While many are riveted on the NATO expansion debate, momentous changes are beginning to occur in the United States-Japan alliance.
Working within the constraints of Japan's postwar "Peace Constitution" and the 1960 US-Japan security treaty, Tokyo and Washington recently completed new Defense Cooperation Guidelines. If Japan's Diet approves implementing legislation, this union between countries that account for 40 percent of global military spending will be strengthened.
Under guidelines in place since 1978, Japan has been able to do little more than allow US forces to use bases on its territory. Now, it will be able to provide those forces nonlethal equipment like fuel, and open up other ports and airfields to them. It could resupply US ships during a crisis and evacuate civilians or wounded US soldiers, provided its own forces stay out of range of hostilities. In addition, Japanese warships will be authorized to remove mines from the high seas, and to help monitor compliance with UN economic sanctions.
That is all to the good. But Japan will remain banned from conducting most dangerous missions outside its national territory. Even if US military units were in danger, or if the use of force were authorized via Security Council resolution, Japan could not put its armed forces in harm's way.
For the most part, South Korea and China welcome continued restrictions, and if anything, they think the guidelines go too far. Yet, as most countries in Southeast Asia have realized - despite also being victims of past Japanese aggression - World War II should not forever straitjacket Japan.
There are two big reasons why Japan should have a more fundamental debate about its security responsibilities, up to and including possible revision of its Constitution that would allow its armed forces to participate in multilateral combat operations:
True allies need to share defense burdens and risks fairly. If US armed forces suffer large numbers of casualties defending the countries' common interest, while Japan's military sits out a future war, there could be a serious backlash from Americans.
The Marines on Okinawa have overstayed their welcome. US military bases continue to cover 18 percent of Okinawa's territory, down only slightly from 21 percent at the time of the island's reversion to Japan in 1972. Okinawa has as many people as the state of Hawaii on less than one-tenth the land, making it densely populated even by Japanese standards. Polls show more than 80 percent of Japanese consider this arrangement unfair. But cutting back on the Marines without a major counterbalancing step would strike many in Tokyo and Washington as a sign of alliance weakness.
Many Japanese appear ready to go well beyond the new defense guidelines. One poll found over one-third of all Diet members in favor of revising the Constitution or reinterpreting it to allow expansion of Japan's military role. Only about one-sixth are committed pacifists.
But these voices weren't heard from during the heavily bureaucratized guidelines review process. Such closed-door processes served Japan well in the decades just after World War II but are out of date now. Fundamental decisions about a nation's security and about putting its soldiers in harm's way require some degree of national awareness and consensus. Postwar Japan hasn't begun to have the types of debates needed to produce such consensus. It is time it started.
* Mike Mochizuki and Michael O'Hanlon, scholars at the Brookings Institution, are coauthors with Japanese analysts Satoshi Morimoto and Takuma Takahashi of "Toward a True Alliance: Restructuring US-Japan Security Relations."