Japan Must Keep U.S. Military Ties

October 17th, 2004 

Strategic dialogues have been taking place between Japan and the United States for some time now over Washington’s plans to realign U.S. armed forces in Japan, part of the ongoing reforms of U.S. troop placements abroad. But they have reportedly made little progress–a situation that causes little surprise to me.

As in the past, whenever I hear about bilateral strategic talks, I cannot help but feel it strange because Japan has no real security strategy. What we see, instead, is a position the government has created over the years by compounding one parliamentary reply upon another in response to lawmakers’ questions.

If the government stated, for example, that the Japanese-U.S. alliance had much to contribute to global security, it would be a commendable declaration of the country’s national security strategy. However, it would typically be criticized by the opposition in the Diet and subsequently the government would say it meant that if Japan ensured its security thanks to the alliance with the United States, such a situation would then contribute to global security. It would be forced to give a further pledge that Japan would by all means stick to a policy of exclusively defending itself–and would not involve itself in activities ensuring global security.

Such policy statements in the Diet appear to be prepared by lazy, precedent-dominated bureaucrats. But they perhaps denote something more strategically deep-rooted in the background. While the Japanese government characteristically lacked its own strategy, the communist bloc during the Cold War had a steadfast Marxist-Leninist strategy. It aimed at restricting the role of Japan and that of U.S. Forces Japan in the global theater, and the leftist camp in Japan was instrumental in making such a policy pervasive in the Diet.

The Japan Socialist Party’s clout eventually vanished. Today, the existing leftist parties–the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party–are supported only by a few percent of the population.

Yet, the evolution of Japan’s security strategy continues to be habitually restricted by the government’s past answers to parliamentary questions, which a great majority of the Japanese no longer pay attention to. Now is the time to ponder Japan’s grand strategy for national security without being bothered by the past parliamentary accounts.

The grand or far-reaching strategy for Japan is, needless to say, to maintain the security of the Japanese people and promote the prosperity of the nation. The notion of security also embraces the independence and freedom of the nation. Independence of this kind has nothing to do with what some people envisage when they resort to, often only verbal, anti-American gestures, believing such behavior will lead to Japan’s “independence” from the United States.

If Japan had been invaded by the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, it would have lost both the freedom of its people and its independence as a nation. Likewise, if Japan yields to a military threat from North Korea today, we will be trapped in an emergency. Yes, the very independence of Japan as a nation matters. Prosperity means the sustainable existence of our nation–it means something more important than the prevailing state of the economy or some friction in trade talks.

Since 1868, when Japan broke from centuries of seclusion, one premise has been in place regarding the country’s relations with the rest of the world. Relying on natural resources from other countries and maintaining overseas markets to earn hard currencies to import resources, this maritime nation has had to cooperate with the Anglo-Americans dominating the seven seas of the earth. Japan had been safe and free and prospered for more than 20 years following the signing of a military alliance with Britain in 1902. Since World War II, the country has been in a similarly favorable position thanks to its alliance with the United States.

Considering the above-mentioned postulate is certain to be relevant in the foreseeable future, the grand strategy of Japan is to maintain the Japanese-U.S. alliance. If we can work out such a strategy, our security and prosperity will remain guaranteed into our children’s generation and that of our children’s children.

The country’s grand security strategy, once mapped out, will serve as the starting point for any security-related issues and will provide solutions as required. If the government is questioned in the Diet, for example, on its exit plans of Self-Defense Forces personnel in Iraq and what extent of casualties among SDF members will influence a decision on their withdrawal, its answer will be clear-cut. The government can say: “As we have deployed SDF units in Iraq as part of our determination to keep the Japanese-U.S. alliance, we will pull SDF personnel out of Iraq once we feel confident the bilateral alliance has been effected favorably. In other words, we must not withdraw SDF members from Iraq if it damages the alliance even to the slightest extent.”

In reality, the government would have no other alternatives, regardless of demands for withdrawal from the opposition–quibbling one way or the other by interpreting laws.

