Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the United States-Japan Security Treaty, a central feature of stability in East Asia for half a century. But now, with the Japanese experiencing a period of domestic political uncertainty, and North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches increasing their anxiety, will Japan reverse its long-standing decision not to seek a national nuclear-deterrent capability? Is the US-Japan alliance coming to an end?
In the early 1990s, many Americans regarded Japan as an economic threat. Some people — in both countries — viewed the security alliance as a Cold War relic to be discarded.
These trends were reversed by the Clinton administration’s 1995 East Asia Strategy Report. In 1996, the Clinton-Hashimoto Declaration stated that the US-Japan security alliance was the foundation for stability that would allow growing prosperity in post-Cold War East Asia. That approach has continued on a bipartisan basis in the US, and polls show that it retains broad acceptance in Japan. Most close observers of the relationship agree that the US-Japan alliance is in much better shape today than 15 years ago.
Nonetheless, the alliance faces three major challenges in a new external environment. One is North Korea, whose recent behavior has been clever and deceptive. The North Koreans have violated their agreements, knowing that China, the country with the greatest potential leverage, is most concerned about regime collapse in North Korea, and thus the threat of chaos on its borders.
Japan officially endorses the objective of a non-nuclear world, but it relies on the US’ extended nuclear deterrent, and wants to avoid being subject to nuclear blackmail from North Korea or China. The Japanese fear that the credibility of the US’ extended deterrence will be weakened if the US decreases its nuclear forces to parity with China.
It is a mistake, however, to believe that extended deterrence depends on parity in numbers of nuclear weapons. Rather, it depends on a combination of capability and credibility. During the Cold War, the US was able to defend Berlin because our promise to do so was made credible by the NATO alliance and the presence of US troops, whose lives would be on the line in the event of a Soviet attack.
Indeed, the best guarantee of the US’ extended deterrence over Japan remains the presence of nearly 50,000 US troops (which Japan helps to maintain with generous host-nation support). Credibility is also enhanced by joint projects such as the development of regional ballistic missile defense.
Equally important are US actions that show the high priority that Washington gives to the alliance, and its guarantees not to engage in what Japan fears will be “Japan-passing” in its relations with Asia. That is why it was so important that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first trip was to Asia, and her first stop in Japan. It is also why it is mistaken to speak of a formal G2 with China, rather than multilateral cooperation.
A second challenge for Japan is the dramatic rise of China’s economy. Although an important trade partner, China’s growing power makes Japan nervous. When re-negotiating the US-Japan security alliance in the 1990s, Japanese leaders sometimes privately asked me if the US would desert Japan in favor of China.
I responded then — and today — that there is little prospect of such a reversal for two reasons. First, China poses a potential threat, whereas Japan does not. Second, the US shares democratic values with Japan, and China is not a democracy.