The Japanese-American Military Relationship: Call the Divorce Lawyer?

At the end of the Second World War, Japan was disarmed. Non-aggression clauses were even written into its constitution. Japan had no need of a large military because the United States vowed to protect it. At that time, the US was probably also the only force that would have been capable of attacking Japan in East Asia. Today, things look a bit different. Although China is rising and has been increasing military spending, Japan nonetheless remains a military lightweight, assured by security guarantees from the United States, much as Western Europe has been since the end of WWII.

Recently, however, there have been squabbles over American military bases in Japan, particularly in Okinawa. The previous government told the Americans the base could expand in size. Local residents, however, would rather see the base disappear altogether. Japan's new government at first agreed to review the case, putting off the Americans (though it has now reneged on this promise and plans to keep the base as previously planned). Is this a sign of further tensions down the road and the erosion of the Japanese-American security arrangement? In short: probably not. The Japanese know that the Americans insure not only their security, but the stability of the entire region. They are unlikely to kick them out any time soon, as evidenced by their eventual decision to let them stay, albeit possibly at a more remote location on the island. Even China has reason to wish for a US presence there. The strategic relationship is likely to recover and to remain at least as strong for the next two decades at a minimum. Whether the arrangement itself will be enough to stop an arms build-up and further tensions in the region, however, is in the stars.

America's presence in the Japanese archipelago is a central element in the area's security, part of the architecture of the modern "Pax Americana." Not only does it serve to protect Japan from outside attack, it also obviates Japan's need to build up its own defenses, which in turn makes other states in the region (notably both Koreas and China) feel less insecure and therefore less inclined toward military buildup themselves. South Korea's shipping lanes pass close to or through Japanese territorial waters and it is reliant on its trade links to the rest of the world.

It is not competition between Japan and South Korea, however, that is most worrisome. The elephant in the room is China. If the US were to depart from Japanese shores, is there any real doubt that the Japanese would start to feel nervous about their much larger neighbor to the west? The logical reaction to this insecurity would be a military buildup, of which Japan is certainly capable: it has the population (127 million), technology, and economic power. Japan's pursuit of security, however defensive its nature, would serve to make other countries in the region, namely China, but also both Koreas, feel less secure. Further insecurity in North Korea would make South Korea nervous. It is easy to see the chain reaction that would likely ensue.

Taiwan also relies almost exclusively on the United States to ensure that any change in its current status (in limbo between an independent state and a province of China) is not determined solely by the mainland Chinese. If Taiwan were to be wholly incorporated into the mainland, whether peaceably or not, this would extend China's reach into Japanese territorial waters near Okinawa (which in our extended scenario is no longer shielded by American forces). Leaving aside for a moment the worry that a democratic and open Taiwan might become an autocratic and oppressive Chinese province, this would be a serious destabilizing factor for the entire region.

Last but not least, China itself would not necessarily benefit from a US withdrawal. Although the Chinese would almost certainly rejoice if America removed its airbase from Taiwan and stopped supplying it with weapons, China, too, benefits from the Pax Americana. China would be faced with heightened diplomatic and military challenges if the region destabilized and Japan and the Koreas began building up their militaries. It would have to be very cautious not to drive on an arms race by becoming anxious and building its military might as well. The prospects for this restraint are not good. The security dilemma means tensions and even war would be hard to avoid in the absence of America's stabilizing power.

For all these reasons and more (habit, history, and cultural aspects), the Japanese-American connection is likely to remain strong as long as there are no truly severe (and foolish) diplomatic screw-ups. The only question then is: as America's (and Japan's) relative power declines in relation to China (assuming things continue to go well for China), how long will America's security guarantee remain credible? How long can America prevent a buildup and destabilization of East Asia? The continuation of strategic ties to the region may only delay the inevitable. The Pax Americana, like other paces before it (Britannica, Romana), will not last forever. The real issue is: what will replace it? Pax or bellum?


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