It is easier said than done to maintain and strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance. We frequently encounter skeptical arguments–“Is it wise for Japan to place so much faith in the United States?” or “Won’t the United States engage with China over the head of Japan?” However, those who raise such questions cannot provide any viable alternatives when asked. Here lies the pivot of all the problems surrounding Japan’s grand strategy for national security.

As for the Japanese-U.S. alliance, Japan has no other choice but to maintain it, given the geopolitical environment surrounding the country and its national strength. On the other hand, for a superpower like the United States, the alliance with Japan is nothing but a better option among many others. These facts can lead us to draw up Japan’s optimal security strategy. The utmost strategy for national security is to let Japanese-U.S. relations evolve in a way that help establish the nation as the best strategic partner for the United States.

According to press reports, the focal points of discussion between Tokyo and Washington over the new configuration of USFJ include the relocation to Japan of the command of the U.S. Army’s 1st Corps from the U.S. mainland. Behind the U.S. proposal is a desire to give Japan further importance as a strategically vital location. This development reflects Washington’s continuous emphasis on Japan in its global strategy, as clearly expressed in the so-called Armitage Report in October 2000, In this regard, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should be commended for his dedication to deepening mutual trust, which must have prompted the United States to proceed with the realignment of its forces in Japan. Indeed, Japan’s position is its best in years.

Nevertheless, the government appears hesitant in taking advantage of this golden opportunity because of its interpretation of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. The government seems to be clinging to its traditional stand that the security pact exists for the security of Japan and the Far East alone. Therefore, according to this theory, the relocation to Japanese soil of a higher class command involved in U.S. global strategy will be contrary to the spirit and purpose of the treaty.

Certainly, Article 6 of the treaty stipulates: “For the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East, the United States of America is granted the use by its land, air and naval forces of facilities and areas in Japan.” However, the treaty does not restrict U.S. military activities to the aforementioned areas. The restrictive clause in the pact requires prior consultations with Japan when the United States plans a major change in the forces configuration in Japan, including weaponry, or when it wants to launch attacks directly from its bases in Japan.

For its part, the Japanese government does not seem to believe that a command relocation to Japan amounts to a major change of the configuration of forces and weaponry. The government’s worry–that a command transfer may give the impression that USFJ will have global military functions–is only reminiscent of its past answers to Diet questions from the now-defunct Japan Socialist Party. Actually, U.S. military bases in Okinawa Prefecture have been functioning as vital rear facilities for Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean since the Cold War. In the ongoing war on terrorism, U.S. marines based in Okinawa Prefecture and the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, based at Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture, are often deployed to areas far from Japan. What these facts show is that it is a fiction to continue insisting that Japan should not allow USFJ to take up missions that have nothing to do with the security of Japan and that of the Far East.

The maintenance of the Japanese-U.S. alliance essentially is based on the mutual trust. This means Japan should cooperate with the United States internationally regardless of location to strengthen mutual trust, in order to serve the interests of the Japanese people.

Connected to this, Article 6 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty should be reinterpreted for the U.S. side: “Do not forget that Japan grants the use of areas by the U.S. military for the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and the maintenance of peace and security in the Far East. Nonetheless, this does not mean that use of USFJ facilities in Japan for global purposes is forbidden. Rather, Japan has cooperated with the United States’ use of its Japanese bases for international operations. But do not, under any circumstances, spare your commitment to the defense of Japan.”

From the Japanese standpoint, authorizing the U.S. military to use facilities in Japan can be justified as long as the United States does not neglect the defense of the country. In practice, the United States has practiced to apply measures to fill any defense vacuum when USFJ units and the Yokosuka-based aircraft carrier are on global missions.

As for the proposed relocation of the command of the U.S. Army’s 1st Corps, it has nothing to do with the so-called “base issue” raised by residents around USFJ bases since the command staff alone–not its combat troops and weapon systems–will be transferred to Japan. Procrastinating and hesitating over this issue will have a negative effect on the overall interests of people in both countries.