Professor Paul Sracic suggests in his July 26 essay “Will the U.S. Really Defend Japan?” on The Diplomat that President Barack Obama is likely to consult Congress if and when he is forced to decide whether to come to the assistance of Japan, in case of a military conflict with China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and that it is not a given that Congress will consent. On the first point, he will do so – unless the sequence of events renders a formal consultation unnecessary or impractical. However, in the event that Obama does consult Congress, it is unthinkable that Congress will decide to stop him from giving military assistance under the Mutual Defense Treaty – unless Congress intends to put an end to the bilateral alliance. Let me explain.
Again, on the first point, Professor Sracic gives the 2011 imposition of the no-fly zone in Libya as a case in which Obama did not seek Congressional authorization – actually, the War Powers Resolution specifies that “[T]he President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress” and does not use the word “authorization” – but the president for all practical purposes had already gone through the consultation process by the time he committed U.S. military power to enforcing the no-fly zone. Specifically, on March 1, 2011, the Senate unanimously adopted S.RES.85, which “urges the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory.” On March 18, the president held consultations with Congressional leaders, including bringing the Senate majority and minority leaders, the speaker of the house, and the House majority and minority leaders to the White House for consultations. On March 19, “U.S. military forces commenced operations,” as the president informed Congress, on March 21.
There could be occasions on which the president may not be able conduct prior consultations. For example, if the Chinese PLA Navy assaults Japanese Coast Guard vessels in the Senkaku/Diaoyu vicinity while the U.S. Seventh Fleet is passing by – I know, that would be extremely foolish of the PLA Navy, but bear with me – and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requests U.S. assistance, is Obama going to tell him that he must consult Congress before the U.S. Navy makes a move? Of course not. And that must be why the law says “every possible instance.” But it is highly likely that Obama will consult Congress as long as it is technically feasible. After all, the law does say “every possible instance.”
But the more important question is: Will Congress consent to giving U.S. military assistance? If Congress decides to deny consent – I am not sure how that process would work in practice, but let’s assume that it does – Obama could still go ahead and help Japan militarily, but Congress has the legal means to put an end to that assistance, and it is doubtful that the president would go ahead in the first place.
But I believe that it is extremely unlikely that Congress would deny consent.
If Congress does not give its consent, it will force the Obama administration to choose between refusing to honor U.S. treaty obligations in a moment of existential crisis for its ally, and defying Congressional wishes and committing U.S. troops to defending the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands for 60 days, after which it would have to withdraw according to the War Powers Resolution. There is nothing short of invading Japan itself that the U.S. can do to doom the treaty more than to refuse to come to the military assistance of Japan, which is what these unpalatable choices amount to. In other words, if Congress forces Obama to pull out, that is the effective end of the alliance. Suddenly, all of the other formal alliances that the U.S. has will come under the shadow of doubt. Will the U.S. honor its commitments to NATO? The U.K. surely, although not that Russia will be bombing London any time soon. But Poland could not be so sure. What about Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia? There will be tangible losses too, namely the military bases that the U.S. operates in Okinawa, Yokosuka, and elsewhere in Japan, the security assets serving U.S. interests that go well beyond Japan and its near-abroad, and not to mention the money that Japan puts in for the upkeep of these assets. They did not name it the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security for nothing.
This does not mean that Abe should be complacent – not that he is. He is obviously vested in making Japan a more useful ally. The Abe administration has expended significant political capital to reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to come to the assistance of its allies – first and foremost the U.S. – and to push the relocation of the Futenma air base in Okinawa forward. It is increasing the defense budget under the Mid-Term Defense Program (FY 2014-2018) by 2 percent per year in real terms – a modest increase by East and Southeast Asian standards, but still a reversal of a gradual but long decline.
All this does not mean, of course, that Obama will enjoy bringing the U.S. into direct military conflict with China again after six decades of peace, punctuated by a long and costly proxy war (for China) in Vietnam. If the Obama administration can find a way out, I would not be surprised to see it try and take it. Here, the one specific scenario that the Japanese authorities worry about is the one in which the Chinese sneak their way onto the disputed islands, set up shop, and claim that they have established administrative control. Japan claims sovereignty over the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories (administered by Russia) and Dokdo/Takeshima (administered by South Korea), but all sides agree that they are not covered by the Japan-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. It stands to reason that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would also slip beyond the reach of the treaty if they fall under Beijing’s administrative control. But this has little to do with Congressional consent and everything to do with Japanese preparedness. And that is a matter that the Abe administration is also eager to address.
Jun Okumura was formerly with the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and is now a visiting scholar and columnist at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs (MIGA). He also blogs at Global Talk 21.