Recently, I attended the USI-Okazaki Institute bilateral interaction on regional security issues, where I also presented a paper on US-Japan security alliance.
The United Service Institution of India (USI) and the Japanese think-tank Okazaki Institute held its bilateral interaction on regional security issues on November 27, 2009. The discussions centered around four major aspects -- China's rise; Chinese military modernisation; US-Japan security alliance in the backdrop of major regional developments including rising China factor and North Korean missile and nuclear activities; and non-traditional security threats facing the region and identifying the scope and potential for a strengthened India-Japan partnership.
I presented a paper on the US-Japan security alliance: problems and prospects. The main argument of the paper is that while the US-Japan security alliance has served as the bedrock of stability in the Asia-Pacific, the centrality of the alliance in ensuring stability in the future is not certain. There may be alternative measures taken up by both sides, in consultation with each other or independently, to avoid destabilising consequences for the region. This is in the light of increasing disappointment by each of the alliance partner of their commitments.
There have been several problems facing the US-Japan security alliance in the last nearly two decades. The problems may be categorised as increasing mismatch between the expectations of the US and Japan of each other in terms of alliance commitments; and the Japanese own assertiveness in the military-security arena in the backdrop of the above-mentioned challenges, especially when there is an increasing perception that the US may not be able to deliver on extended nuclear deterrence.
The end of the Cold War, however, changed contours, at least from the US point of view. The US expected Japan to take more security responsibility. In essence, the US was telling the Japanese not to be “security free riders”. However, Japan having followed a peace constitution not only in letter but also in spirit, was finding itself unable to meet the new expectations of its alliance partner and this began to tell on the alliance, although one may feel that all is well with the bilateral security alliance, if one goes by the rhetoric. But in reality, the strategic partnership that President Clinton followed vis a vis China or Obama’s coddling of Beijing are not reassuring to Japan. In between, the George Bush Administration tried to correct some of these concerns and put in place processes in the Pentagon to revitalise the relationship. September 11 terrorist attacks changed the situation drastically and the US was seeking Japanese assistance and the Koizumi Government came forward with significant support in the war on terror. This provided a new impetus to the alliance; however, many believe that it was not the shared views or collective self-defence that motivated the Japanese response, but a “fear of abandonment.”
However, the more important consequence has been the lack of consensus on common threat to their shared interests. The US, particularly after the 9/11 terror attacks, may be devoting greater attention to issues such as terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, rising China factor, to some extent, depending on whether it is a Republican or Democratic administration in office, North Korean threats. While some of these may factor on the Japanese radar, the intensity of the threats may differ significantly in the duo’s perspectives. With increasing US-China partnership and the talk of a G-2, there could be serious divergences of opinion as to what kind of a threat would China pose in the future to the two countries.
There have been problems with the strategy of extended deterrence right from the beginning. For instance, if China attacks Tokyo, by the logic of extended deterrence, the US should attack Beijing. Increasingly, the question is whether the US will attack Beijing or not; whether Tokyo is worth the cost for the US. Basically, the US allies will have to feel confident that the US will provide deterrence against China. Irrespective of what the US says, if the allies are not confident of that, then that alliance will weaken. One of the Japanese concerns has been that a closer Sino-US partnership could possibly widen the “gap between Tokyo’s and Washington’s security perspectives” and could weaken the US security commitment. Any doubts over US security will strengthen the narrow voice within Japan to “accelerate Japan’s conventional build-up or even to develop nuclear deterrence.” Such sentiments are expressed in the backdrop of the gradually declining status of the US and given such uncertainties, Shintaro Ishihara stated the dependency on the US is “extremely risky for Japan.” It is also becoming evident that there is a significant section of the population, especially among the younger generation, that seeks a stronger Japan that is more assertive in international affairs and more particularly in Asian affairs.
Constant coddling China as Clinton did and now Obama is doing, it will worry the allies. Some of the recent decisions by the Obama Administration have not been reassuring to Japan. The decision by the Obama Administration to cut back on some of the defense programmes involving high technology weapon systems could be detrimental to Japanese security, as Obama is cutting down on missile defence and satellite programmes. The Airborne Laser program that is being axed remains an important component in intercepting ballistic missiles in the “boost” phase, shortly after launch. All these scenarios put Japan and its security at serious risk. The US’ decision regarding F-22 Raptor also appears to send wrong signals to Japan. Therefore, Japan might be forced to go pro-active and offensive in its postures, even if gradually.
