Japan's strategic realignment

Posted in Japan | 13-Dec-05

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London is a "Partner of Worldsecuritynetwork" and periodically contributes its analyses to the…
The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London is a "Partner of Worldsecuritynetwork" and periodically contributes its analyses to the WSN Newsletter.
Consequential changes

With purpose, momentum and unmistakable symbolism, Japanese policymakers have embarked upon major new steps in their country’s continuing strategic reassessment, ones that are leading inexorably to Japan’s emergence as a ‘normal’ power. On 29 October, Tokyo and Washington jointly assented to long-pending changes in bilateral security collaboration, including important alterations in roles, missions, capabilities and force posture alignments that will take place over the coming six years. On 22 November, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) unveiled a long-awaited document on constitutional revisions, for the first time proposing changes in national policies that had been promulgated by American occupation forces in late 1946. Constitutional revisions could prove even more consequential than the new ‘rules of the road’ for the alliance. The LDP document has further stimulated intensive deliberations over Japan’s future security strategy, as defined by the Japanese themselves, rather than as mandated by their American ally. Although this process is in its gestational stages, it will ultimately redefine Japan’s political-military roles and responsibilities, with major implications for the US–Japan alliance and for Tokyo’s relations with neighbouring states, some of whom view the emergence of a normal Japan with wariness or even outright hostility.

The domestic debate

The preparation of a draft constitution, overseen by former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, culminates a decade-and-a-half of debate over Japan’s post-Cold War security orientation. Since Tokyo’s ‘chequebook diplomacy’ prior to the Gulf War of 1991, when Japan provided money rather than practical support to the military effort, Japanese leaders have grappled with the strategic purposes and the legal framework of the US–Japan alliance. Tokyo at first proved incapable of defining a different role in the post-Cold War world. Senior officials repeatedly acknowledged the highly asymmetric character of the alliance bargain, with continued restrictions on the role of Japanese forces beyond the defence of the home islands, territorial waters and air space. Joint US–Japan strategic reviews undertaken in the mid- and late-1990s reaffirmed Japan’s centrality in America’s regional alliance strategies, but American officials repeatedly endeavoured to extend the scope of security collaboration. The Bush administration, in particular, sought to enhance the US–Japan alliance, predicated on Tokyo moving much closer to ‘normal’ power status.

However, in recent years Washington has been pushing at an increasingly open door, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a key agent in a process of domestic change. A strategy review undertaken by a senior advisory group at the behest of Koizumi, published in October 2004, asserted the need for a ‘multi-functional flexible defence force’. The group alluded to mounting concern about China’s increased military power, North Korean ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, post-11 September terrorist threats, and the dangers posed by WMD proliferation. The close correspondence between these expressed security challenges and those voiced by senior US officials hardly seemed accidental.

Japanese Air Self Defense Force F-15s rendezvous with a US KC-135 tanker from Kadena airbase on Okinawa, in preparation for…
Japanese Air Self Defense Force F-15s rendezvous with a US KC-135 tanker from Kadena airbase on Okinawa, in preparation for refuelling, April 21, 2005.
Even more fundamentally, Japan’s security reassessment reflected the shifting centre of gravity in Japanese domestic politics. The political left has been increasingly marginalised in Japan, with leaders far less equivocal about a heightened major-power role now in the ascendancy. Although leaders such as Koizumi remain closely identified with the US–Japan security relationship, the alliance tie is also a means to larger Japanese ends. Particular attention has focused on potential changes to Article IX of the US-prepared constitution, which mandated that Japan foreswear the threat or use of force to resolve international disputes, and the corollary absence of the right to collective self-defence. While these issues had emerged intermittently over the decades, it was only in recent years that political momentum swung in favour of constitutional revision. Legislative actions enabling Japanese deployments to the Indian Ocean following 11 September, and the subsequent stationing of Japanese peacekeepers in Iraq, constituted interim measures on the path to larger changes. Koizumi’s resounding triumph in parliamentary elections on 11 September 2005 and the advocacy of constitutional revision by the largest opposition party (the Democratic Party of Japan) have made the path easier to tread. However, the continued opposition of the LDP’s coalition partner (the New Komeito Party) suggests that final approval of potential revisions is likely to be some years away.

The LDP draft constitution for the first time advocates maintenance of ‘military forces for self-defense … with the Prime Minister as the supreme commander’. It also seeks to elevate the role of the Japan Defense Agency to cabinet-level rank equivalent to other ministries. Although abjuring the right to collective self-defence, the document’s drafters assert that such a right will be explicitly acknowledged in separate legislation, thereby enabling a larger Japanese international security role, while still precluding the deployment of Japanese combat personnel beyond the nation’s territory. But the long-standing political fiction that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces do not constitute a uniformed military seems increasingly dubious, with Tokyo intent upon defining a security role commensurate with major-power standing – albeit one geared primarily to the defence of Japan, contributions to multinational peacekeeping, and specific areas of security collaboration with the United States, most prominently on ballistic missile defence and accelerated efforts to interdict WMD activities under the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

Towards a new alliance bargain

The United States has been a highly interested if indirect party in these internal deliberations. Tokyo clearly recognises that it is America’s security partner of choice in East Asia, with major US air and naval assets and close to 50,000 US personnel deployed at bases and facilities within Japan. As the Bush administration has increasingly sought to enhance its ability to project US power into distant locations at very short notice, fuller utilisation of regional bases and facilities and enhanced interoperability with local forces has become ever more imperative. Japan is essential to this process; without expanded access to Japanese ports, airfields and supply depots, the US capacity to project power within the West Pacific and beyond would be gravely weakened.

