TOKYO — President Barack Obama traveled to Japan this week for the G-7 summit and a landmark visit to Hiroshima, but the trip also came at a fragile time in the 70-year-old alliance between the two countries. The partnership finds itself under greater scrutiny amid the Asia-Pacific region’s shifting geopolitics.
In his first term, Obama outlined what he said would be the United States’ strategic pivot to Asia, home to four the top 10 U.S. trade partners and nearly two-thirds of global economic growth. It was to be a rebalancing of U.S. interests in the new century. And now, as China lays claim to disputed territory in the South China Sea and North Korea continues its nuclear weapon threats, the world will see if the U.S. rebalance is up to the challenge.
Central to the administration’s Asia-Pacific strategy is the U.S. alliance with Japan, one of the most important and least understood of all U.S. security relationships.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking a greater leadership role for his country in bolstering the post-World War II global order. That order is being challenged, particularly by China’s economic clout and the recent military saber-rattling of Russia.
In recent years, Japan, eager to show its commitment to working with the U.S. military, has moved past the strictly pacifist security posture it adopted after World War II. A little over a year ago, the United States and Japan finalized new defense cooperation guidelines allowing deeper military collaboration.
In September, Japan’s parliament, the Diet, approved legislation that would, in the words of the Abe government, “reactivate Japan’s innate right to collective self-defense,” authorizing the country’s Self-Defense Forces to come to the defense of threatened allies, namely the United States.
Abraham Denmark, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for East Asia, said “2015 was a historic year for us and for the alliance,” and the United States wants “to ensure that momentum continues.”
Japanese officials are trying to demonstrate to Washington they are working overtime to modernize their regional defense posture.
“Japan is the most determined military partner of the United States,” said Yoji Koda, a retired vice admiral of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. But Koda and others worry there is little awareness of Japan’s role in world security efforts. “Washington always complains, ‘free rider.’ But if there were no Japan, U.S. world strategy doesn’t function.”
Japanese Defense and Foreign Ministry officials say they are working to put into action the new parameters for the Self-Defense Forces. But learning the real-world implications of these parameters is tricky.
Any changes are controversial with the Japanese public, which feels passionately about avoiding actions that could lead to a return of the nationalist, militaristic policies that dominated the country in the buildup to and during World War II.
Still, Pentagon and State Department officials say they are pleased with the progress made in implementing Japan’s new authorities for allied defense.
“The U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region and we do not see that changing in the future,” said Denmark.
Where the alliance was once primarily aimed at restraining the Soviet Union, it is now taking into account a wider range of threats, from China and North Korea, and it is also encompassing piracy, terrorism and natural disasters.
“We’ve been expanding the area of cooperation with the United States, especially since the early 2000s, when the United States engaged in the global war on terror,” said Ken Jimbo, a national security professor at Keio University in Tokyo.
He notes that since the 9/11 attacks, Japan has played a supportive role in both Iraq and Afghanistan, spending $9.3 billion and $5.8 billion, respectively, on security and economic rehabilitation projects in those countries.
The island nation also hosts by far the most U.S. military personnel of any country in the world: 39,000 on shore and 14,000 on nearby ships, and subsidizes many U.S. costs in a range of areas, including utilities. It is also a big purchaser of U.S. arms.
“You have a super sports car,” Koda said of the U.S. military. “But without gas, it doesn’t work, right? We are the garage [and gas] of the U.S. super sports car.”
Japan is incrementally increasing its defense spending though not close to the rate of China. In fiscal 2016, Japan’s defense budget is $41.8 billion, the largest ever. But despite the increase, Tokyo wants to make sure the U.S. military still knows there is no substitute for its presence in the region.
“The more active role that Japan is saying it is ready to play does not mean that the United States can redeploy its military resources in the Asia-Pacific to other parts of the globe because the threats from North Korea and China are only growing,” said Jimbo.
Much ado about China
For several years now, China has been steadily increasing its military presence around two contested island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys, which are located in the South China Sea, home to the world’s most-trafficked shipping lanes.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has turned reefs in the Spratlys into man-made islands and equipped isles in the Paracels with weapon systems, including surface-to-air missiles.
Japanese officials and analysts are disturbed by China’s encroachments, but they are divided on what role Japan should play in backing up the United States.
The Obama administration has relied on intermittent displays of force through “freedom of navigation” exercises in which U.S. warships are sent within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands built by China.
