Towards a new alliance

Looking over Secretary Gates’s visit to Tokyo, there were few surprises.

He “demanded” to legislators that Japan renew its refueling mission. He voiced his opposition to proposed cuts in Japan’s host-nation support (i.e., the sympathy budget) for US forces in Japan. And has become standard for ministerial visits to Japan, he reasssured Japan of the viability of the US nuclear umbrella (as he noted in this conversation with Asahi editor-in-chief Funabashi Yoichi).

But, at the same time, in his speech at Sophia University on Friday, he hinted at a new vision for the US-Japan alliance. He asked,

What should Japan and the U.S. do together, and with others, to secure our mutual interests? Do we have the proper capabilities, individually and collectively, to address future challenges and uncertainties? Have we the proper mechanisms and infrastructure to meet our common objectives? These questions underlie the alliance transformation effort we have undertaken over the last few years. But we need to deepen our discussion and more importantly, be prepared to act on our findings and make the investments now that will better prepare us for the future.

Secretary Gates did not answer these questions, but these questions must be asked, if not in the final year of the Bush administration, then in the early days of the administration that will take office in January 2009.

Both Washington and Tokyo have come to have different expectations of the alliance, and as a result the alliance is handicapped, prevented from playing a constructive role in the region. The US, it seems, especially in the past six years, expects Japan to follow it wherever it goes, even with token commitments. It expects Japan to add its name to the list of any coalition of the willing. Japan, meanwhile, is happy to send token support (and continue underspending on its defense and punching beneath its weight internationally), in exchange for the US security guarantee, which has increasingly become interpreted to include supporting Japan on whatever areas Tokyo deems essential (i.e., the abductions issue).

The dissatisfaction with the US over Japan’s bringing its refueling ships home and Japan’s growing discontent over the US shift on North Korea suggest that this arrangement is unsustainable.

Nothing short of a fundamental bilateral rethink of the relationship will suffice. The region is changing too quickly not to, as the alliance is silent on the issues on contemporary security environment in Asia, as discussed by Secretary Gates. Most pressingly, the alliance has yet to coordinate an approach to China. To some, it is a bulwark against China. To others — and I think it’s safe to include Mr. Gates in this category — the stronger the US-Japan alliance, the better able it will be to reach out to China and work on incorporating China into the regional security architecture. As Mr. Gates say of China, “I do not see China as a strategic adversary. It is a competitor in some respects and partner in others. While we candidly acknowledge our differences, it is important to strengthen communications and to engage the Chinese on all facets of our relationship to build mutual understanding and confidence.”

As time passes, it becomes increasingly clear that for all the bonhommie in the alliance during the early years of the Bush administration, when Messrs. Bush and Koizumi played catch and the Bush administration was full of friends of Japan, both governments wasted the opportunity to that goodwill into real, fundamental change in the alliance. Instead, they opted for symbolic measures that signified ever more US-centrism in Japanese foreign policy, bringing the alliance to where it is today.

The next administration’s Asia team must be prepared to tackle aggressively the challenge of forging a new relationship. It will require radically reconsidering the number and composition of US forces in Japan and altering how the US treats Japan and the opinions of its government in the hope of forcing Japan to be free — forcing Tokyo think hard about its national interests and what capabilities it needs to be able to secure them.

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