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Paths Diverging? The Next Decade in the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance

Paths Diverging? The Next Decade in the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance - Cover

Authored by LTC William E. Rapp.

January 2004

92 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author explores the changing nature of Japanese security policy and the impact of those changes on the U.S.-Japan security alliance. He begins his analysis by acquainting the reader with an insider's view of the conflicted Japanese conceptions of security policy and the various ideational and structural restraints on expanding the role of the military. Next, he explores the events of the past decade that have caused huge shifts in security policy and posture and predicts the future vectors of those changes within Japan. Finally, the author overlays the likely Japanese security future on the alliance and concludes that changes in the basic relationship between the United States and Japan must occur if the alliance is to retain its centrality 20 years from now.


Although the United States is the sole superpower in the world, it increasingly faces an objectives-means shortfall in attaining its global interests unilaterally. Sustaining its engagement in the far reaches of the world requires the partnership of capable, willing and like-minded states. In the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance will remain vital to achieving both countries’ national interests in the next 2 decades because of a lack of strategic options, though the commitment of both partners is likely to be sorely tested. Should conditions arise that give either the United States or Japan a viable alternative to advance stability and national interests, the alliance could be in doubt.

Having depended on the United States for security for over 50 years, Japan is now actively trying to chart its new path for the future. Japan is in the midst of a fundamental reexamination of its security policy and its role in international relations that will have a dramatic impact on East Asia and the Pacific. Within Japan, many see the traditional means of security policy as being out of balance and vulnerable in the post-Cold War environment. The triad of economic diplomacy, engagement with international organizations, and a minimalist military posture predicated on a capable selfdefense force with American guarantees of protection, heavily weighted toward economic diplomacy, is not seen by the Japanese to be adequately achieving the national interests and influence that country seeks.

Regardless of the more realist imperatives, Japan remains deeply ambivalent toward security expansion. However, despite domestic restraints, Japan will continue slowly and incrementally to remove the shackles on its military security policy. Attitudinal barriers, such as pacifism, anti-militarism, security insulation, and desire for consensus combine with institutional barriers, like coalition politics, lack of budget space, and entrenched bureaucracy, to confound rapid shifts in security policy, though those changes will eventually occur.

The ambivalence Japan feels clouds the ideal path to the future for the nation in trying to find a way forward among competing goals of preventing either entrapment or abandonment by the United States and pursuing self-interest. Because Japan is risk-averse, but increasingly self-aware, dramatic (in Japanese terms) security policy changes will continue to be made in small, but cumulative steps. These changes in security policy and public acquiescence to them will create pressure on the alliance to reduce asymmetries and offensive burdens since the ideal, long-term security future for Japan does not rely on the current role vis-à-vis the United States. Both Japan and the United States must move out of their comfort zones to create a more balanced relationship that involves substantial consultation and policy accommodation, a greater risk-taking Japanese role in the maintenance of peace and stability of the region, and coordinated action to resolve conflicts and promote prosperity in the region.

Because neither country has a viable alternative to the alliance for the promotion of security and national interests in the region, especially given the uncertainties of the future trends in China and the Korean Peninsula, for the next couple of decades the alliance will remain central to achieving the interests of both Japan and the United States. A more symmetrical alliance can be a positive force for regional stability and prosperity in areas of engagement of China, proactive shaping of the security environment, the protection of maritime commerce routes, and the countering of weapons proliferation, terrorism, and drug trafficking. Without substantive change, though, the centrality of the alliance will diminish as strategic alternatives develop for either the United States or Japan.

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