Are the United States and Japan ready for a more equal, mature security partnership? Signs are increasingly suggesting that the answer is yes, although both sides still seem more comfortable paying lip service to the idea than actually pursuing it.

In the past, bilateral strategic dialogue too often took the form of Washington pronouncing its “strategic wisdom,” which Japanese officials then politely accepted. The two sides have always been capable of heated debate on technical and tactical (as well as economic) issues. But when it came to grand strategy, traditionally it has been a one-sided dialogue.

This is changing. When Japanese officials call for more strategic dialogue today, they actually mean it. This came through loud and clear during the March 2000 U.S.-Japan San Francisco Security Seminar, an annual gathering of current and former officials and security analysts from both countries. While few argued that the relationship was in trouble, one common lament was the lack of real dialogue on the issues that matter most.

The most obvious of these is the prospects for conflict across the Taiwan Strait. Realistically speaking, Japan would not have the luxury of sitting this one out if hostilities erupted and the U.S. chose to intervene; at a minimum, Japanese political and logistic support would certainly be expected. Japan has a vital stake in how Washington deals with Beijing, yet from a Japanese perspective, U.S. consultation on its China policy is severely lacking.

There are a host of other issues where greater strategic dialogue is needed. What is the future role of U.S. forces and bases in Asia, especially if and when Korean Peninsula tensions are reduced? How can Japan most effectively and least provocatively contribute to enhanced regional security? How can both sides more effectively cooperate on such global issues as nonproliferation and disarmament, environmental threats and regional economic recovery and stability? The issues are mostly not new. What is new is Japan’s increased willingness to debate them.

A variety of factors have contributed to this. In part, it reflects Japan’s gradual, yet steady quest to be seen as a more “normal” nation. Helping to drive this attitudinal change is a generational change. The emerging postwar generation of Japanese officials and parliamentarians are not as burdened by the past as their fathers and grandfathers. They do not deny Japan’s early 20th-century history, but they do refuse to be personally branded by events that happened long before they were born. While lectures about the past from bitter neighbors caused their fathers to offer more and more apologies (and to write bigger and bigger checks), this generation considers such comments insulting, especially when they come from countries like China that have benefited greatly in recent years from Japanese largess.

There is another, more troubling, reason the Japanese are insisting on more strategic dialogue: They increasingly doubt Washington’s strategic wisdom. U.S. inconsistencies and the perceived trend toward U.S. unilateralism have Japan worried. Does the U.S. still share Japan’s commitment to arms control and disarmament and global nonproliferation? Does anyone in Washington care what a unilateral U.S. rejection of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty means to Japan? Will the U.S. Congress push America (and Japan) into a new Cold War, this time with China, or with an increasingly alienated Russia? Will the current or next U.S. administration resist the dual temptation of viewing Beijing either as its enemy or its strategic partner and instead follow Japan’s model of more open-eyed and constructive, but cautious engagement? Will the Congress or future administration mandate a more confrontational policy toward North Korea just as Pyongyang, in the eyes of many Japanese, appears ready to emerge from its self-imposed shell?

Washington seems both more able and more willing to take actions unilaterally that can profoundly affect Japan’s national-security interests. Tokyo has finally figured out that it needs to at least try to insert its voice as issues that seriously affect its future are debated.

There is an equally important companion question: If Japan speaks out, will anyone listen? Is Washington ready for a meaningful (i.e., potentially contentious) strategic dialogue with Japan? Again, signs tentatively point to yes. Within the current administration, at least among those who focus on Asia, there appears to be a genuine desire for a more reasoned debate on these issues. Those responsible for alliance maintenance have long believed that the impact on “America’s most important bilateral relationship, bar none” should be an essential element in any Washington debate over core security issues.

On the Republican side, Richard Armitage’s call at the San Francisco security seminar for a “new covenant” between the U.S. and Japan is even more encouraging. Armitage, a former assistant secretary of defense and current member of Gov. George W. Bush’s advisory team, sees this covenant as encompassing economic and financial as well as geopolitical and security issues.

The time has clearly come to begin the strategic dialogue. The challenge for Japan, amid the noise of the American presidential campaign, is to shout loud enough to be heard. It then behooves Washington to listen.

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