Updating the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Interview with Michael Finnegan, Richard Lawless, and Jim Thomas
April 2, 2010

Mike Finnegan, Richard Lawless, and Jim Thomas—the author and senior advisors for NBR’s recent report, “Managing Unmet Expectations in the U.S.-Japan Alliance”—explore current tensions in the alliance and implications for the future of the relationship in an interview with Asia Policy.

Since Japan’s historic change of power in 2009 from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) under the leadership of the new prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, the U.S.-Japan alliance has experienced severe strain. Although the alliance has served as the linchpin of peace and security in Asia for five full decades since World War II, key questions are arising regarding the alliance’s future course.

Asia Policy editor Andrew Marble interviewed Mike Finnegan, Senior Research Associate at the National Bureau of Asian Research; Richard Lawless, former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (2002–07); and Jim Thomas, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans and Resources (2004–06). The interview below explores current tensions in the alliance and implications for the future of the relationship.

This interview is divided into three sections. The first section examines key alliance issues surrounding the impact of the DPJ’s assumption of power and the party’s decision to put on hold implementation of bilateral agreements reached by the U.S. and Japanese governments in 2006. The second section addresses broader expectations the partners have for each other within the framework of U.S. Japan relations and the impacts of these expectations on the alliance. The final section assesses the future of the U.S.-Japan relationship.


Andrew Marble: A recent issue that has occurred in the U.S.-Japan alliance relationship is the new DPJ government’s desire to revisit some of the 2006 Defense Policy Review Initiative agreements, primarily those regarding the relocation of U.S. Marines to Guam and the closure of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. For readers who might be unfamiliar with the issue, what was agreed to in 2006?

Richard Lawless: The Defense Policy Review Initiative, which actually began in 2003, was an attempt to evolve the relationship to a more strategically and operationally relevant point. This initiative resulted in a series of agreements that dealt with issues such as common strategic objectives, roles and missions, shared basing, cooperation on ballistic missile defense, and base and troop realignments. As part of this last issue, the partners agreed to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, moving 8,000 of the marines and their families to Guam, with the remainder of the troops to be moved elsewhere in Japan. After extensive study, the U.S. and Japanese governments decided to shift the remainder of the troops to an expanded Camp Schwab, located in a less populated area of Okinawa. As part of this base realignment deal, the Japanese government agreed to pay more than $6 billion of the relocation expenses.

Marble: Why is the Futenma basing issue a cause of bilateral tension today?

Mike Finnegan: To date, little progress has been made on implementing this agreement to close Futenma and relocate the marines to Camp Schwab and Guam. Though the previous governor and the mayor of the city near Camp Schwab were both in favor of the plan, there has been significant public opposition in Okinawa to the stationing of any U.S. forces on the island. This resistance is in part due to the fact that the Japanese government, first under the LDP and now under the DPJ, has failed to make the case for the realignment plan and has not appropriated the necessary funds to begin the implementation process. This unwillingness of the government of Japan to follow through on Futenma calls into question the ability of the two nations to execute the entire 2006 agreement. Thus, this failure is not just about Futenma but concerns all the realignment agreements that are in essence and in substance linked to one another.

Lawless: I’d like to expand on this critical point. There is a certain level of capabilities that Washington feels it must maintain in Japan to be able to deliver on U.S. commitments to the alliance. These individual agreements taken together provide this baseline capability. All of these basing arrangements are thus interdependent, and only as a complete package do they allow Washington to preserve and enhance the overall credibility of the alliance.

Marble: Putting current relations into context then, is this basing issue a minor misunderstanding between two friends or a genuine crisis that threatens to bring about a fundamental shift in the relationship?

Finnegan: Crisis is too strong a word at this time. However, Japan’s inability to carry out the realignment will likely cause a significant and perhaps fundamental shift in the U.S. approach to Japan and the alliance relationship. Japan should bear in mind the important reality that the alliance&#8212particularly the role played by U.S. forces stationed in Japan and in the region&#8212deters aggression against Japan. Japan’s failure to meet its basing commitments will naturally have a detrimental effect on the relationship, hurting the interests of both nations.

Lawless: This point cannot be stressed enough. From the U.S. perspective, Japan’s inability and unwillingness to execute the keystone element of the realignment&#8212the agreed upon Futenma relocation&#8212will unavoidably compel Washington to re-examine our entire forward basing strategy in the Pacific writ large, particularly the move to Guam. This re-examination will necessarily include our force posture in Japan, which could very well have an impact on our ability to sustain our commitments to the alliance.


Marble: Let’s step back from the Futenma issue and its implications and discuss the state of the overall U.S-Japan relationship. Mr. Finnegan recently completed a report entitled “Managing Unmet Expectations in the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” for which Mr. Lawless and Mr. Thomas served as senior advisors. What are the unmet expectations inferred by the title?

