US and Japan Would Benefit By Working Together to Strengthen Their Alliance

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A new Stimson Center report says the United States and Japan would both benefit by jointly initiating a pragmatic and collaborative approach to modernize and strengthen their alliance at a time when U.S. defense spending cuts are worrying Japanese government and military leaders.

The report, titled “Opportunity Out of Necessity: The Impact of US Defense Budget Cuts on the US-Japan Alliance” was written by Yuki Tatsumi, senior associate in the East Asia program at Stimson. Former Stimson researcher Matthew Leatherman contributed to the report.

“The U.S.-Japan alliance faces serious challenges today,” Tatsumi said. “The Japanese fear that U.S. defense budget cuts may weaken America’s ability and determination to continue its commitment to defend Japan against military attack, despite the Obama administration’s announcement of a foreign policy ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific region.”

The report makes four recommendations:

1) The United States and Japan should engage in frank discussion on how their fiscal circumstances could affect their alliance. U.S. defense officials should be more forthcoming in private conversations with their Japanese counterparts about the difficult budget choices America faces. By communicating the Pentagon’s honest concerns, the U.S. can encourage serious thinking on Japan’s part about its role within the alliance and its own defense spending. Officials of the Japanese government should be more forthcoming in discussing difficult choices their country faces regarding the overall level of defense spending and their strategic goals in light of the worsening fiscal situation.

2) The United States should do a better job communicating its intentions, not just its military capabilities, to reassure Japan. American officials need to give the Japanese
more information about the potential impact of a smaller defense budget on U.S. intentions to mobilize its military assets in Japan under various scenarios.

3) Japan should recognize that the U.S. budget process, like Japan’s, is largely a domestic process with multiple actors. The Japanese should understand that Pentagon officials and military officers seek more funding from Congress, and tailor their arguments regarding the potential effect of budget cuts on America’s military capabilities to this end. Their dire warnings don’t necessarily mean the cuts will have a major direct impact on the U.S.-Japan alliance.

4) In observing the U.S. budget debate, Japan should pay greater attention to how the anticipated defense budget reductions may affect the U.S. acquisition programs that are important to Japan. Cuts in U.S. defense spending are unlikely to have an immediate impact on the existing U.S. military capability forward-deployed to Japan and in the broader Asia-Pacific region. Japanese defense officials should continue to pay attention to how the defense spending cuts may affect America’s ability to sustain and augment its forward-deployed military capability in the Asia-Pacific region over time.

Tatsumi’s report says that North Korea and China – Japan’s two nuclear-armed neighbors – are of greatest concern to the Japanese. North Korea has frequently directed hostile and threatening rhetoric at Japan, and this has intensified under its new leader Kim Jong-Un. China’s military modernization and assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas are also quickly emerging as worrisome developments for Japan.

Key findings in the report include:

  • The U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region is not new. It was scheduled to take place as early as the 1990s, but was delayed by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • U.S. defense budget cuts will likely be bigger than originally anticipated. Few people expected Congress to allow the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester to go into effect, but now Congress shows little sign of ending the sequester.
  • Deeper U.S. defense budget cuts are expected to result in reductions to the Pentagon’s research and development and acquisition programs, along with a focus on spending the reduced level of funding on proven technologies. This lowers the likelihood of funding for expensive new programs such as development of the Joint Strike Fighter.
  • Japan is unlikely to dramatically increase its defense budget. Japan is facing tough economic times and there is less opposition there than in the United States to hold down or cut defense spending. Since its defeat in World War II, Japan has maintained only a relatively small self-defense force and has relied on American guarantees to deter foreign aggression. Japan has also restrained its defense spending to 1 percent of its gross domestic product. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has strongly advocated increased defense spending, Japan’s dire fiscal situation will constrain his ability to considerably increase the nation’s defense spending.
  • The Japanese see the presence of U.S. military forces in their nation as a critical sign of the U.S. defense commitment to Japan. In general, military personnel in the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines in Japan are viewed as an important demonstration of the U.S. commitment to defend the nation. In particular, the presence of U.S. Marines in Okinawa is viewed as evidence that the United States is willing to maintain credible deterrence vis-à-vis any efforts by countries in the region to threaten Japan’s security. It is also regarded as tangible evidence to show the U.S. commitment to sustain its active engagement in the Asia-Pacific region and to promote regional peace and stability.


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