Security

Learning to Embrace an Unequal Alliance

If the U.S.-Japan military alliance is to be effective in a new era of geopolitics, both sides need to be realistic about the “grand bargain” that underpins it.

To keep the military alliance between the U.S. and Japan sustainable and effective during the tumult of a global power transition, both sides need to update how they think about the “grand bargain” that underlies it. Over the past two decades, Cold War-era expectations for the alliance were slowly and confusingly recalibrated as the world went from two great powers completing globally to a single superpower. Expectations must again be recalibrated as the world moves beyond the current system of relative U.S. dominance. Policymakers need to start shifting policy now to deal with the changes in China and North Korea’s capabilities.

To sustain the alliance, especially in an era of Trump-ian bombast, the United States and Japan need a more realistic “grand bargain.” Changes to the alliance should be designed to build on – instead of papering over – the major differences between the two countries in terms of capabilities and needs. The United States should ask for greater Japanese leadership on issues most important to Japan, such as defense of the Japanese homeland, in exchange for timely and generous U.S. backup and U.S. leadership on issues of secondary importance to Japan.

As Michael Finnegan presciently argued as early as 2009, when he was senior research associate at the National Bureau of Asian Research, the alliance is challenged by the daunting task of “managing unmet expectations,” overburdened by vague and superfluous commitments. During the Cold War, the “grand bargain” between the United States and Japan was simple: Japan provided the United States with military bases in return for the United States granting Japan a security guarantee. The Soviet threat made alliance-related domestic costs easier to justify to the publics in both countries.

The United States and Japan need a more realistic grand bargain

But with the end of the Cold War and the demise of an obvious common enemy, the justification for the alliance had to be reimagined. Perhaps it was inevitable that the United States would become less sure of what it wanted from Japan in a world where it was less sure of what it even meant to be secure. The United States wanted Japan to not only increase alliance operational capabilities and her role and operational capability in the defense of Japan (which are reasonable demands to make), but also to increase its role in regional security cooperation and its contribution to global peace and security.

Japan has a formidable military and one of the world’s largest economies. It is understandable for U.S. policymakers to look at the raw numbers and hope that this will lead to a larger Japanese military role regionally and globally in a way that eases the U.S. military burden in East Asia. But what U.S. policymakers miss is that Japan does not need to play such a large military role regionally or globally to meet her own security needs. Unlike the United States, Japan has not made itself a target for international terrorism through foreign military adventures or ideological domination. Unlike the United States, Japan has the option of free riding on U.S. efforts to provide public goods such as freedom of the seas.

To make this issue more concrete, consider the issue of defending the Senkaku islands through a strategy of active denial as explored by Eric Heginbotham and Richard Samuels of MIT. The Senkakus are under Japan’s administrative control and are thus covered by Article V of the alliance treaty. Given the relative military balance between China and Japan, the maritime geography of a potential conflict, and new precision strike technologies, Japan should not look for an immediate, crushing victory over China on its own. Instead, Japan should look to maintain a force-in-being (a sufficient controlling influence) over the islands that can continue the fight until U.S. assistance arrives to tip the balance in favor of Japan. In other words, Japan needs to take responsibility for being the “first responders” to a Senkaku crisis. In return, the United States would commit to being there to support Japan more fully in later stages of the operations that require the United States to do the “heavy lifting” part.

Japan does not need to play such a large military role regionally or globally to meet its own security needs

Looking at it this way helps dispel two pernicious myths. For the United States, it does away with the idea that somehow the burden might be shared “equally” between the United States and Japan. The United States is more capable, so to meet a challenge like China definitively, the United States will have to play a larger role in any crisis. But the calculus depends on the promise of U.S. forces getting involved being enough to deter Chinese policymakers from even attempting an attack that would invite a U.S. intervention. On the Japanese side, an active denial strategy does not shy away from the fact that Japan will have to hold the proverbial “spear” at some point, too. To deter an attack, Japan must be prepared to act immediately and on its own initiative in response to a Chinese attack.

