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Revisiting the Japan-US Security Treaty in Crisis at the 50th Anniversary

Ishida Yasuyuki was Visiting International Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 29, 2010

    In 2010 the Japan-US Security Treaty celebrates the 50th anniversary since its 1960 revision. The Treaty has contributing to peace and prosperity in Asia. According to Joseph Nye Jr., “Security is like oxygen. You do not notice it until you begin to lose it”. Arguably the half-century existence of this alliance may be like “oxygen” for both Japanese and Asians today.

    The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States was originally signed in 1951 and revised in 1960. The fact that the Treaty celebrates the 50th anniversary this year suggests a significant change in contemporary international relations. For example, shifting alliance partners were quite common in 19th century Europe, but that is not the case with US-Japan relations. Despite its ups and downs, however, Japan-US relations today have become a “security community”, as a result of which these two states are unlikely to fight against each other in the foreseeable future. The “semi-permanent” alliance has contributed to peace and prosperity for the Asia-Pacific region. This judgement can never be exaggerated if we look back at the devastating damage these two countries caused to the region during the Pacific War. The Alliance serves regional security and stability at two levels: stabilizing relations among the great powers and deterring and dealing with potential or actual conflicts such as in the Korean Peninsula.

    Despite the ceremonial 50th anniversary, the current trust deficit between Tokyo and Washington has been regarded as “the worst”. It is also said that the relationship is close to “a broken marriage”, because both sides are unable to communicate with each other. The declining trust stems from the Hatoyama-led DPJ coalition government’s new foreign policy: pro-China and pro-Asian policy including the East Asian Community “without” the United States, an “equal partnership with the US” without taking equal responsibility, represented by the termination of Japan’s support for US troops in the Indian Ocean, the orientation of reducing Tokyo’s Host Nations Support (HNS) to American troops stationed in Japan, and the investigation into US-Japan secret nuclear deals. Above all, policy-makers of the United States and Japan regard Prime Minister Hatoyama’s inconsistency and indecisive attitude on the relocation of American bases in Futenma, Okinawa as vexing. The relocation issue gets more complicated by the lack of coordination within the coalition government, centre-local politics, increasing mistrust and misunderstanding between two nations. The result of the recent election at Nago city in Okinawa makes the issue more complicated. Prime Minister Hatoyama promised to the United States that he would solve it by May 2010, but a significant modification of the agreed plan between Tokyo and Washington would harm the already troubled relationship.

    The half-century-old alliance today is like an age-old couple: they have experienced many challenges, difficulties, and troubles to develop their relations. During the Cold War, the Japanese government’s support of the United States was repeatedly criticized by pacifist sections of public opinion, particularly by the strongest opposition party, the Japan Socialist Party. Japanese grievances on the unequal Treaty of 1951 led to the considerable revision of the Treaty in 1960. In the early 1970s, the so-called double Nixon Shocks seriously damaged the Japanese economy and America’s pro-China tilt. With Japan’s economic growth, Japan-US relations were often troubled by the issue of trade-imbalance.

    Just after winning the Cold War, the Japan-US alliance lost its rationale: security from their common enemy, the former Soviet Union. After the demise of Communist threats, many American nationalists argued that Japan’s economy became “the enemy No.1” in economic competition. Washington also criticized Japan as “a free-rider of security” because only the United States took the responsibility to defend Japan and Tokyo could not commit to “collective self-defense” beyond its territorial defence due to the pacifist Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution. The alliance was severely damaged when Japan was unable to offer timely military commitment or support to US military actions during the Gulf War of 1991 and the 1994 North Korean Nuclear Crisis. Anti-American (base) feelings in Okinawa and all over Japan reached its peak when the media reported an unfortunate incident that an Okinawan girl had been raped by three American servicemen. To use Yoichi Funabashi’s expression, the status of the relationship in the early 1990s was: “the Alliance adrift.”

