The Japan-US Alliance Revisited: Is it Dependable?

Chikako Kawakatsu Ueki

The Japanese government has for years regarded the Japan-US alliance—the centerpiece of Japanese diplomacy—as the cornerstone of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region and the entire world. 1 In recent years, however, many anxious voices are heard asking, "Will the United States defend Japan? Is the alliance dependable?" In addition to the relative decline in US power due to the rise of China, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has heightened these voices.

In this article we will re-examine the Japan-US alliance to see whether these anxieties are groundless or well-founded. In doing so, we will first discuss the extent to which the premise for the Japan-US alliance concluded during the Cold War has changed as well as the implications of those changes. In addition, we will consider the validity of a recent popular narrative in Japan: "unless you defend your own country, you will not be defended." We ask whether the US attitude toward the alliance may differ depending on Japan's actions. Based on these analyses, we will discuss the policies and actions that Japan should take.

1. The Foundations of the Japan-US Alliance

The Japan-US alliance has been described as a "grand bargain" for both the United States and Japan. Japan provides bases for the US military, while the United States assumes defense obligations toward Japan. This grand bargain has been considered beneficial to both parties, which is why it has lasted more than 60 years. During the Cold War, this bargain remained intact without much adjustment. Several factors account for this.

The first is that the Cold War world was bipolar. The United States and the Soviet Union were competing, dividing the world into two camps; any disruption of the equilibrium was a grave problem for the superpowers. Japan was economically wealthy and technologically advanced but militarily vulnerable. For the United States, Japan was a valuable strategic prize not to be seized by the Soviet Union and thus was an object to protect. To deter the Soviet Union, it was important for the United States to demonstrate its nuclear capabilities and intent to use those capabilities should an aggression occur. The credibility of the US resolve was also attested by its commitment to the defense of Japan by using conventional weapons. The US pledge to defend Japan as an ally entailed its determination not to be intimidated by a nuclear attack.

The second factor is the importance of US military bases in Japan. Until around 2000, US military bases were safe zones that had not faced any significant threat. US forces could deploy troops forward safely. In the 1990s, some US security experts began to discuss the vulnerability of Japanese bases to Chinese missile threats; but the topic was not taken up in bilateral policy discussions. In the 2000s, an American expert on the US-Japan alliance said, "The United States would defend Japan even if there were no Japanese left in Japan." This remark attests to the importance of US military bases in Japan.

2. The US-Japan Alliance in the Post-Cold War Era

(1) Advent of a Unipolar World

After the end of the Cold War, the premise of the Japan-US Alliance drastically changed. In the post-Cold War world, there were no threats to the United States or enemies to seize Japan. The risk of nuclear war has diminished, and the risk of local conflicts escalating into nuclear war has also lowered. As a result, the demonstration of resolve by the United States to defend allies is no longer directly linked to nuclear deterrence.

(2) Declining Importance of US Military Bases in Japan

In the United States, since 2000 or thereabout, we began to observe concerns about the safety of US military bases in Japan. Strategists asserting fighting safely from a distance argued on the advantages of operating from outside missile range. They also pointed out other advantages of fighting from a distance, including the possibility to achieve US strategic objectives without getting involved in Japan's domestic political situation or bilateral issues between Japan and China, such as the Senkaku Islands. In the United States, a debate continued between such a group and one that favored the advantages of forward deployment. On the other hand, the Japanese tended to pay less attention to the discussion in America on the vulnerability of US bases in Japan. This issue has only recently come to the fore of debate in Japan.

(3) Relative Decline of US National Power

China's rapid economic growth has brought about a relative decline in the US national power since the 1990s. The Chinese economy will likely overtake the US economy as early as 2033, although later than initially expected due to the outbreak of COVID-19. In terms of the overall military power, the United States still remains superior. Its defense budget accounted for 51% of the world defense budget in 2006; it lowered to 38% in 2021 but was still higher than the total defense budgets of the countries ranked second to ninth. A more significant change is in the US public opinion. Following two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, US public has become more introverted. 2 Under the Trump administration, there were concerns that the US military might withdraw forward deployment. But this trend had started under the Obama administration, which asked allies for greater burden sharing. It was also the same administration that asked US allies to secure defense spending worth about 2% of GDP.

