Judging from the coverage in the foreign and domestic press, it appears that the ambassador spoke bluntly, declaring, “I think the Japanese are getting a bargain in the (US-Japan) alliance on what we bring on the table.” The Japanese press seems to have emphasized his remarks on the Asian arms race; both Yomiuri and Sankei note little on the remarks other than that the ambassador called attention to rising defense expenditures in China, Russia, and South Korea at the same time that Japan’s have continued to drop. (AP and Bloomberg also focus mostly on the regional dimensions of his remarks.)
The problem is not the message but the messenger. The US government has been urging Japan to spend more on its defense for decades (a half-century of remorse for giving Japan Article 9). What will these remarks achieve that decades of prodding haven’t? Does the US have a solution to Japan’s fiscal crisis that will give Japan the budget room to spend more on defense? What good is accomplished by telling the Japanese government to spend more on defense at the same time that it’s trying to pay down the national debt and overhaul the welfare state?
How about some creative solutions for getting more out of what Japan is already spending on defense? Laudably, Ambassador Schieffer called attention to Japan’s woefully corrupt defense procurement process. But what he didn’t do is look at the US role in encouraging Japan to free or cheap ride on US defense expenditures. It is hard for the US government to complain about Japanese cheap-riding with some 40,000 US military personnel stationed in Japan. Japan has had no incentive to change its behavior thanks to the US security guarantee. As such, I would be more impressed if the ambassador spoke on what the US can do to change the incentives. For example, the US government could offer to renegotiate the 2006 realignment agreement and free Japan from paying for the relocation, which would both free up money for the Japanese government and hasten the realignment process (which should in turn force the Japanese government to reassess its defense policy in light of the III MEF moving 1500 miles eastward).
Ambassador Schieffer’s remarks are probably harmless — it’s easy enough for Tokyo to ignore them. But is this any way to run the alliance? Given that the budgetary (and legal) constraints on Japanese foreign and defense policy are unlikely to change in the short and medium terms, it would be better for the US and Japan to discuss how to make the most of existing capabilities and determine why exactly the alliance exists in the twenty-first century, a discussion that’s been delayed (at least at senior levels) for too long.