As part of a larger review of US regional defence strategies, Washington and Tokyo in late 2002 initiated joint consultations on the future of the alliance, encompassing an unusually broad spectrum of issues. However, the alliance review has proven contentious and highly protracted, related in significant measure to the sensitivities of local populations, recurrent tensions between US military personnel and civilians, and environmental damage and disruption entailed in US military operations. These differences have been especially marked on Okinawa, where nearly half of US forces based in Japan are located, and where local residents have long sought to shift US facilities away from highly concentrated urban areas. A 1996 agreement to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma (prompted by the rape of Japanese school girls by US personnel) festered without resolution for close to a decade, with the two sides unable to bridge alternative proposals for a new facility. American policymakers expressed befuddlement and (at times) open frustration at the glacial pace of the talks. As negotiations appeared to reach their climax in late October 2005, the senior US representative, Deputy Undersecretary for Policy for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard Lawless, voiced open disgruntlement that the alliance was being weakened by ‘interminable dialogue over parochial issues’. Underscoring American frustrations, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pointedly demurred from visiting Japan during an East Asian tour in October that took him to South Korea, China, and Mongolia.

Amid these tensions, the logjam was abruptly broken. On 27 October, the US Navy announced agreement with Japan on the forward deployment of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier in Yokosuka in 2008, thereby ensuring that a nuclear-powered carrier would be stationed in Japan upon retirement of the USS Kitty Hawk, one of two remaining conventionally-powered carriers still in active service. Two days later, the respective foreign and defence ministers of the two countries conducted another round of the ‘2+2 talks’ in Washington. Unlike the joint statement issued at the previous meeting on 19 February 2005, the 29 October Security Consultative Committee document outlined the specifics to govern bilateral roles, missions, and capabilities; 15 separate areas of defence cooperation; and seven measures designed to enhance policy and operational coordination. These latter steps encompassed the strengthening of bilateral contingency planning (including enhanced use of Japanese airports and seaports by US forces); increased information sharing and intelligence collaboration; strengthened interoperability; and increased coordination of ballistic missile defence activities.

The joint statement also specified preliminary agreement on long-pending US proposals that would entail far closer operational coordination between both countries at various Japanese facilities. These will encompass joint activities (including co-location of air command and control) at Yokota Air Base; the enhancement of US Army command-and-control arrangements at Camp Zama; and deployment of a US X-band radar system for missile defence.

In addition to Tokyo’s elevated stature as the core American regional ally, the payoffs for Japan concern the realignment of US military forces and facilities on Okinawa. These feature the relocation of the headquarters of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force to Guam, including a reduction of the US Marine presence on the island from 18,000 to 11,000. Accommodating to persistent local demands and to minimise domestic Japanese concerns about safety and environmental damage, the United States compromised on the future location of the Marine Corps Air Station; reassignment of additional US air assets remains under review. Tokyo also assented to the relocation of a carrier air wing from Atsugi to Iwakuni, where it was expected to be less disruptive to the civilian population. Larger strategic interests may have dictated resolution of these contentious issues, although many still remain under active review, which could impede or delay final agreement. Both countries confront clear security needs: enhanced regional access and interoperability for the United States, and retention of the core relationship with the US for Japan, even as Tokyo steadily augments its own capabilities and responsibilities. But domestic needs and requirements continue to assume an unusually prominent role in Japanese calculations.

The road ahead

Japan and the United States remain indispensable alliance partners. Both countries find themselves tethered to one another as never before, with Washington and Tokyo validating each other’s strategic and operational needs. But these arrangements and understandings seem increasingly dissonant to others in the region, especially to China and South Korea. Relations between Beijing and Tokyo and between Seoul and Tokyo have deteriorated sharply over the past year. Both neighbouring states argue that Japan (under the protective political cover of ever more intimate ties with the United States) seeks a heightened political and military role that neither deems legitimate. China’s specific concerns include the emphasis now being given, very specifically, to expanding the operational military capacities of Japan and the US–Japan alliance, as evidenced by the most recent bilateral consultations; the sense that the alliance, having once obviated the need for Japanese defence modernisation and a more forward Japanese security policy, is now becoming the vehicle for precisely these things; and, at a political level, the explicit pronouncement by Tokyo and Washington in the February 2005 ‘2+2’ talks, for the first time, that encouraging a ‘peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue’ has become a ‘common strategic objective’ of the US and Japan.

With the clear concurrence of Washington, Japan is moving to stake out a security role increasingly shaped by its own aspirations and goals. But the absence of a regional security framework mutually acceptable to Tokyo and its neighbours suggests the possibility of heightened power rivalries that could perturb Northeast Asia as a whole.

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