US-Japan Alliance: Adrift Again?

in Program

By Yuki Tatsumi – A decade ago, the US-Japan alliance was adrift. With the Cold War over, the alliance lost its focus, and the alliance managers in both countries struggled to find a new rationale for the US-Japan alliance. Since then, the US-Japan alliance has steadily evolved as the anchor of the US bilateral alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region. The US-Japan alliance was re-cast as the “cornerstone of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region”; the two militaries clarified their division of roles in defense of Japan as well as in regional contingencies; and in order to meet the security challenges posed by ballistic missiles, the two countries committed to cooperate in developing a ballistic missile defense system. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, this alliance has deepened further. Again, in order to meet security challenges in the 21st century, the two countries identified common strategic objectives identified areas to deepen defense cooperation, and agreed on the way to realign the US military presence in Japan.

Today, the US-Japan alliance is again in danger of going adrift. At the end of its presidency and preoccupied with Iraq, the Bush administration has very little time to spend on Asia, let alone Japan. With a parliamentary election coming up on July 29, Japan is also heading into a period in which its political leadership is preoccupied with its domestic agenda. Depending on the result of the election, Japan may face a period of weak political leadership, and may continue to be unable to focus on its foreign and security policy agenda. Furthermore, a mutual sense of frustration has been rising between political circles in the two countries. The Japanese leadership’s—particularly Abe’s—inability to take a disciplined position on the issues related to Japan’s wartime conduct frustrates Washington where more and more people see Japan’s mismanagement of these issues as a key impediment to the successful US pursuit of its interests in Asia. In Tokyo, as well, there is a growing sense that Washington may have “betrayed” Tokyo by its rapid shift to a more pragmatic and engagement-based approach to North Korea. Together, all these factors create a sense of uncertainty regarding the strength of the mutual commitment to the alliance.

At the working level, nonetheless, an important agenda of work proceeds. The realignment of US forces, already behind schedule, needs to be fully implemented. Japan is anxious that it may not be able to purchase the F-22 Raptor to succeed its retiring F-4 fighters. While these issues are ultimately technical in their nature, political commitment from the political leaders on both sides of the Pacific to press forward, as they carry considerable political significance to send the message regarding the level of trust and commitment that exists between the two allies.

Any long-term alliance requires careful management to sustain its longevity, health, and validity. As difficult as it is with the political season setting in, the senior leadership in both Tokyo and Washington must demonstrate their commitment to upholding a strong US-Japan alliance by investing the political capital necessary to move the issues within the alliance forward.

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