Finnegan: In very simple terms, the United States expects Japan to do more for the alliance; Japan, for its part, is looking for Washington to meet all U.S. commitments. The expectations that both sides hold have evolved over time since the end of the Cold War and particularly after September 11.

The U.S. position, in essence, is that the alliance should be more operationally capable of defending Japan&#8212particularly in a way that increasingly includes Japan playing the lead role in its own defense. Moreover, Washington is increasingly expecting the alliance to improve in capabilities, especially in ways that are applicable to regional and global security contingencies. In sum, the United States believes that the alliance&#8212through the mutual actions of both partners&#8212should be capable of better protecting the shared global interests of both partners.

Japan, for its part, expects the United States to fully meet its commitments, particularly the commitment to maintain extended deterrence capabilities. At the same time, however, Japan also clearly expects that the United States will continue to lead global nonproliferation efforts, including the denuclearization of North Korea. Japan also expects that the United States will support the modernization efforts of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF).

Both partners have seemingly reasonable expectations&#8212but as we outlined in our study, both partners also have reasonable concerns that these expectations are not being met.

Marble: Would meeting these expectations serve to strengthen the alliance in beneficial ways?

Jim Thomas: If the end result leaves the alliance on a better operational and strategic footing, then yes the alliance can be strengthened if the two sides find a way to fulfill mutual expectations. As the alliance stands today, however, there is no visible path forward that would meet the expectations that both sides have, and thus we are more likely to see greater strategic and operational divergence. Major structural flaws&#8212such as the absence of an integrated command structure and comprehensive combined contingency plans (similar to those in the U.S. alliances with South Korea and NATO)&#8212are not being addressed. And in many ways by focusing on expanded expectations, the partners are distracting themselves from the core expectations both sides possess in terms of defending Japan.

The alliance might be better served by minimizing the expectations of both sides and by instead “getting back to basics.” Japan and the United States should redouble efforts to ensure that no hostile party would ever view any form of aggression or coercion against Japan as a useful policy option. Thus, while Japanese military contributions “out of area” (beyond Japan’s immediate area) are desirable, the priority should be for Japan to shore up its own defenses within the alliance framework so that Tokyo bears the risks and responsibilities of self-defense more equitably alongside the United States. Creating greater equality in the alliance will only come about through a more equitable sharing of risks and responsibilities and by moving beyond the old bargain of extended deterrence for cash and bases. The security threats facing Japan are real and they are evolving to challenge Japan’s security more directly. Such threats demand a more credible combined military posture.

Marble: In your view, then, Japan’s recent contributions to out-of-area operations do not meet U.S. expectations for greater burden-sharing in the alliance relationship?

Finnegan: For the most part, Japan’s military contributions to various international efforts around the globe tend to distract Tokyo from the process of shoring up the alliance and making the bilateral relationship more operationally robust and capable. Japanese politicians and bureaucrats see such global missions as useful domestically because they can be used as a pretext for advancing defense programs. And U.S. alliance managers have picked up on this rhetoric to push Japan to develop a more global military capability. Unfortunately, alliance managers from both countries whom we have spoken to agree that there is no consensus that would allow this rhetoric to develop into a more systematic plan for global capacity-building. The limitations of domestic rhetoric have come out clearly in recent public debates in Japan.

In attempting to satisfy U.S. expectations vis-à-vis a more global role for Japan, for the last two years Japan’s leaders have needed to expend enormous amounts of political capital to maintain the minimal Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) presence in the Indian Ocean, which has subsequently been suspended by the DPJ. Such time and capital, in our opinion, would have been better spent on increasing Japan’s self-defense capabilities and repairing the structural deficiencies in the alliance with an eye to better preparing an allied response to a security shock in the region. In fact, one American participant at a project workshop we held commented that the United States would be happy with no JSDF contributions to out-of-area defense if Japan would instead focus on achieving a robust self-defense capability.

Marble: As mentioned, one of the first acts the new DPJ-led government took was to allow the JMSDF refueling mission in the Indian Ocean to expire. Is there an aspect of that decision that might point to a new focus on enhancing Japan’s self-defense capabilities?

Lawless: The reality of the current situation is that Japan is not inclined to increase its own defense capability, a step that would improve the integration and therefore the deterrence capacity of the alliance. Nor is Japan willing to undertake meaningful security obligations regionally or globally. Rather, the government conveys uncertainty and indecision and exhibits a near-total lack of urgency to craft a viable national security strategy. Japan has shelved all mechanisms and processes designed to allow Japanese policymakers, policy “wisemen,” to craft such a strategy. The preoccupation with the past&#8212dissecting Japan’s protected agreements with its national security partner, the United States&#8212is a fool’s journey and a distraction that the alliance cannot afford. As ostensible “misdeeds” of previous governments and senior career officials are uncovered, those countries that would challenge Japan’s security position watch with amusement and disbelief. These observers perceive a Japan that is seemingly content to marginalize itself, a Japan that appears to almost intentionally ignore the increasingly complex and dangerous neighborhood in which it is located. This situation could potentially continue through the full term of the DJP government.