    Since the mid-1990s, Tokyo and Washington turned crises into opportunities to rebuild their security partnership. Enhanced by the so-called “Joseph Nye initiative”, the two governments successfully re-strengthened their Alliance through the Japan-US Joint Declaration on Security in 1996 and the new Japan-US Defence Guidelines in 1997. Both governments reaffirmed, but actually redefined, the Alliance as an international public good that provided peace, security, and order in “the Asia-Pacific region”. Japan-US relations reached their “best” phase by the mid-2000s due to former Prime Minister Koizumi’s decisive commitment to support US military actions in Afghanistan after 9/11. President Bush termed the Treaty as “the Alliance in the world”. To deal with the drastically changing security and strategic environment, Japan and the United States developed their dialogue between Ministers at the Security Consultative Committee (SCC or “2+2” Meeting), which led to the “Japan-US Alliance: Transformation and Realignment for the Future” of 2005 to set common strategic objectives.

    In retrospect, as Dr. Ken Jimbo suggests, the Alliance has been expanding its “geographical space” or “treaty area”: from Japan’s national territorial defence (1950s-1960s), to Northeast Asia and Northwest Pacific regional security (1970s-1980s), to the Asia-Pacific region (1990s), to global security (2000s-). During the Cold War, the Alliance was formed and functioned to deter the Soviet military threat to Japan and to ensure the American presence in the Northeast Asian region. By the mid-1990s, the rationale for the Alliance was actually redefined as “an international public good” for regional peace, stability and order to cope with uncertainty against instability and potential disorder in the Asia-Pacific region. By the early 2000s, Tokyo passed security-related legislation at three levels: national level security (nihon yuji), regional level security (shuhen jigtai), and global level security. By enhancing broader functional and geographical cooperation and increasing military inter-operability, Tokyo and Washington have established closer cooperation to deal with a broader range of issues at various levels which include domestic, bilateral, regional, and global.

    On 19th January, the 50th anniversary of the Alliance, the Japan-US Joint-Statement was published by the Members of the Security Consultative Committee (SCC).1 Originally the Joint-Statement on this ceremonial occasion to be issued by Prime Minister Hatoyama and President Obama. However, it is reported that the White House was already quite uneasy about Tokyo’s mishandling of the Futenma issue in December 2009, and asked to deal with it at the Ministerial level. The Joint-Statement of the SCC, however, has considerable significance.

    Firstly, the Joint-Statement of Ministers affirms that “the US-Japan Alliance plays an indispensable role in ensuring the security and prosperity of the United States and Japan, as well as regional peace and stability.” The Alliance provides “a context for peace and stability in East Asia that has enabled all nations of the region to develop and prosper. The Alliance will remain alert, flexible and responsive in the face of the full range of emerging twenty-first century threats and persistent regional and global challenges.” In East Asia, both sides share “the most important common strategic objectives within the region…to ensure the security of Japan and to maintain peace and stability in the region. The United States and Japan will continue to strengthen their ability to respond to contingencies that could threaten those objectives.” For this common objective, the United States and Japan are working closely in the following areas:

    • “to deal with the threat from North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes as well as to address humanitarian issues.”
    • “to advance cooperative relations with China, welcoming it to play a constructive and responsible role in the international arena.”
    • “to enhance regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region”.
    • “to respond to natural disasters and to provide humanitarian relief in the region and beyond.”
    • “to deepen their cooperation, including that between US forces and Japan's Self Defence Forces, in wide-ranging areas of common interest in the changing security environment.”

    Second, the Alliance is based on “shared values, democratic ideals, respect for human rights, rule of law and common interests.” The United States and Japan today form a “security community” of like-minded liberal democracies, in which the two nations are unlikely to fight against each other. The United States and Japan recommitted themselves:

    • to internationally recognized standards of human rights, the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,
    • to uphold the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law,
    • to the objectives of the Treaty, namely to promote mutual cooperation and security, to strengthen the bonds of peace and friendship that exist between them.