“As long as U.S. conducts freedom of navigation alone, I think China will justify their militarization, [while] criticizing the U.S. militarization of the South China Sea,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
Kotani believes China’s behavior could be better “shaped” if Japan participates in multilateral Freedom of Navigation operations that could include Australia, India and Southeast Asian countries.
Tomoki Matsuo, principal deputy director of defense planning and programming at the Japanese Defense Ministry, says his office has received “no official requests from the United States government to join our naval activity in South China Sea.”
The Trump effect
Toshihiro Nakayama, a popular foreign policy pundit in the Japanese news media, says he doesn’t get asked as many questions these days about China and North Korea.
Instead, he finds himself peppered about a new source of anxiety: presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and to a lesser extent Democratic contender Bernie Sanders.
“The most serious geopolitical risk that Japan is facing at the moment is, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it’s not North Korea nor China but the U.S. elections,” he said over coffee at a trendy Tokyo tea house.
If either of the two more isolationist candidates were to be elected, “that would complicate the U.S. presence in this region for sure," he said. "We won’t be sure how the alliance would function.”
Trump, for one, has charged that the U.S.-Japan alliance is a bad deal for Washington.
“If somebody attacks Japan, we have to immediately go and start World War III, OK? If we get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us,” Trump said late last year. “Somehow, that doesn’t sound so fair.”
Yoshimasa Hayashi, a former defense minister and now member of parliament in Abe's governing Liberal Democratic Party, told an audience in April at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that he was concerned the U.S. presidential contest is warping Americans’ understanding of the U.S.-Japan alliance, which he described as “asymmetrical but it’s not unfair.”
Itsunori Onodera, who served as Japan's defense minister from late 2012 to the fall of 2014, said Japanese financial support pays the salaries of 20,000 U.S. troops deployed to the country and Tokyo covers a range of other costs, including utilities and the relocation of a major U.S. base on Okinawa.
Under the current five-year package of host-nation support, Japan pays the United States roughly $1.6 billion annually.
Firmly in Japan’s camp is Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
“When you look at the amount of money they are spending hosting the U.S. military, it is less expensive to have our troops and ships in Japan than it is to have them in the United States,” the Arizona Republican said. “That is a fundamental fact.”
A Tightrope of Opinion
While Japanese officials are anxious about how Washington views the alliance, they must contend with the skepticism of many of their own constituents.
“Japanese leaders tend to have a fear of abandonment while Japanese ordinary people have a fear of entanglement,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, director of foreign and security policy research at The Tokyo Foundation think tank.
Even with the new defense law, the government is reluctant to broadcast its authority or commit to “menus” of defense options, says Toshimichi Nagaiwa, a retired lieutenant-general in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.
“The concept of national security compared between the U.S. and Japan are very different,” he said, contending that the public does not perceive the North Korean and Chinese threats as imminently as Washington does, even though geographically they are closer threats. “It’s not an easy story to change the mind of the people.”
Against that backdrop, Abe’s LDP-run government has appeared to hesitate on moving forward on alliance issues.
This past winter, Japanese Self-Defense Forces participating in a bilateral drill refused a U.S. request to broaden the scope of their exercise activities, even though the new defense law gave them the authority to do so.
Japanese leaders are looking ahead to what comes after the United States elects a new president.
While Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is the favored candidate in Tokyo, Japanese analysts say that even if the former secretary of State is elected, the possibility of her spending the better part of 2017 in transition could be exploited by China to further its military build-up in the South China Sea until its control over the critical shipping area is a fait accompli.
“Chinese leaders think that the Obama administration is very weak and they don’t expect a very strong reaction from the American government,” said Yuichi Hosoya, a professor of international politics at Keio University. “That’s why they are taking very bold actions in South China Sea and East China Sea as well.”
With both Clinton and Trump signaling they will take more hawkish positions than Obama toward China, observers like Hosoya think Chinese officials are rushing to get as much South China Sea island-building accomplished before any more-aggressive U.S. policy can be implemented.
Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, contends that Obama’s Asia rebalance strategy, which involves the relocation of 60 percent of all U.S. Navy and Air Force assets to the Asia-Pacific by 2020, is a good strategy but it is being outpaced by events on the ground.
“It’s moving in the right direction but it’s not moving at the same pace as North Korea’s nuclear missile program, as China’s military buildup in the South and East China Seas,” he said. “Over the next year or two, it will be very important for domestic politics and for regional security to demonstrate that we’re not relaxing and taking a break.”
This report was supported by the Japan Foreign Press Center .
This is an abridged version of a story that was originally printed in the May 23, 2016 issue of CQ Magazine. For more original content, please visit www.cqrollcall.com .