The U.S.-Japan security alliance has been the cornerstone of Asia-Pacific regional order since the 1960s. It may well still be. Much depends on whether the United States continues to fulfill its mutual defense obligations under the U.S.-Japan security treaty. U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrasive “America First” approach raises disturbing issues for Japanese policymakers. In private they must ask, “Can Japan continue to depend on the U.S. for its security?”
It’s no small question. The United States plays an oversized role defending Japan and other allies against threats posed by ideologically opposed great power competitors, especially China. Should Washington stop playing that role, Japan would struggle to find good alternatives. European NATO countries face a similar dilemma, but can more easily turn to one another in a crisis. Japan, on the other hand, remains an isolated archipelagic apostrophe off the Eurasian continent, as David Pilling put it. There are no easy substitutes for the U.S. umbrella.
That may account for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s many attempts to engage Trump since his inauguration. Abe has met the president seven times and was the first world leader to do so. Ken Jimbo, a professor at Keio University specializing in national security, says each time they’ve met they probably talked about only one issue — the importance of the alliance. “That’s not seven separate items they have talked about,” Jimbo stresses. Despite this, “The alliance’s security architecture is not working right now,” he admits.
Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership early in his presidency, preferring to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement under threats of escalating tariffs. He slapped large tariffs on steel, aluminum and threatens to do the same on automobiles. Policymakers worry the president will approach national defense in the same transactional way as he has trade.
In June, Trump canceled U.S.-South Korean military exercises on the pretext of being too “provocative” and “expensive.” “That shocked us, because there was no prior coordination about the issue of U.S. forces in South Korea,” says Jimbo. Tokyo views exercises essential for war readiness. Perhaps the president thought Pyongyang would honor a “double freeze” by ending further missile development? If so, Trump was wrong. The North reportedly continues to work towards building long-range missiles.
Should it develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) able to hit Washington or New York, the United States may choose to prioritize its own defense over that of its allies. When negotiating the Agreed Framework and later during the Six Party denuclearization talks, the North placed a different price on each missile. Pyongyang will likely revert to similar long and drawn-out salami negotiations. Should discussions bog down, the United States may decide to pay the price of removing the ICBM threat, leaving Tokyo to pay for removing the North’s medium range missiles. “That is the decoupling scenario which breaks the myth that both countries security could be equal,” says Jimbo.
Japan, of course, was never an equal ally. The 1960 U.S.-Japan security treaty effectively gave the United States, a superpower, permission to maintain military bases on Japanese soil in return for a duty to defend Japan. The treaty is lopsided because Japan is constitutionally barred from fighting shoulder-to-shoulder alongside American troops. The United States also provides Japan with an extended nuclear defense umbrella. “You may say the U.S.-Japan alliance is really one-sided, because if San Francisco is attacked, Japan is still not ready to help the U.S.,” says Jimbo.
The U.S.-led alliance system was also created out of self-interest, to protect the United States from rising great-power competitors after World War II. Japan was central to furthering U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region. With U.S. allies in Europe and the rules-based international institutions Washington helped to found, the alliance system ensured seven decades of collective prosperity and world peace. It is predicated on enemies and allies alike believing the United States will fully backstop alliance partners in a crisis. That notion is no longer assured, thrown into doubt by Trump’s treatment of friends as foes, bullying of allies and contempt for global institutions.
Despite his confrontational style, the president rightly complains U.S. partners enjoy alliance benefits without equally sharing the costs. In relative terms the United States no longer enjoys the same hegemony it once did. Previously the world’s largest economy, the United States is now surpassed by China after adjusting GDP for purchasing power. The U.S. remains a superpower, spending far more on defense than any other country. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States accounts for 35 percent of global military spending (compared with China’s 13 percent). But it is unfair for it to forever pay far more than allies do to police the world. In 2017, the U.S. spent 3.1 percent of GDP on defense compared with France’s 2.3 percent, the U.K.’s 1.8 percent, and Germany’s 1.2 percent. Japan spent just 0.9 percent.
Jimbo believes that Japan must do more to support the U.S.-led alliance. “The traditional alliance can only be sustained if Japan is conscious of U.S. interests,” he says. U.S. foreign policy focuses on winning the great-power competition against China (and Russia) in terms of security, trade, investment, and economy. “The U.S.-Japan alliance should be the main tool to win the competition in the medium to long term,” Jimbo says. “Japan has not invested a lot towards this.”
As a priority, he suggests Japan improves its deterrence capacity in close consultation with allied partners. It is already installing the Aegis Ashore ground-based upper-tier missile defense system to offset North Korea’s upgraded missiles. The aim is to lock in alliance partner defense systems, escalation plans, and retaliatory triggers — understood by enemies and partners alike. Tokyo could also, for example, give the United States more options to spread military assets among Japan’s commercial airports as a preventive countermeasure against threats to U.S. bases. “Japan is ready to take a more reciprocal approach to make the alliance more equal. Although it’s very unequal, still, we try to be equal,” Jimbo says.
Questioning if the liberal world order could survive another four-year term of an inward-looking U.S. president, I asked Jimbo how he would approach a worst-case next election. He replied, “Whoever becomes president, we have no choice but to engage with them,” because “Japan ultimately must take responsibility for its own defense.”
Richard Solomon is an author, publisher and spokesman on contemporary Japan. He posts regular Beacon Reports, which can be viewed here.