U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen’s recent visit to Tokyo demonstrates the immaturity of the U.S.-Japan alliance, particularly from a strategic point of view.

The Cohen trip to Hong Kong, Hanoi, Tokyo and Seoul was carefully planned to demonstrate U.S. strategic sensitivity during the period just before and after the Taiwan election. In the midst of tremendous uncertainty about Beijing’s reaction to the Taiwan election, the discussions between Cohen and top Japanese officials were supposed to have significant strategic implications. However, the meetings were preoccupied once again by a number of trivial matters, such as the return of Kadena Air Base’s radar-approach control to Japan and a dioxin problem near Atsugi Naval Base. To be sure, these matters are not unimportant, but they are not strategically significant compared to joint preparations for a possible Chinese military adventure in the Taiwan Strait or a Korean contingency.

The current state of the U.S.-Japan alliance is poor. There are a number of problems that distract policymakers in Washington and Tokyo from being engaged in vital strategic dialogue. Okinawa’s governor continues to insist on a 15-year limitation of use for the relocated Futenma Marine Air Station, while Tokyo’s governor demands the return of the Yokota Air Base and Kochi Prefecture’s governor attempts to require certification that incoming foreign ships do not carry nuclear weapons.

Currently, the thorniest issue is a Japanese call for a reduction in host-nation support for the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan. The Ministry of Finance, in particular, is eager to reduce host-nation-support outlays due to the snowballing government deficit.

But this issue, if mishandled, could hurt the very foundation of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Japan’s financial commitment in the form of host-nation support has served as a foundation of the alliance.

As Ambassador Hisahiko Okazaki recently said, “Japan, being unable to cooperate with the United States through the use of force, should cooperate financially as much as possible.”

Getting U.S. and Japanese leaders focused strategically, however, may involve considering the following realities.

* Japan’s huge budget deficit is unlikely to go away anytime soon, meaning that pressure to reduce Japan’s host-nation support may persist for years to come.

* The Japanese public is growing increasingly intolerant of the U.S. bases in Japan, which are financially supported by Tokyo.

* The Japanese public has increasingly shown a willingness to see Japan assume greater responsibility in security matters. Sensing this, Tokyo in recent years has taken a more realistic and proactive approach to national security.

* The U.S. public and Congress have little understanding of Japan’s current policy constraints, and would be outraged and question the meaning of the alliance if, in Professor James Auer’s words, “Japan refuses to fight side-by-side with the U.S. forces despite the capability to do so in the event of a crisis, while only the Americans expose themselves under extremely dangerous situation.”

These realities should spur the U.S. and Japanese governments to find a way through which the two nations can best share responsibilities to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Reflecting these new post-Cold War realities, Washington and Tokyo need to begin overhauling bilateral security arrangements. Significant political capital must be mobilized to redefine the distribution of military roles and missions as well as the financial burden being shared by the two nations. Only in that broader context, can a reduction of Japanese host-nation support, which has for decades helped sustain a credible U.S. presence in the region, be seriously considered.

In this regard, Japan must first show a willingness to share the risk with others in international efforts for security matters that affect Japan. East Timor would have been one of simplest examples of the sort.

To demonstrate responsibility as an ally in the event of a crisis, Japan should clear any remaining ambiguity regarding Japanese action to support U.S. forces, as spelled out in the 1997 U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines.

Japan should also implement new measures to bring the two allies closer, such as enactment of emergency legislation permitting credible joint operations in the event of a crisis, the establishment of a more integrated command structure and more efficient use of bases and U.S. forces deployed in East Asia.

Over time, all these steps may result in the U.S. presence in Japan being reduced without compromising U.S. and Japanese strategic goals. In the course of that endeavor, the Japanese government would need to reconsider its self-imposed restriction on the right to exercise collective self-defense, which impedes the process of Japan’s assumption of limited and defensive, but still meaningful, security roles and missions in the alliance.

Removing the ban on collective defense would greatly strengthen Japan’s ability to cooperate with the U.S., and would thus help reassure both the Japanese public as well as neighboring countries that Japan will not engage in unilateral military actions.

Japan’s meaningful commitment to bilateral security cooperation coupled with adequate U.S. appreciation for it would for the first time allow Japanese policymakers and military planners to engage in full-fledged strategic dialogue with American counterparts.

The time for such discussions may not be too far in the future as the two countries hold major elections this fall. In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, former U.S. Undersecretary of State Robert Zoellick wrote, “In pursuing a reinvigorated foreign policy, the United States first needs to overhaul ties with its partners and allies. Japan should evolve gradually toward assuming more responsibility for East Asian security, in concert with America and its allies.”

As Zoellick suggests, the opportunity to reorganize the distribution of military roles and missions and resulting financial burden-sharing between the U.S. and Japan will arise if, following the American and Japanese elections, political leaders in both countries stop dealing only with nuisance issues and recommit themselves to credibly maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

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