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Better Late Than Never

Perhaps Japan will become America’s first true security partner.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Address Joint Meeting Of Congress
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) speaks to a joint meeting of the US Congress while flanked by Vice President Joseph Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) in the House chamber of the US Capitol April 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Who knew? After decades of cheap riding on America for its defense, the Japanese government has promised to do more. In contrast to Germany’s so-called Zweitenwende, or turning point, on defense, Tokyo appears serious about its new direction, citing “the severest and most complicated national security environment” since World War II. There is still much to do, but Japan is well positioned to use Beijing’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy against America to deter Chinese expansionism.

Tokyo’s move has long been in process. Although the program is being advanced by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, its genesis was under the late Shinzo Abe. Explained Tobias Harris, with the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.:


While Kishida’s national security documents seemingly go further than Abe ever did—the massive spending increase of ¥43 trillion ($314.5bn in current dollars) over five years outlined in these documents, the acquisition of so-called ‘counterattack’ capabilities being the most notable additions, the description of China as the most serious challenge faced by Japan in the postwar era—the strategy outlined by the Kishida government is less a departure from Abe’s strategic vision than its fulfillment.

After Tokyo’s 1945 surrender, Washington’s first inclination was to demilitarize Japan: hence the U.S.-drafted “peace constitution,” which formally banned possession of armed forces. Then the Cold War caused a volte face in Washington. American officials desired allied support to contain the Soviet Union and newly established People’s Republic of China.

However, over the ensuing decades, even close U.S. partners proved reluctant to pick up defense responsibilities. Tokyo politicians hid behind America’s handiwork, claiming to lack legal authority to rearm. Japan’s neighbors, only recently occupied by Tokyo’s forces, were no more enthusiastic about the idea. Demonstrating the interpretive dexterity of America’s judicial liberals, Japan’s government created a “Self-Defense Force” but refused to spend more than 1 percent of GDP on it. During the early years, Tokyo even disclaimed the right to defend U.S. forces deployed to protect Japan from foreign attack.

Despite the absurdity of Tokyo’s position, 1 percent of the world’s second largest economy allowed Japan to create a serious military, er, SDF. Today Tokyo has a quarter million men under arms, 22 submarines, four helicopter carriers, and another 45 major surface ships. However, had the Japanese government responded, say, a decade ago to the rising threat from both North Korea and China, Tokyo could do much more today. Instead, successive Japanese governments begged America to protect their claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and more.

Last year, Japan’s defense budget was a bit under $50 billion, a lot compared to most nations, but barely 18 percent of China’s estimated military outlays. As the most likely target of Beijing’s ill-attention, after Taiwan, spending just one percent of GDP on defense is political malpractice. Although there is no evidence that the PRC is interested in conquering Japan, the struggle over a few contested rocks is real.


Arrayed against Tokyo today is the People’s Liberation Army with more than two million personnel overall and a navy of 59 submarines, two aircraft carriers, and 84 other major surface ships. Beijing leads the U.S. fleet in numbers (though not tonnage). No wonder Tokyo’s new National Security Strategy terms the PRC Japan’s “biggest strategic challenge.”

However, the Kishida government now plans to shrink the gap between the two. The NSS reported that Japan would continue to emphasize diplomacy, but “In addition, possessing defense capabilities, which enable Japan to firmly defend itself on its own, will indeed bolster the solid footing of Japan's diplomacy.” The words are welcome. However, action is necessary.

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Tokyo officials often have talked of doing more, only to maintain the status quo. Even past conservative governments have pointed to Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which states that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” as a barrier to doing more. However, if it is okay to establish a “self-defense force,” surely that organization can spend enough to fulfill its purpose.

Now Tokyo is seeking to move the issue beyond domestic legalisms to geopolitical realities. Nevertheless, the deal is not done: Kishida’s popularity is at low ebb and no government can bind another. Just a few months after Germany’s fabled Zweitenwende, the Scholz government is racing in reverse.

Unsurprisingly, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin welcomed Kishida’s initiative. The U.S. should emphasize that Japan’s decision is up to the Japanese people. Rather than attempt to dictate Tokyo’s policy, Washington should explain what the U.S. plans to do, which should be to reduce America’s force presence and renegotiate the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security to be truly “mutual.” Then the two governments could cooperate as equals to promote shared ends.

Japan will have to decide how much it is prepared to risk and spend if Taiwan is attacked by the PRC. Tokyo has increasingly cited concern over threats to the island but has not committed to respond militarily. Doing so would turn Japan into a target for Chinese missiles. Tokyo, at least, realizes that contrary to fevered claims from the likes of Sen. Bill Hagerty, there is no evidence “that if Taiwan falls, Japan's going to be next on the docket for China.” Taiwan is important, but sui generis in terms of both history and geography.

The critical point is that Washington would not defend Japan if Tokyo failed to do so. Japan’s defense is not more vital to Americans than the Japanese. The U.S. would retain an interest in preserving a multipolar Asia, based on the independence of friendly powers, of which Tokyo may be the most important. However, America no longer would provide the first line of defense to countries in the region, especially over territorial squabbles. Allied states could no longer expect to call in the U.S. cavalry to handle their problems.

Military disengagement should be conducted over time, to allow Japan and other American allies time to adjust. Moreover, the Pentagon should retain limited access to some of its current facilities. However, there should be a date certain for withdrawal of America’s 55,000 troops, especially of the Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa, to maintain the pressure on Tokyo and other governments to upgrade their forces. Japan’s present objective is to double military outlays over the next five years; that would be a good, if somewhat slow, start to create a force capable of deterring Beijing. More yen might prove necessary.

At the same time, the U.S. should mount a major diplomatic effort to convince friendly powers, whether or not democratic, to cooperate on their own, without waiting on Washington. Tokyo’s NSS indicates that “Japan will build a multilayered network among its ally and like-minded countries, expand it, and strengthen deterrence.” However, greater defense coordination will be a challenge. As Tokyo recognizes, the Quad, with India, Japan, Australia, and the U.S. would be a good start. Tokyo also has increasingly worked with New Delhi and Manila. In contrast, Japan’s relations with the Republic of Korea most need repair. Other states, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, have complicated relationships with China. None want to make Beijing an enemy, but all would benefit from working together to constrain China.

Indeed, a more active and powerful Japan would be an invitation for Beijing to negotiate. China’s embassy in Japan made a formal diplomatic protest to the new defense program, denouncing the Kishida government for “stirring up tension and confrontation in the region.” It was an ostentatious example of the pot calling the kettle black, given the PRC’s rapidly increasing military budget and assertive military activities.

Tokyo’s message should be simple: the more assertive the PLA, the larger the SDF will become. Moreover, the nuclear option beckons. At some point, reality may force Japan to consider going nuclear. Not a good outcome, but perhaps a necessary one, the sort of second-best solution characteristic of international affairs.

Washington has good economic reasons for downsizing both its military commitments and budget. The U.S. government is essentially bankrupt. Successive Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses spend and borrow without limit. By mid-century, warns the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government likely will have debts running nearly 200 percent of GDP. When the inevitable fiscal crisis arrives, even spendthrift Washington solons will have to cut something. Military spending will be on the chopping block, since America’s extensive defense dole has little to do with defending the U.S.

It is past time for Washington to drop its promises to defend much of the known world. America should not add more allies. Make more security commitments. Establish new bases. Increase military outlays. Or offer more reassuring words. Rather, existing U.S. forces should begin coming home. And allies should take over their own security. Tokyo looks ready with its new security strategy and defense program. Such an approach would also benefit America. Today, Washington needs allies, not dependents. Perhaps Japan will become America’s first true security partner.