Given the increasing divergence in their threat perceptions or the approach to tackling some of these threats, Tokyo has been contemplating measures independent of Washington. For instance, on the North Korean issue, the public debates on the possible Japanese response have been, by and large, to adopt hardline measures, more on the lines of preemptive strikes and nuclear deterrence. In 2003, Japanese defence minister had suggested that it should contemplate a “preemptive strike” on North Korea if Japan saw an evidence of North Korea planning an attack on it. In 1994, the Clinton Administration came close to carrying out preemptive strikes on North Korea. US plans in this regard in fact involved some Japanese security and intelligence officials as part of the debates; the plan was however rejected due to the spiralling consequences it could potentially have. According to some reports, citing official documents, the Japanese themselves were contemplating a five-stage war-like response to the 1994 crisis. Similar debates have taken place following the 1998 Taepodong-I missile tests too. The subject came up yet again in 2003 when then Defense Agency Director Shigeru Ishiba said, “If a country declares that ‘we will burn Tokyo into flames,’ and that country is about to fuel a ballistic missile, and they erect the missile on a missile launcher, then this action can be seen as the beginning of an attack against Japan.” Following such discussions, the LDP in 2004 proposed that the country debate about whether it should develop offensive military capabilities and if so, how it should be used. Some security analysts believe that developing offensive strike capability will be an effective measure in defending Japan against ballistic missile attacks on several accounts. Firstly, the SDF “can attack missile launch sites when a country intends to attack Japan and the missile is being prepared for launch.” Second, analysts argue that even when Japan is attacked first, “an offensive strike capability could prevent subsequent ballistic missile attacks against Japan.” Third argument revolves around using offensive capability as a deterrent against any missile attacks.
This debate gained a further momentum after the 2006 missile tests and the October nuclear tests by North Korea when some members within the government and the Liberal Democratic Party argued that Japan should “consider developing the capability to strike a foreign missile base if there is an imminent threat of an attack on Japan.” Debates in this regard focused on preemptive military strikes against North Korean missile facilities. Kyodo News reported Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa as saying that “We (Japan) should hold a proper debate about attacking launch bases and about shelters in case something does happen.” Japan, however, lack the wherewithal as of now in terms of long-range bombers or missiles. Japan would need to acquire a few systems in place, including a) ability to destroy air defense radars; b) low-flying aircraft so as to avoid radar detection; c) air-to-surface guided missiles or cruise missiles; and ability to collect intelligence on enemy sites.
It is possible that Japan has been compelled to consider options along these lines on two accounts. First, the worry that North Korea’s nuclear- and missile-related issues cannot be sorted out through international arms control agreements. There is a sense that international arms control arrangements are not effective in taking care of problems like Iran, North Korea. Such a line of thinking led the Bush Administration to go for a preemptive attack on Iraq. The validity of these actions is a separate debate. In a similar vein, Japan is sensing the increasing North Korean threat and is not certain about the effectiveness of international agreements to curb the North Korean threat.
Japanese own uncertainties too add to the complexities of this bilateral alliance. Issues relating to Okinawa base have been one, from the Japanese side. The issue assumed explosive proportions after the rape of a 12-year old girl by US service personnel in 1995 initiated a new round of negotiations by the Japanese on the possible closure of the Futenma base. Another issue that has complicated the alliance relates to the financial aspects of maintaining these bases. The issue has been gaining significance since the 1990s. In recent terms, with global economic meltdown, Japan is feeling the pinch and has cut down on the money that used to be rolled out earlier in terms of public works in Okinawa. Third, Japanese have remained concerned about the growing ties between Beijing and Washington and expressed concerns as to whether Japan would be dumped for China in the future. More recently, the Hatoyama Government’s electoral promises to forge closer ties with Asian countries, particularly with China as well as to take a fresh look at the US-Japan security agreement, specifically at the reorganisation of US troops in Japan, raises doubts in several countries, including India and the US.
Why is Hatoyama adopting a policy that is breaking away from the past? One has to keep in mind a few issues. First of all, geopolitics in Northeast Asia is becoming more complex today, with an important feature being the interplay between the US-led alliance structure and China’s reinvigorated multilateral engagement in East Asia. Beijing is of the view that its increasing interaction with the region will gradually reduce the US role and influence in East Asia and that the new regional framework that emerges out of China’s interactions will become a competitor to the US. Second, China argues that the ‘China threat’ theory will also diminish with increasing regional cooperation between China and the small- and medium-sized powers and thereby reduce their dependence on the US as a security guarantor. Lastly, China argues that increased multilateral interactions between the US and China in East Asia should gradually seek to establish a linking mechanism between the two multilateral approaches that would further erode US bilateral ties with several nations in East Asia. It remains unclear whether such interactions between the US and China, creating a diarchy, will be seen as beneficial by some of the other major Asian powers including India, Japan and Russia.
