The U.S. is growing increasingly concerned with Japan’s overhaul of its military capabilities, a number of recent stories make clear.
Earlier this week Kyodo news reported that U.S. officials have expressed concern to their Japanese counterparts over Tokyo’s plans to develop the capability to conduct offensive assault operations against other countries in the region.
“One of the American officials attending bilateral talks on foreign and defense policy cooperation late last month in Tokyo asked the Japanese side to consider the possible negative fallout on neighboring countries if the Abe administration embarks on such a policy shift,” Kyodo quoted an unidentified Japanese official as saying.
The report went out to say that U.S. officials asked for clarification on which countries Japan would develop the capability to attack, and asked Japan to not worsen tensions with China and South Korea.
A similar line was taken earlier in July by Bradley H. Roberts, who until recently served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy. When asked about Japan’s plans to acquire a preemptive strike capability during an interview with the Japanese daily, Asahi Shimbun, Roberts said:
“When and if this becomes an official position of the Japanese government, there will be close consultations between Washington and Tokyo to assess this proposal in terms of its benefits, costs and potential risks.”
More tellingly, Roberts confirmed to Ashai that the United States has periodically given Japanese officials access to U.S. nuclear facilities since last year as part of the U.S.-Japan extended deterrence dialogue. According to Roberts, Japanese officials were not shown actual nuclear warheads but rather operational systems and delivery vehicles. The report suggested this included a “ballistic missile complex and a strategic nuclear submarine.”
In line with stated U.S. policy, Roberts denied that Washington’s extended deterrence was provided in order to Japan from pursing its own nuclear arsenal. Still, he said the U.S. gave Japanese officials access to the nuclear facilities in order to “confirm to its close ally its commitment to ensure an effective nuclear deterrent on its behalf.” Although the report didn’t indicate when in 2012 the visits to the nuclear facilities began, Japan has been locked in a standoff with China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands after Tokyo announced plans to nationalize some of them in September of last year.
The Asahi report followed earlier ones in May that said the Obama administration has been urging Japan not to go through with opening the Rokkasho reprocessing facility, which is capable of producing nine tons of weapons-usable plutonium each year, enough to make roughly 2,000 nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials have also privately expressed concern over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s remarks about Japan’s wartime aggression, which have angered many in the region, most notably China and South Korea.
Washington’s growing concerns with Japan’s plans to revamp its military underscore the dilemma the U.S. faces in managing its alliances and strategic partnerships in the region. On the one hand, Washington relies on its allies and partners to provide access to regional military bases from which it can project power in the region. The U.S. would also like to see other states bolster their own defenses in order to shoulder more of the burden for regional security.
On the other hand, the U.S. fears its reliance on these allies and partners could embolden theses allies in pursuing their own conflicts. This has the potential to entrap the United States in conflicts—particularly those with China— in which it has no interests. China and Japan’s standoff over the islets in the East China Sea are a case in point.
While Japan may resemble this dilemma in its most acute form presently, it will not be the only country with which the U.S. will have to grapple with such issues. Indeed, one of the tallest orders of American statesmen in the years ahead will be trying to manage this delicate balancing act. This will require U.S. diplomats to expend far more energy and resources on alliance management in the future.