An alliance in need of attention
Recently declassified Japanese documents have disclosed that after Beijing's successful nuclear test in October 1964, Japan's prime minister urged the United States to use nuclear weapons against China in the event of hostilities. "If war breaks out [with China], we expect immediate nuclear retaliation from the United States," Prime Minister Eisaku Sato told Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara.
After some discussion about the logistics of a retaliatory U.S. strike, McNamara asked Sato to increase Japan's defense budget in response to regional security threats, suggesting that a 500 percent spending hike might be necessary.
At first glance, little seems to have changed. North Korea has tested a nuclear device; Japan is still seeking and receiving reassurance that the United States will defend it; the United States is still demanding greater Japanese defense spending without notable success.
But there have been changes in the security alliance. Cracks have emerged that require attention by the Obama administration and the government in Tokyo.
For example, despite Washington's reassurances, Japanese strategists openly debate their own nuclear option. Now that China has risen and the nuclear facts on North Korean ground have changed, some worry that the U.S. nuclear umbrella might be developing a few holes.
Japan is increasingly concerned about being bullied in the region by a stronger China, or blackmailed by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, while the United States is focused on nuclear proliferation and terrorist attacks on American territory.
Much to Tokyo's chagrin, Washington has taken North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and ceded leadership in multilateral talks about North Korea to Beijing.
Meanwhile, much to Washington's dismay, the long-negotiated "road map" for transforming the unequal U.S.-Japan alliance into a more jointly operational security partnership has run into political roadblocks in Japan. With an election looming - and with the increasingly unpopular Liberal Democratic Party likely to lose power - it seems that Tokyo has allowed domestic interests to tie its diplomacy in knots.
Just when Washington is trying to coax Tokyo into playing a larger security role, Japan is shying away from international missions. It ended its Iraq ground mission in 2007 and concluded its Iraq-Kuwait air cargo shuttle last month. Tokyo has spent months deliberating while Somali pirates seize Japanese and others' ships with valuable cargoes and more than a dozen other nations - including China - dispatch naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden to protect the sea lanes. The Japanese overseas aid program, once the largest in the world, has been cut back by 40 percent.
These days, despite talk about Tokyo stepping up to provide public goods, there seems to be no opportunity too obvious for Japan to miss in international affairs. The government has even abandoned its efforts to reinterpret the constitution to allow its military to protect U.S. forces under fire outside of Japanese territory. Should such protection not be forthcoming in an emergency, the alliance will surely collapse.
In 1965, it was relatively easy for both countries to reaffirm their alliance. Talk was cheap and, it seemed, sufficient. After all, the Cold War threats were colossal but limited in number, and the two countries' wealth and power were growing. The United States had its unsinkable aircraft carrier and Japan had its nuclear umbrella.
Although the shared goals of preserving stability, openness and security in Northeast Asia has not changed, today there are more - and more disparate - threats to each nation. Neither the thresholds for intervention nor the scope and nature of military action are very clear. Strategic ambiguity has its virtues, but ambiguity between strategic partners is a recipe for disaster.
We have allowed alliance symbols, like the nuclear umbrella and common democratic values, to stand as a surrogate for alliance value and a clear division of responsibilities. The United States and Japan are still stronger together than apart, and the mantra of shared interests and values remains true, but we need a recalibration of how alliance burdens are shared and decisions are made, lest one or both of us lose interest.
Greater Japanese contributions to global order are needed, be it in maritime security, helping failed states, or bolstering UN peacekeeping missions. In return, Washington should cede proportionate decision-making power, be prepared for Japan to decline to be entangled in U.S. wars, and truly welcome Japan as a security partner. Under current conditions, what we actually accomplish together is far more important than what we say to each other.
Richard J. Samuels is professor of political science and director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. James L. Schoff is associate director of Asia-Pacific studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Cambridge, Massachusetts.