During their summit in Tokyo earlier this month, President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto took some steps toward modernizing the obsolete US-Japan security relationship.
For the two countries to become genuine allies, however, Washington and Tokyo will have to stop tiptoeing around an intractable issue: How would Japan cooperate with the United States if a security crisis were to erupt in East Asia?
Tokyo says Japan's Constitution permits its military to engage in fighting only to repel a direct attack on Japan itself. Its formidable military is legally barred from even training for any contingency other than an attack against Japan. Japanese forces may cooperate with other countries only to repel an attack on Japan.
As things stand now, Washington could count on little more than moral support from Japan if trouble developed on the Korean Peninsula or in the Taiwan Strait.
Many US officials acknowledge that the US and Japan have nothing close to a functioning military alliance. The US-Japan Security Treaty commits the United States to defend Japan, but imposes no reciprocal obligations on Japan.
Messrs. Clinton and Hashimoto recognized the need to broaden the scope of Japan's security policy by agreeing to review existing guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation. But there is no agreement on whether the review should simply modify Japan's role or more fundamentally redefine the division of labor between the two countries.
Moreover, North Korea's continued belligerence toward the South and China's recent bullying tactics against Taiwan underscore the urgency to resolve this issue now, not at some indeterminate time in the future. It is doubtful the US-Japan security relationship could survive American soldiers dying in a region so vital to Japan while Japanese military forces remained uninvolved.
Up to now, US and Japanese officials have been far too hesitant in their approach to upgrading the US-Japan security relationship. The agenda in talks held over the past 18 months has been limited mostly to nuclear nonproliferation, assistance to Japanese forces involved in United Nations peacekeeping operations, and the possible placement in Japan of a system to defend against ballistic missiles. Joint responses to a military crisis in Asia have barely been addressed.
Indeed, the two countries reaffirmed Japan's traditional policy in an agreement signed at the summit governing the exchange of food, fuel, and other commodities. Washington hailed it as a major strengthening of military cooperation. But the agreement applies only to peacetime; Japan still cannot provide logistical support to US forces engaged in combat outside of Japan. The agreement is so limited that it would not have allowed Japan to supply fuel to the US naval vessels that steamed to the Taiwan Strait a few weeks ago, even though fighting did not break out.
None of this makes Japan a villain. Throughout the cold war, the asymmetrical arrangement functioned well for both countries. An increasingly prosperous Japan, protected by the US nuclear umbrella, remained firmly in the American camp, while the US had use of military facilities in Japan that were perfectly placed for containment of the Soviet Union.
In the post-cold-war era, however, the arrangement is archaic. The threat of global war has been replaced by the more-likely prospect of regional conflicts, precisely the contingencies Japan is barred from considering.
The US-Japan security relationship has never truly transcended its roots, which lie in Japan's World War II defeat and the subsequent US occupation. The arrangement formed in 1951 consisted of unequal partners. Japan has lived the last 45 years in a cold-war fantasyland, a protective cocoon that imposed no security responsibilities. Meanwhile, US security dealings with Japan have been shaped by feelings of supremacy and paternalism, as well as highly exaggerated fears of a dormant Japanese nationalism.
Washington and Tokyo have both failed to face the implications of Japan's emergence as a global power. It is unnatural for a nation with such immense wealth to remain so aloof from international-security affairs. Increasingly, Japan's continued prosperity depends on events abroad. Japan's security policy will inevitably expand to encompass areas beyond the home islands.
The US and Japan must anticipate and shape these events. A more-realistic defense policy for Japan should evolve in the context of the US-Japan security relationship, to assure neighboring Asian nations that they have nothing to fear.
Unfortunately, US and Japanese officials find themselves stuck between a cold-war arrangement they know is not sustainable and a new relationship that they have yet to define.
Japan's long dependence on the US has left a dangerous paucity of serious thinking about security among the nation's leading politicians.
American officials, for their part, are deeply divided over security policy toward Japan. Many argue the relationship will not be stable until responsibilities are more balanced. But many others disagree. Some argue that expanded responsibilities for Japan would have the perverse effect of undermining the rationale for US bases in Japan, which are nominally there to defend Japan. Others say a strong Japan could destabilize Asia. Still others worry that Japan still lacks the depth of democratic tradition to control a bolstered military establishment.
US officials must decide whether they want Japan to play the role of American protectorate or genuine ally.