Commentary / Japan

The state of the Japan-U.S. alliance at 60

by Brad Glosserman

Ho-hum. That seems to be the reaction to the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty, a landmark achievement marked Sunday by … very little, except for the statements by top government leaders on both sides. Business as usual might be a good thing, a sign of both countries’ widespread acceptance of the integral nature of the alliance. Taking the alliance for granted seems risky, however, especially at a time of immense churn in international relations.

Six decades is a remarkable achievement by any measure: Defense alliances have a median and average age of 15 years; about half existed just six years or less. The longevity of the Japan-U.S. security partnership is even more impressive given the vast distance between the two countries in terms of culture, history and location, the immense disparity in their capabilities (and obligations) and the transformation of the security environment in which it operates. The two governments deserve great credit for its durability and resilience.

Special thanks are owed to alliance managers who have toiled throughout that time to align the two countries’ often unwieldy bureaucracies and resolve periodic crises. They will have no time to rest on their laurels, however: the alliance will soon face some of its most difficult challenges ever.

Much of the success reflects the recognition by both governments of the centrality of the alliance to their respective national interests. Tokyo and Washington have endeavored to work with and respond to the concerns of its partner. For the United States, this has meant continuing efforts to reassure Tokyo that Washington, despite distractions and engagements around the world, takes its concerns seriously and will honor its article 5 commitments to defend Japan.

For its part, Japan has steadily developed its military capabilities — often fighting public opinion and sometimes pushing the boundaries of constitutional constraints — and modernized its national security infrastructure. There is, as always, more work to be done, but substantial progress has been made and that steady march has been both a symbol of and contributor to the continuing relevance of the alliance.

If celebrations were muted over the weekend, it is likely because the challenges are daunting. Most immediately, alliance managers are bracing for negotiations over host nation support, the money that Japan pays to help defray the costs of the U.S. troop presence in this country. Japanese negotiators have been closely watching the U.S. talks with South Korea over this issue. They have not gone well, essentially breaking down over a U.S. call for a quintupling of payments (which may have been reduced in recent weeks). While South Koreans overwhelmingly support their alliance, the U.S. demand has triggered resentment and anger. Japan is often held out for setting the gold standard for host nation support, but there is no illusion in Kasumigaseki that South Korea’s case is unique or that Washington will go easy on Japan.

That hardline approach is part of a larger challenge — U.S. President Donald Trump’s disdain for alliances. Trump has long insisted that allies free ride on U.S. treaties, exploiting those commitments to avoid paying their fair share of defense costs. The demand that partners cover virtually all costs of an alliance reflects a transactional approach to foreign policy. It also ignores all the benefits that the U.S. gets from a forward presence; it suggests that alliances protect allies, and not the U.S. itself.

Japan has been a particular bete noir of the president’s; three decades ago, while a private citizen, Trump took out full-page ads in U.S. newspapers to complain that Japan was taking advantage of the U.S. Even the close personal relationship he has with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not blunted those long-held suspicions.

Concerns about Trump’s commitment will intensify as he works through two other relationships: one with China and one with North Korea. The U.S.-China relationship is always a conundrum for Japan; policymakers here want Washington to engage Beijing so that the relationship is not hostile, but they don’t want the U.S. to be so accommodating that Japanese equities risk being sacrificed to make China happy. Trump believes that keeping his cards close to his chest and making it difficult to tell where he will end up on any given issue is a virtue — it’s also unnerving for many in Tokyo.

North Korea is even more alarming. Trump’s personal relationship with Kim Jong Un has allowed him to turn a blind eye to North Korean military modernization that threatens Japan’s security. The Japanese national security establishment was as, if not more, troubled as South Korean conservatives when Trump agreed to halt joint exercises with South Korea after his 2018 Singapore summit with Kim. Japanese are angered by the suggestion that Trump’s benchmark is Pyongyang’s ability to threaten the U.S. homeland and indifference to threats to allies in the region. Even greater realism in the U.S. approach to North Korea — acknowledging that Pyongyang is unlikely to ever give up its nuclear weapons capability (and no expert thinks they will do so) — will stress the alliance.

Over the longer term, the alliance must cope with a growing sense of fatigue among the U.S. public about overseas engagements. This is not isolationism; it is a wariness of new commitments, especially in the face of mounting national debt and a demand for more attention to problems at home. Americans will honor alliance obligations and defend their interests but they want to do so working with allies and partners.

This poses a special challenge for Japan as its resources dwindle in the face of structural problems such as its own expanding debt and an inverted demographic pyramid, and the public is increasingly disinterested in the world beyond its borders. Japan may have neither the will nor the capacity to meet U.S. expectations if those expectations are not reduced. That process of communication and accommodation is the alliance’s most pressing challenge in its seventh decade. The record suggests that it will not be easy, but it can be overcome.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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