    Third, the Alliance is important to deal with emerging threats, unpredictability and uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific, regional and global security environment. “The US-Japan security arrangements underpin cooperation on a wide range of global and regional issues… In the last half century, the global security environment has changed dramatically as exemplified by the end of the Cold War and the rise of transnational threats. Unpredictability and uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific region continue, with new threats emerging in the international community as a whole, such as terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as their delivery systems.”

    Fourth, for strengthening security ties, Tokyo and Washington need public support, particularly to deal with the problems of American bases located among local communities in Japan. The Ministers place “particular importance on sustaining the high degree of public support for the Alliance. They endorse ongoing efforts to maintain our deterrent capabilities in a changing strategic landscape, including appropriate stationing of US forces, while reducing the impact of bases on local communities, including Okinawa.”

    Notably, the Alliance has broadened its scope to global security since the 2000s. Both nations share the view that national security cannot be separated from the regional and global security environments. Thus, both sides recognize “the significance of the Alliance in the global context,” and “reaffirm their commitment to closely cooperate in responding to global threats” in the following areas:

    • to strengthen their efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
    • to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons, while maintaining necessary deterrence.
    • to cooperating closely to combat global terrorism.
    • to combat piracy, vital for the continued maintenance of freedom of navigation and safety of mariners.

    Nevertheless, the fundamental dilemma remains in that Japan is reluctant to play a larger security role and cooperate with the United States in Asia and the world to the extent Americans wish Japan to do so. Successive Japanese governments have interpreted the pacifist Article 9 of the Constitution as forbidding them from committing to “collective self-defence” beyond “self-defence” of Japanese territory. Japan’s security debates have often been within the parameters of the pacifist Article 9.

    Japan constantly faces a typical “alliance dilemma” between “entanglement in” and “abandonment from” the United States. Despite the problems, the Alliance is an indispensable foundation of Japan’s security and foreign policy, and Tokyo has to strike uneasy balances at various levels: between independence from and coordination with the United States, between the self-defence oriented posture and growing demands for Japan’s security role abroad, between China and the United States. Thus, Japan’s policy toward Asia, including China and India, needs to be understood in the context of evolving and transforming Japan-US relations. For example, the remarkable development of Japan-India relations considerably parallels the evolving US-India relationship.

    As a long-term human relationship can be damaged and broken up by frustration, mistrust and misunderstanding, the Alliance needs to maintain its healthy relationship based on mutual trust and commitments through sincere dialogue, words and deeds. It is salient that the Ministers of the Security Consultative Committee have agreed to “commit themselves to further building an unshakeable US-Japan Alliance to adapt to the evolving environment of the twenty-first century, learning from the challenges the Alliance has faced in the past.” Given the crisis of the Alliance today, as the Joint-Statement of the SCC suggested, both Tokyo and Washington need to “intensify the dialogue which is underway to further promote and deepen security cooperation in wide-ranging areas.”

    Prime Minister Hatoyama expects to have a meeting with President Obama on the occasion of a G-8 Summit Meeting hosted by Canada in June 2010, but Tokyo and Washington need to solve the Okinawa issue by May as Hatoyama has promised. Despite the current crisis, Tokyo and Washington have started their dialogue to “deepen the Alliance” by the time of Obama’s visit to Japan at the end of this 50th anniversary year of the revised Treaty. The alliance is indispensable for dealing with the uncertain future of regional and global security, particularly in the Korean Peninsula and to ensure China’s responsible role in the region. In order to restore a healthy relationship based on mutual trust and commitments, the two governments need to act together with sincere words and deeds to reconfirm the importance of the Alliance from a broad and long-term perspective. The stakes are too high to allow the half-century Alliance to be seriously damaged and weakened by mishandling due to on-going difficulties. The course of Japan-US relations will have significant implications for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and the world in the 21st century.