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The Widening U.S.-Japan Security Divide

Author: Carolyn M. Leddy, International Affairs Fellow in Japan, Sponsored by Hitachi, Ltd. 2009-2010
October 22, 2009
Wall Street Journal

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a tough message to the new government in Tokyo this week: The U.S.-Japan security alliance is not up for renegotiation. The question now is whether Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama will get the message before President Barack Obama lands in Japan next month.

The most pressing issue is the 2006 agreement to close the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Base in downtown Okinawa and relocate it to a nearby coastal area. The base has been a source of local tension for many years. In addition, approximately 8,000 troops are scheduled to be transferred to Guam, lowering the overall U.S. military presence in Japan to around 40,000 troops.

Mr. Gates said Tuesday that he's willing to modify Futenma's landing strip, but not renegotiate a deal that was 15 years in the making. Tokyo responded that domestic political circumstances have "changed." Mr. Hatoyama also refuses to rule out the possibility of relocating the base outside of Japan altogether.

There's more: The Democratic Party of Japan-led government has already stated that it will not renew the Indian Ocean refueling mission that supports U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said Sunday he wants to discuss a nuclear no-first-use policy. And Mr. Hatoyama continues to toy with the idea of establishing an East Asian community as a rival to Western economic and security institutions.

Tokyo's position threatens to undermine the cornerstone of East Asian security: the U.S.-Japan alliance. The majority of U.S. troops stationed in Japan are located in Okinawa. They protect both Japan and neighboring U.S. allies such as South Korea and Taiwan and provide the only permanently forward-deployed, brigade-sized Marine Corps unit that can conduct humanitarian assistance and combat operations.

The DPJ's ideas just don't make sense. Previous Japanese governments consistently opposed a no-first-use nuclear policy to preserve the deterrent value of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, under which Japan's security is guaranteed. Maintaining ambiguity is essential to preserving the credibility and flexibility of this deterrent in Asia-Pacific. As for the East Asian community idea, how will that counter China's growing military or the North Korean nuclear and ballistic-missile threat?

At best, Mr. Hatoyama may be playing to a domestic audience. Nearly 61% of the DPJ's Lower House members favor removing Japan from under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, according to a recent local newspaper poll. At worst, the DPJ could be trying to recast the entire East Asian security architecture. Undoubtedly Seoul, Beijing and Pyongyang have taken note of Tokyo's increasing security-policy schizophrenia.

Rather than trying to undermine Tokyo's best ally, Mr. Hatoyama might start by re-examining Japan's own contribution to the alliance. For 50 years, the U.S. has borne a disproportionate share of the burden of the security relationship, both financially and operationally. If Mr. Hatoyama wants to correct this disparity, he could start by prioritizing defense spending over other populist initiatives.

Both President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama share aspirational nonproliferation and disarmament goals. But they also have the responsibility to protect their citizens from harm today. And that means bridging the widening divides in Asia's most important security alliance.

Ms. Leddy, a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Ltd. international affairs fellow in Japan, was director for counterproliferation strategy at the U.S. National Security Council from 2006 to 2007.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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