Marble: Is the Japanese government’s ability to craft a viable national security strategy and enhance its self-defense capabilities hampered by Article 9 of Japan’s constitution and by limits on collective self-defense?

Finnegan: The JSDF were only established after a 1954 interpretation in the Diet of Article 9’s language. Without amending the constitution and the language of Article 9, any changes in JSDF status or capabilities would require tremendous political effort, as has occurred in the case of the Indian Ocean missions. Although amending the constitution could provide clarity regarding what Japanese forces can and cannot do, such an amendment could bring a whole host of other factors into play&#8212such as regional perceptions that Japan was re-arming. Ultimately, Japan will need to debate for itself whether continuing with the status quo is in the country’s best interest in the medium to long term.

Collective self-defense is, however, an issue for the alliance. It is unreasonable to ask the United States to defend Japan if the JSDF cannot be used to defend Japan’s U.S. protectors if necessary.

Lawless: Though we may have had the luxury of ignoring this fundamental disconnect with the alliance in the past, the cold reality is that this unsustainable situation must be addressed and the issue resolved. If we have elected to organize the alliance in a manner that so obviously does not allow our two countries to fight together, we need to revisit the commitments we have made to each other and bring those commitments into alignment with our existing constrained and inhibited capabilities.

Thomas: I think that adopting a clear focus on the defense of Japan&#8212in effect scoping down this need for collective self-defense&#8212is a strategy that might allow Japan’s leaders to tackle this issue in a less abstract way, a way that is more easily understood by the Japanese people.


Marble: Looking forward, where do you think the alliance is headed in the short term based on events that have occurred since the DPJ’s transition to power?

Lawless: It could be helpful to define the short term as the remaining three years of the current term of the DPJ government, a timeframe that also corresponds with the current term of the Obama administration. I’d argue that in this period we are likely to see the continuation of the status quo: a state of indifferent drift and of being windless in the great doldrums of the mid-Pacific, where we are revisiting issues that we should have put behind us years ago. Both governments share the blame for this situation, including the failure of the post-Koizumi LDP governments to deliver on the realignment commitments the LDP made when in power. If strong leadership from the DPJ government&#8212including a willingness to develop real engagement on the future of the alliance in which domestic political considerations are subordinated to the security of the nation&#8212does not materialize, the U.S. Congress and the body politic of the United States will likely begin to feel that Japan has little concern for its own security or the value of a functioning alliance, and thus will make adjustments accordingly. It will be very difficult to reverse the perception in the United States that we are partnered with a distracted ally incapable of focusing on its own national security.

Marble: Some have compared the Hatoyama government’s initial approach to the alliance to that of the U.S.-ROK alliance under former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun. Are there aspects of the negotiations with South Korea that might be illustrative to those looking to improve the U.S.-Japan relationship?

Finnegan: Overall, I think there is a misunderstanding in this comparison. In the Roh period, there was a tremendous amount of “noise” in the public discourse that people interpreted as a weakening of the alliance. What was not well understood was that this noise was a by-product of a vigorous and healthy redefining of the alliance that was taking place, one that helped establish a much stronger alliance for the long term.

That is not the case with the U.S.-Japan alliance. The current “noise” in the U.S. Japan debate is reflective of the inability of the two partners to move forward on the agenda that they previously agreed to, an agenda that would indeed provide a firmer basis for the alliance.

Marble: What statements can we confidently make regarding where the U.S.-Japan alliance is headed beyond the short term?

Lawless: Over the mid to long term, the alliance is probably doomed to increased irrelevance if we cannot “get it right,” if we cannot resolve the mismatch in expectations in the next few years. In fact, the alliance should probably be substantially adjusted in the mid-term if the current disconnects are not resolved. This is the substance of the report we did for NBR&#8212a sober analysis of what the alliance is and is not, its inability as it currently stands to remain functional and therefore credible, coupled with a call for a structured process of full bilateral engagement to assess the relationship and make changes accordingly. We need to do this soon. The report does not pretend to provide a roadmap for change, only an opening explanation that the United States and Japan need to reach new destinations, either shared or separate, and that both countries need to start on this important journey with honesty, objectivity, and dispatch. If such a reassessment is not done, the alliance’s value as a tool of national security for both nations will be increasingly marginalized.

This interview was conducted by Andrew Marble.