Similarly, Japan’s proposal for an East Asian Community seems to be sending mixed signals about its foreign policy orientations. Many view that Hatoyama is initiating a shift in Japan’s diplomatic focus to relations with its Asian neighbours. China, South Korea and the ASEAN have been forthcoming in their support for the group, although Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao expressed hesitancy due to the varied economic and social systems prevalent in Asia as well as the fact that they are different stages of development. As far as the membership is concerned, Japan suggested that it could include Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, ASEAN and India. If that be the case, the US factor might become a major hindrance. However, the more important concern is more in terms of the mutual distrust among the major Asian powers. Despite increasing economic interaction between these countries, trust deficit continues to be an issue, with these countries “on guard against each other” which could be a serious impediment in establishing a way towards a unified Asia.
What has been the US view and why does the US want to continue with the US military presence in Japan? US security analysts have continued to argue the significance of Okinawa base to the US, in terms of power projection into the Far East, due to the island’s close proximity to mainland Japan, China, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. The presence of about 65% of the 47,000 troops based in Japan ensure that vital trade routes are kept open as also serve a deterrent purpose vis a vis China and North Korea.
While China has clearly emerged as the most significant challenge in Asia, the difference in the treatment to the challenge by both Washington and Tokyo can be even a greater challenge in the decades to come. Washington under a Democratic administration has reverted to their traditionally pro-Chinese approach. This is even truer in the current Obama Administration that looks upon China to salvage it from the current economic crisis. Given the kind of symbiotic relationship between China and the US, it is possible that Washington will be less critical of Chinese military and the overwhelming power that grows from it and even on issues like non-transparency of the Chinese defence spending and the military modernisation. If Washington becomes insensitive to Japanese concerns about the rising China and the North Korean nuclear and missile issues, Tokyo may go independent in its security policies. At various crisis points, Japan has contemplated adopting hardline postures, including pre-emptive and nuclear options. However, these options have consequences that go beyond the borders. First of all, these strikes will be seen as a return to a “militaristic” Japan. Second, Japan’s development of such capabilities could spur North Korea into testing more advanced weapon systems, which will force Japan to carry out further measures. This will lead to a regional arms race. If Japan changes its current defensive stance, China will be compelled to increase the quantity and quality of its offensive weapons; thereafter India will follow the suit and then Pakistan and it could even impact the situation in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. However, if Japan is to occupy the rightful place in the Asian balance of power, Tokyo has to move out of its security umbrella with the US and assume more power as well as responsibilities.
If the US’ relative decline gains further momentum with a systematic rise of other powers, this will also have serious security implications in Asia. As of now, the US maintains nuclear primacy, although this equation could change in the next decade or so. China, outside of any arms control arrangement (unlike US and Russia), could be improving their capabilities in the nuclear arena to mach the US. In such a scenario, what is more worrying for countries like Japan and South Korea is that US nuclear primacy could erode with projected reduction in US ICBM whereas there will be a significant increase in the Chinese capabilities. Similarly, there are concerns about a possible arms control agreement between Pyongyang and Washington. Such scenarios will drive both the countries towards more independent security options.
With increasing doubts on the credibility of the US alliance, Japan could possibly take steps to improve their conventional military capabilities and potentially even nuclear weapons in the not too distant future. The very fact that there is an open public debate about the nuclear option in Japan is possibly a prelude to the country going nuclear.
This is the first time in centuries that there is simultaneous rise of three major powers in Asia. While China is realistic to understand that rise of other major powers in Asia -- Japan and India -- cannot be halted, it does adopt approaches that are counterproductive to a cooperative framework in Asia. India and Japan, for instance, will continue to look for an inclusive approach as opposed to the Chinese’ exclusivist approach that appears directed against India, US and Japan. India may not be willing to see an Asia dominated by any one power. India will certainly like to see a more powerful Japan taking a larger security role in Asia and global affairs. Japan will need to play a greater role in the emerging balance of power. However, Obama’s recent talk of common security or collective security in Asia appears to be premature as Asia is not yet ripe for such a mechanism. Asia has several inherent problems including Japan’s past militarism, unsettled boundary and territorial issues, inherent distrust among the major powers, and uncertainties about China’s military modernisation and its purpose. Therefore, competition for influence between China and Japan, China and the US, China and Russia and China and India are going to be some of the unfortunate features of the new Asian century. US choice as either an engaged Asian power or a reclusive offshore balancer will be an indicator to its key security partners in Asia about the credibility of the US extended deterrence strategy as well as the future Asian security matrix.