The US-Japan Alliance

When an alliance is not an alliance, a change of government throws up interesting possibilities

There has been considerable handwringing in the western press,
especially among Americans, over the future of the U.S.-Japan military
alliance under the new regime. Will Japan's new masters seek to
undermine the security of Asian and American interests by steering a
more independent course?

Never mind that the incoming prime
minister Yukio Hatoyama has stated that the alliance is fundamental to
Japan's security and that he has no intention of undermining what
pundits on both sides of the Pacific persist in calling the
"cornerstone" of America's position in Asia.

A cornerstone,
perhaps, but not an alliance. Japan is a close friend, fellow
democracy, trading partner and increasingly a collaborator on the world
stage. But it is not an ally. That is strictly a courtesy title, and
since the health of the "alliance" is going to come under increasing
scrutiny in coming months one should have a clearer idea of what it
really is.

The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, signed
with Japan in 1960 to replace an earlier treaty, is basically a deal.
The US promises to defend Japan if it comes under attack, with nuclear
weapons if necessary (the nuclear umbrella). In exchange, Japan
provides the US with bases which it can use as it sees fit to advance
its greater security interests in Asia and as far away as the Middle
East.

Those bases are not necessarily designed, or at present
even configured to merely defend Japan. In the past they have been
staging areas for the Vietnam War and now the Afghanistan War. The
largest air base near Tokyo, Yokota AFB, for example, hasn't had a
permanent collection of attack aircraft or interceptors for decades.

Japan,
however, is not obligated to come to the defense of the US if it is
attacked. Indeed, it would be illegal for Tokyo to do so under the
current liberal interpretation of its American-written constitution,
which rather explicitly prohibits Japan from possessing any military
force whatsoever.

This provision – Article 9 – has been
interpreted broadly enough to permit Japan to build one of the largest
and most sophisticated militaries on the globe. But the clause has
still been interpreted in such a way as to prevent "collective defense"
In other words, Japan can defend itself but not others.

Nobody
worried much about collective defense during most of the Cold War, when
the Soviet Union was considered the main threat. But it has grown into
an issue with the emergence of a bellicose nuclear-armed North Korea
and to a lesser extent, the rapid modernization of China's armed forces.

North
Korea's recent test of a multi-stage rocket in April, which it fired
directly over Japan to land in the North Pacific, raised the
interesting speculation whether Japan could legally shoot down a North
Korean missile headed toward the US that came within range. A strict
reading of Japan's laws would say no.

In another hypothetical
but possibly more realistic scenario, North Korean naval vessels
intercept and threaten to sink or capture an unarmed or lightly armed
American naval surveillance ship in international waters of the Sea of
Japan. A Japanese destroyer happens to be close by. Does it come to the
American vessel's aid?

I would be willing to guess that Tokyo
would order the destroyer to resist the North Koreans and let the legal
chips fall where they may. The consequences of simply standing by and
doing nothing would be politically devastating. The American public
would never understand – or care about - the legal nuances of
"collective defense."

(In the real USS Pueblo incident in 1968,
in which North Korea captured a US spy ship and held its crew captive
for 11 months, the Japanese Self Defense Forces did not figure at all,
nor, to my knowledge, were they called on for help. The U.S. had more
assets in the region than it does now. That they could not be
successfully deployed to defend the Pueblo from humiliating capture is
another story).

When I came to Yokota as a junior officer
shortly after the Pueblo Incident, US forces in Japan and the Japanese
Self Defense Forces might as well have existed on different plants. In
all my time there I never once met a SDF officer. There was no liaison
or coordination. No contact that I could see. Nothing. I never served
in a NATO country, but I have to believe that there would have been
much more social or professional intercourse with officers of the Royal
Air force or the Belgian Air Force.

That began to change in the
1990s, the catalyst being the1991 Gulf War. Japan ponied up billions of
dollars to support the coalition, but, consistent with its anti-war
principles, provided no troops. Tokyo was stunned afterwards at how
ungrateful Washington and others were for their generous financial
support. They wanted, to use the current vernacular, boots on the
ground.

That began a slow evolution in Japan's use of its military.
The Diet (parliament) passed laws that allowed the Japanese to
participate in international peacekeeping missions in Cambodia and
elsewhere. In 1996 Washington and Tokyo inked the Joint Security
Declaration in which Japan promised to provide logistical support for
U.S. forces stationed in Japan. Joint research in missile defenses was
authorized.

In recent years Japanese armed forces have ventured
far from Japan. For some years, a naval oiler has replenished ships,
including American naval vessels, supporting operations over
Afghanistan. But this had nothing to do with any kind of treaty
obligation but more a general sense that Japan had to do something more
in the War on Terror than write checks.

The defeated Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP) made changing the law to permit collective
defense one of its manifesto planks. The triumphant Democratic part of
Japan (DPJ) was silent on the matter. Speaking to journalists a couple
months before the election, senior party leader Seiji Maehara dismissed
the North Korean missile hypothetical as an "abstraction."

This
year, though, the Diet passed a law to formally authorize the Japanese
Maritime Self Defense Force (navy) to take part in anti-piracy patrols
off the coast of Somalia. As part of the legislation, Japanese warships
were specifically authorized to come to the aid of non-Japanese vessels
threatened by pirates. That may seem like an obvious thing, but in a
sense it was revolutionary. It was the first time that Japan had taken
a baby step toward collective defense.

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