfully: "I think such views [of Japanese professionalism] have made a very big contribution to improving the brand image of Japan as a country."

In fact, Tokyo went along with the U.S. in Iraq -- despite popular opposition to the war -- largely to protect its security ties with America. Admitted the Prime Minister: "Japan's policy to cooperate with the United States based on the importance of the Japan-US alliance has never changed and will not change." That is, Japan recognized that it would be hard to get Washington to continue underwriting the security of the wealthy island nation with the world's second-largest economy if it wasn't willing to help Washington when the latter came calling.

This relationship might make sense for Tokyo, but the benefit for the U.S. is less obvious. Receiving the temporary assistance of 550 Japanese "humanitarian" soldiers is a poor trade for the permanent garrisoning of 40,000 troops in Japan. Better would be for Tokyo to take on responsibility for its own defense as well as regional stability, freeing up U.S. military units for better use elsewhere.

THUS, JAPAN'S PARTICIPATION IN IRAQ will have long-term value for America only if it spurs further reevaluation of Japan's role in the world. Six decades after World War II Japan is still distrusted by her neighbors, criticized for failing to fully acknowledge her past misdeeds, and enmeshed in controversy over the textbooks used by her schools. Opposition to a more active Japanese foreign policy may have abated somewhat in the region, but neither South Korea nor China, in particular, are prepared to forgive and forget.

Yet Tokyo feels ever less comfortable acting as a military junior in America's shadow. Although China's future direction is impossible to predict with any precision, Beijing seems bound to reach for regional dominance. This prospect fills Japan with disquiet. Foreign Minister Aso says that China is becoming "a considerable threat."

Perhaps even more ominous is truculent North Korea. After Pyongyang's 1998 missile launch, Japan realized that it was a convenient target of blackmail and retaliation. Tokyo is in the unpleasant situation of being so tied to Washington as to be a natural target yet so dependent on Washington as to be ill-prepared to defend itself.

Japan has responded by reaffirming its relationship with the U.S. Notes Koji Murata, an international relations professor at Doshishia University: "Japanese people are getting more and more realistic and think we have to sustain the military relationship with the U.S." After the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee met last fall, the Japanese embassy announced: "The two countries also concurred that persistent challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, such as North Korea, engender uncertainty and unpredictability, underscoring the need to pay cautious attention to the modernization of military capabilities in the region."

More significantly, Tokyo also has begun to reassess its foreign and defense policies. In October 2001 the Japanese Diet enacted legislation allowing the dispatch of naval vessels to help refuel coalition ships engaged in the operation in Afghanistan. Two years later the legislature approved the dispatch of the non-combatant "soldiers" to Iraq. (Japan also pledged $5 billion in aid for Iraq, but that reflected Tokyo's traditional strategy of emphasizing economic influence.)

Japan has pointed to Chinese naval activities in its annual defense "white paper" and indicated its concern over potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, Japan even placed a moratorium on financial aid to China. Although Japan recently lifted the restriction, it suggested that Tokyo was less willing to turn the other cheek in the face of international provocation.

There also is popular support for tougher action against North Korea. The emotional response to Pyongyang's kidnapping of Japanese citizens has unhelpfully diverted attention from more serious security issues, particularly the North Korean nuclear program and missile developments. But popular pressure has encouraged the Diet to empower the cabinet to unilaterally impose economic sanctions.

Tokyo's growing assertiveness has not gone without controversy, even in the U.S. American officials once talked about the U.S. military presence as a "cap in the bottle" to contain Japanese nationalism. Analysts ranging from the Clinton administration to the neoconservative Project for the New American Century have opposed transferring military responsibilities to Tokyo. Eugene Matthews, then of the Council on Foreign Relations, warned of "the rise of a militarized, assertive, and nuclear-armed Japan, which would be a nightmare for the country's neighbors."

Yet such fears are short-sighted. Japan is not about to embark upon another imperialist rampage throughout East Asia. Nor does the U.S. possess sufficient resources to fulfill its manifold security responsibilities around the globe as well as underwrite the ever-lengthening line of international welfare queens whose primary goal is to clamber onto the American military dole.

OF COURSE, THE POTENTIAL THREATS PERCEIVED by Tokyo also animate some American officials to support a continued U.S. presence. Opines Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, the American commander in Japan: "You just have to take a look around the region to see why it is so important. The size of the militaries, and in fact the growing military capabilities in this region, certainly gets my attention."

But these growing militaries are precisely the reason Washington should step back and allow its friends to take on primary responsibility for regional security. Japan possesses a sizable modern military, with substantial anti-submarine and mine-clearing capabilities, for instance. Its defense outlays, which could be increased greatly, already place it among the top spenders and enable it to build a military capable of deterring China, in particular.

The Republic of Korea, and especially a united Korea, also could become a much more substantial player. Australia already has taken on significant regional responsibilities. A rapidly growing India is likely to become a more important, and likely positive, force in regional security developments.

Of course, it is up to these countries to choose their own defense policies. Japan faces the unique challenge of dealing with Article 9 of its constitution, which formally bars the maintenance of "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential." But all of them should be made to understand that the U.S. will no longer make it easy for them to avoid taking on responsibility for protecting their own interests.

The end of Tokyo's participation in the Iraq coalition will have no practical impact. But Japan's withdrawal provides the Bush administration with an opportunity to refashion the bilateral alliance. Notes Chris Preble of the Cato Institute: "A new strategic relationship should provide a more durable and credible foundation for addressing the most pressing security challenges facing both countries in East Asia and beyond." America and the free world more generally will benefit of Japan takes on a larger foreign policy role.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).