Let Japan help defend America — and itself

By Clyde Prestowitz
June 2, 2014

Members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces' airborne troops stand at attention during the annual SDF troop review ceremony at Asaka Base in Asaka

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now following through on actions laid out in his recent bold speech calling for Japan to defend allies who might be under attack.

But wait, you may ask, hasn’t the United States had a mutual security treaty with Japan for more than half a century?

Well, not quite. Yes, Washington has had a mutual defense-security treaty with Tokyo since 1951. But Japan is not committed to defending the United States or any of its armed forces. In fact, Japanese forces are prohibited from helping Washington in time of war — even if the war is in defense of Japan.

This goes back to the postwar U.S. Occupation of Japan and the creation of the Japanese constitution. Determined that Tokyo would never again pose a threat to its Asian neighbors or the United States, Occupation leader General Douglas MacArthur and his staff were sympathetic to Japanese pacifists’ proposal to include a no-war making article in the constitution, then being written with oversight by the Occupation authorities. This worked with the policies of then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who wanted to focus on rebuilding the Japanese economy — without the distraction of creating a major defense force.

Japan's PM Abe speaks during a news conference at his official residence in TokyoSo Japan’s constitution prohibits engagement in war. Despite using the term “mutual” to describe the U.S.-Japan agreement, there has never been anything mutual about it. It has always been a unilateral U.S. guarantee of Japan’s defense.

This has long suited the U.S. foreign policy leadership, both Democratic and Republican. Washington has preferred to direct a forward defense against possible threats instead of relying on possibly pesky allies. It uses Japan as its most important forward base — particularly for the Seventh Fleet, which patrols Asian and South Pacific waters. The U.S. security community has therefore largely supported Japan’s pacifist policies — while quietly urging that the constitutional interpretation be broadened to allow more support for U.S. and U.N. peacekeeping efforts.

This may have been the right policy for Washington to pursue when the U.S. economy made up about 50 percent of the global gross domestic product; when U.S. military dominance in the Asia-Pacific region was absolute, and when U.S. and Japanese interests more or less coincided. But that situation no longer prevails.

The U.S. economy is now roughly 22 percent of global GDP, on the way to perhaps 15 percent. Relative military power has also shifted. The Pentagon, for example, would not today sail two aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Straits between China and Taiwan as it did in 1995, at a time of tension between Taiwan and mainland China. Nor do U.S. and Japanese interests coincide to the same extent.

Members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces' infantry unit take part in the military's review during the annual troop review ceremony in Asaka, JapanConsider, the unoccupied Senkaku Islands, administered by Japan but whose Japanese ownership is disputed by China. These barren rocks are of no strategic or economic value to the United States. Yet, Washington could find itself going to war with China over them because of the peculiarities of the Japanese constitution and the U.S.-Japan security relationship.

Abe’s moves are likely to be greeted with suspicion, even violent opposition, by many in Asia. Some in the United States may also resist it. This is partly because of the still-festering wounds of World War Two and political expedience in Asia. But it is also due to U.S. concerns about Abe’s past as a right-wing, somewhat anti-American politician.

These concerns, however, should not impede U.S. support for the prime minister’s proposals. Washington does not have to agree with everything Abe says in order to support him when he says something that makes sense.

There is a growing risk that Washington may be drawn into confrontation with Beijing as a result of parochial issues between China and some U.S. allies. Japan, by taking greater responsibility for its own defense and that of its allies, would be moving to decrease this risk of having to put more Americans in harm’s way.

Washington should not only support this — it should welcome it. Despite the inevitable howls from some Asian capitals.

 

PHOTO (TOP): Members of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces’ airborne troops stand at attention during the annual SDF troop review ceremony at Asaka Base in Asaka, near Tokyo, October 27, 2013. REUTERS/Issei Kato

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo, May 15, 2014.REUTERS/Toru Hanai

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Members of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces’ infantry unit take part in the military’s review during the annual troop review ceremony at Asaka Base in Asaka, near Tokyo, October 27, 2013. REUTERS/Issei Kato

 

11 comments

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As long as there is no foreign military boots on American soil ever!!! L.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

“… inevitable howls from some Asian capitals” consists of a grand total of 2: China and South Korea. Well, maybe North Korea if it feels like not pissing off China.

Posted by Zoecon | Report as abusive

The author ignores or does not understand that Japan foots a large portion of the bill in keeping US forces in Japan. Base upkeep, maintenance, local laborers and some security services are provided at Japanese taxpayer expense. This is very different from US forces in NATO nations, where the NATO “Ally” spends nothing to maintain US bases and takes American protection for granted.

Japan needs US forces for its defense, and unlike NATO nations, the government will make the Japanese taxpayer foot a significant portion of the bill.

Posted by Hessler | Report as abusive

Obama got his Peace Nobel Price during his first year in office, and ever since he has been working his back off to earn it. I highly respect that. But does the old adage “if you want peace, prepare for war” still hold true? Only the time will tell.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Any broad-brush rant/comment about China (Mr. Xi) or Japan (Mr. Abe) is meaningless and idiotic. It is NOT that simple. I wish it is.

I basically agree with what is stated in this article. We should pick and choose what to support and what not to support internationally, case by case, especially when dealing with China and Japan. Mr. Clyde Prestowitz provided some good insight.

Posted by fw360 | Report as abusive

Politics often requires posturing and over-the-top dramatics. In Japan, this is often equated to Kabuki drama. Let us see if Mr Abe is doing Kabuki to appeal to his voters. The real Mr. Abe may be a far more reasonable man, willing to appease China and work to maintain profitable business relations. In his first term, Mr. Abe was very pro-China and made his first trip overseas as PM to visit CCP leaders in Beijing.

Abe the Pragmatist is likely the real Mr. Abe. For the sake of world peace and stability, this is an admirable and desirable posture for a Japanese leader.

Posted by Hessler | Report as abusive

It makes absolutely no difference at this point if you understand economics. The time to act was 35 years ago when Japan had a cash surplus but chose to build unnecessary infrastructure. From 2009 the Chinese GDP passed Japan and will be double by 2018 and double again by 2030. Chinese growth may vary but Japan with a declining population will be static. If Japan even tries to project offensive military capability – China will bury it in spending. Japan should invest in a strong core island defense like Switzerland – but it will NOT be able to hold onto any disputed or far flung islands without the US.

Posted by John2244 | Report as abusive

@AtlassMirror: None of the 15 is true except for 6. Lying does not help your argument. Study more.

Posted by Mike_Ko | Report as abusive

Here comes China’s 50 Cent Party…

Posted by CCPlookout | Report as abusive

Fantastic article post.Really thank you! Cool.