During the Cold War, Japan achieved security through the deterrence that the U.S. military provided. But with greater fiscal constraints and war-weariness in the United States after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Japan will have to play a larger role in providing for its own deterrence. Adversaries evaluate the balance of capabilities at least as closely as they monitor promises.

To that end, the United States and Japan need to think more realistically about how each should contribute to the alliance given the balance of necessities and resources. It is beyond Japan’s resources to increase both its capabilities to defend the homeland and to partner with the United States wherever the United States believes it has to go to defend U.S. national interests and maintain global stability. Japan should choose to prioritize defending the homeland, and the United States should give Japan the leeway to do so. Strictly in this light, the 2015 bilateral defense guidelines are a mixed bag. As Yuki Tatsumi, co-director of the East Asian Program and director of the Japan Program at the Stimson Center, notes, the bilateral defense guidelines are “predominantly focused on how the two countries will respond to the security concerns that directly affect Japan’s security.” The defense guidelines say “very little about how the two countries will cooperate in regional and global activities.” Which is fine – expectations calibrated to realities are healthy.

Expectations calibrated to realities are healthy

The problem is where unrealistic expectations are smuggled in, such as promised cooperation in the fields of cybersecurity and space, as well as defense industrial cooperation. The capabilities gap between the United States and Japan on these issues will make meaningful cooperation difficult for the time being. This is not to say that cooperation in these fields is undesirable (it is desirable) or that Japan should slow down its efforts in these fields (it should not slow down). It is simply to note that adding more issues to cooperate on before Japan is ready for the commitments might cause more problems than it solves.

The same pattern of overpromising manifested itself more recently, at the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee (SCC) meeting held in April. Particularly problematic is how the Joint Statement deals with cyber issues. There is an acknowledgement that in the realm of cyber, each state should prioritize developing capabilities to protect their own national networks and critical infrastructure. However, the U.S. assurance that “a cyber attack could, in certain circumstances, constitute an armed attack under Article V” is vague and does more harm than good. The caveat that each cyber attack would be handled on a case-by-case basis does not necessarily distinguish it from any other type of attack. However, there is no standardized definition of a cyber attack under international law, and the second to last thing that the alliance needs, should Japan face a cyber attack, is bickering within the alliance over whether it counted as an armed attack under Article V or not. The last thing that the alliance needs is Japanese complacency or reliance on this shaky promise. Cyber is uncharted territory for alliances. Both the United States and Japan need to be particularly wary of the damage that overpromising in this realm can have on other realms of cooperation.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s focus on “proactive pacifism” preceded the rise of Trump in the United States. However, the appropriate response to Trump’s demands that U.S. allies like Japan “do more” is not to uncritically “do more” of whatever the United States demands, such as buying more U.S. military equipment or participating in non-UN peacekeeping missions. The appropriate response would be for Japan to assess what contributions it can make to its own security so that it can ease the U.S. burden of providing for Japan’s security.

A state’s resources are limited, and not just in fiscal terms. Political capital and diplomatic goodwill are also resources that need to be husbanded wisely and distributed judiciously. The United States and Japan can get better bang for their political and diplomatic buck if they can ground the alliance in a “grand bargain” that accepts the reality that the U.S.-Japan military alliance is an unequal alliance, whether either party likes it or not. Alliance managers on both sides of the Pacific should focus on cementing an alliance that works with rather than against this fundamental reality.

Mina Pollmann
Mina Erika Pollmann is a PhD student in MIT's Department of Political Science, specializing in international relations and comparative politics. Her research interests focus on Japan’s security and diplomacy, U.S, foreign policy in East Asia, and international relations in the Asia-Pacific. After graduating Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service summa cum laude with a BS in Foreign Service, she worked for TV Tokyo-America and a DC-based risk consulting startup. Mina is a recipient of the Walter A. Rosenblith Presidential Graduate Fellowship and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
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