Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's self-imposed end of May deadline to resolve a dispute over the relocation of U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa is fast approaching. But whatever is finally agreed, there are already lessons to learn from the Futenma airbase folly.
First, the imbroglio is a wake-up call for Japan to upgrade its physical defenses. As Mr. Hatoyama himself has alluded in recent days, he didn't appreciate fully the importance of the presence of U.S. forces for Japan's deterrence. It's easy to get complacent when there are more than 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, ready to fight for another country's security.
Second, there's a broader question of upgrading security policies and addressing Tokyo's sacred cow: the constitutional prohibitions that inhibit Japan from becoming a more equitable partner with the U.S. and other democratic allies. Article 9 of the constitution prohibits Japan from using force to settle international disputes or wage war. That constraint prevents Japan's forces from having the flexibility, versatility and legal authority to react quickly to crises.
Third, for the U.S., it may be time to concede that the security alliance with Japan is unlikely to ever fulfill the laudable vision of the relationship as the linchpin of security in East Asia. For the past 65 years, Japan has failed consistently to match its economic might with an appropriate role in maintaining peace and security in its neighborhood and beyond.
All these factors combined have real implications for the U.S. and other democratic allies in Asia Pacific. For instance, if U.S. naval vessels were engaged in training operations in international waters off the coast of Japan and came under attack from North Korea, Japan could not come to the aid of the U.S. A similar constitutional interpretation also prohibits Japan from acting to intercept a North Korean ballistic missile headed for the U.S.
Recognizing the limitations of the U.S.-Japan alliance does not require that U.S. alliance managers throw in the towel. There are a number of areas where cooperation with Japan can and should be strengthened further, including in missile defense, force interoperability and intelligence sharing. But the U.S. must ensure that defense resources and operational planning for the Asia-Pacific region corresponds to its partners' capabilities and political will.
Eventually that may mean the U.S. will rely more on other regional democracies such as South Korea, Australia and India to step into the void that Japan has created. Unless, of course, the next Japanese leader decides to reverse course and work to strengthen the relationship.
Such a move would be in everyone's interests. Despite the Futenma flap, the U.S.-Japan alliance is still the ideal cornerstone of security in East Asia. Long may it remain that way.
Ms. Leddy is a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Ltd. international affairs fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo.
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