The Tests of War and the Strains of Peace

The U.S.-Japan Security Relationship

March 01, 1998


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The U.S.-Japan security alliance is at a crossroads. The outcome of certain decisions to be made in 1998_the Japanese Diet's vote on legislation necessary to implement the new U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation, the implementation of the recommendations of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO), and the nature of Japan's participation in the Theater Missile Defense (TMD) system with the United States(will determine the path of the security relationship for years to come. One course will lead to a weakening of the alliance, with reduced obligations and expectations on both sides. The other is a path toward strengthening the alliance, with a greater mutual commitment to dealing with the Asian security challenges of the 21st century.

Over the last half century, the alliance has been the cornerstone of U.S. security commitments in Asia and an important component of U.S. security undertakings around the world. With the demise of the Soviet threat, the alliance risks slowly unraveling or even suddenly collapsing in the face of possible crises in Korea, the Taiwan Straits, or elsewhere. However, the alliance is far too important to peace and stability in Asia to allow it simply to wither away or to be destroyed by a crisis. Both the United States and Japan have a stake in peacefully solving the explosive situation on the Korean peninsula, in successfully integrating China into the community of Asian-Pacific nations, and in resolving other security problems that arise in Asia. The U.S.-Japan security alliance can provide a framework for dealing with these new uncertainties.

This study recommends that the U.S.-Japan security alliance be strengthened to make it more able to weather both the "tests of war" and the "strains of peace." The revision of the U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation, announced September 23, 1997, was an important first step toward that end. But the Japanese Diet must now pass a series of changes in Japanese law(permitting use of civilian airfields in a military emergency or exchanges of supplies during wartime(to effectively implement these new guidelines. To gain the Diet's support, the Japanese government must make the case directly and convincingly to the Japanese public that closer security ties with the United States are in Japan's self-interest. And this effort cannot stop with the Diet's vote. Over time, to cement Japanese public support for the alliance and to reassure its American allies, Tokyo must more clearly spell out what it is willing to do to support U.S. forces in the event of a security crisis in Asia. Japan must also restructure its forces accordingly so that Japanese forces can be "planned in" to U.S. defense preparations in Asia. Additionally, Japan must share more of the alliance's financial burden, including involvement in the TMD system.

The United States must share some of the burden of strengthening the alliance. The U.S. government needs to convince the American public and the Congress that a continued security relationship with Japan is useful to America. The Pentagon must be prepared to adjust the number, composition, and basing of its troops in Asia, including its forces in Japan, as circumstances and technologies change. Washington must also be willing to push Tokyo to make the decisions necessary to insure the sustainability of the alliance.

Such changes should be instituted at a deliberate pace, with a careful eye to the political climate and the art of the possible in Washington, Tokyo, and other Asian capitals. But reform is unavoidable if the alliance is to continue to be the foundation of U.S. security policy in Asia.