The US-Japan Security Relationship: Drift or Longevity?

Image Credit: Secretary of Defense via Flickr

The US-Japan Security Relationship: Drift or Longevity?


It is not uncommon to hear professional Japan-watchers warn of a “drift” in U.S.-Japan security relations. The danger of drift in U.S.-Japan security relations was the subject of a recent article for the Asia Pacific Bulletin by Akira Kato. This is not the first time that the subject of drift has come up. Yoichi Funabashi addressed it in his 1999 book, Alliance Adrift, where he examined the various sources of friction in the relationship throughout the early 1990s. This perceived drift was the impetus for a number of initiatives that recalibrated and strengthened the alliance. Even during the halcyon days of the Bush II-Koizumi relationship, where many were calling the U.S.-Japan security relationship the strongest it’s ever been, thoughtful analysts were looking at trends portending a dimmer future.

First, let’s examine the arguments for continued drift in U.S.-Japan security ties. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there is no longer a singular threat that holds the alliance together. Instead, there are number of potential threats that Washington and Tokyo are apt to see differently. Differences in the threat perception of Chinese military modernization, North Korea, weapons proliferation and terrorism may drive the countries further apart. Depending on the threat, entrapment in the other partner’s problems may be more worrying than the actual threat itself. The issue of how to manage the network of U.S. bases in Japan, most notably the controversial Futenma Airbase, seems to be a source of eternal concern. In addition to these issues, different perceptions of the utility of military force in the world and different views over Japan’s historical role in the region (such as its past colonial rule and the “comfort women” issue) remain sources of contention between the two partners.

As U.S.-Japan Security Treaty supporters often point out, however, U.S.-Japan bilateral security relations have been surprisingly durable. This durability has been strengthened by nearly fifty years of cooperation in the region, by joint military training, and by the accumulated experiences and personal networks of officials on both sides of the relationship. For all their differences in culture, the breadth and depth of the shared interests is remarkable. Both countries have an interest in the socialization of China into a responsible power, in preventing worst-case scenarios on the Korean peninsula, and in maintaining a durable international system.

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The strongest threat to the U.S.-Japan security relationship isn’t that the two parties will gradually drift apart, but rather that a key event – and the failure of leaders to adequately address it – will lead to the early demise of the Security Treaty.

Indeed, in the post Cold War world, very significant events have already occurred. The most dramatic, the 2011 earthquake in Japan and September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., in fact ultimately served to strengthen the foundations of the security relationship. By all accounts, Operation Tomodachi was an unqualified success both in terms of the material assistance it provided and as a public advertisement of the continuing relevance of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Similarly, Japan’s (and particularly Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s) unflagging support for the U.S. in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks significantly boosted trust among the two partners and proved to critics the durability and flexibility of the relationship.

The 1995 rape incident, where an Okinawan schoolgirl was raped by three U.S. servicemen, was another key event. Like the earthquake and 9/11, a crucial failure of leadership might have fatally injured the relationship, leading to spiraling protests and popular calls for the U.S. to close their network of bases. Luckily, top political leaders (Prime Ministers Tomiichi Murayama and Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Bill Clinton and Ambassador Walter Mondale) and professional alliance managers on both sides managed the issue in ways that attenuated the protests and reaffirmed ties.

In each of these cases, crisis became the backdrop for adaptation and renewal.
Trend lines may be important, but perhaps the most important variable will be how leaders respond to challenges in the future. As in the past, the quality of leadership on both the U.S. and Japan sides will be tested in crises big and small. Quality leadership will lead to the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and its re-imagination for a turbulent era. A failure of leadership, however, could result in its early demise.

Daniel Clausen is a recent graduate of Florida International University's PhD program in International Relations. His research has been published in Strategic Insights, Asian Politics and PolicyElectronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, and Culture and Conflict Review.

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