3. Alliance Policy of the Biden Administration

(1) Democracy versus Despotism

The Biden administration recognizes China as its most critical competitor. From its inauguration, it demonstrated the recognition that competition between democracies and autocracies was underway, emphasizing that it must win. The 2022 National Security Strategy identifies China as the only competitor with both the intent and power to reshape the international order. Domestically, the Biden administration is confronting the forces that question democracy, represented by former President Trump's supporters; competition for democracy is the administration's cardinal policy pillar.

The US-China competition evolves on the economic, technological, and military fronts. The Biden administration's national security strategy aims at integrated deterrence that does not rely solely on military force. The document devotes many pages to stressing the need to invest in domestic industry and promoting technological innovation. 3

(2) Emphasis on Alliances

One of the ways for the United States to win the competition with China is to strengthen ties with its allies. The Biden administration seeks to rebuild alliances damaged by the Trump administration and to promote the economy, technological innovation, and stable supply chains. It plans to reduce dependence on the Chinese economy and to build a system to maintain supplies even in times of crisis of strategically and militarily important goods or those necessary for people's lives. The National Defense Strategy, the Nuclear Posture Review, and the Missile Defense Review all place the threat and challenge of China at the top of the agenda and specifies the maintenance and reinforcement of extended deterrence (nuclear umbrella) to allies, including Japan. 4

(3) Operations from the Danger Zone

A key to the US security strategy is control of the commons. The United States has become increasingly aware that this control is in jeopardy in China's near-shore waters and the Western Pacific. Defense strategies and operational plans are being discussed based on the assumption that most US bases in Japan are within range of Chinese missiles or in danger zones. Current discussions focus on the rotational deployment of units between bases in Japan and those in Guam and the US mainland, the dispersion of bases, and the temporary evacuation of base personnel. The vulnerability of forward bases and stationed forces is to be covered by reducing large-scale deployment to forward bases, employing unmanned weapons, and enhancing cyber capabilities. The US Navy's Distributed Maritime Operations are a shift from a close formation of ships, in which main battleships are aircraft carriers and other large vessels, to operations with dispersed vessels. The goal of the shift is to carry out operations even in situations where the US Navy cannot obtain sea control. The Marines are to take on a defensive role instead of the offensive posture in an EABO (Expeditionary Advanced Base Operation) in which Marine Littoral Regiments (MLR) are deployed to expeditionary advanced bases on, for example, remote islands. This concept necessitates concealment and survivability; the risks of combating on the front have been pointed out.

These concepts indicate the US's design to combat in the Western Pacific and to defend Japan even if overwhelming security is not guaranteed as in the past. On the other hand, they also suggest that the US military bases in Japan are considered more vulnerable than before.

4. Records of US Interventions and Their Trends

In this section, we will examine the US behavior in three of the past conflicts and crises. Through this exercise we hope to gain insight into understanding U.S. decisions regarding military interventions and fulfilling alliance commitments.

(1) The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis (1993-1994)

This is a case in which the United States refrained from intervention based on its estimate of the cost of war. In May 1994, North Korea took out from its reactor spent nuclear fuel convertible to nuclear weapons and stored it outside the surveillance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Tensions rose. The United States drew up a plan to attack against North Korea's nuclear facilities. At the same time, it calculated the damage from war and estimated necessary costs at $60 billion. The calculation predicted: the mobilization of 400,000 troops, the deaths of 30,000 US soldiers, 450,000 South Korean soldiers, and one million civilians, and damage to the South Korean economy worth over $1 trillion. In the end, the United States did not proceed with intervention and sought a diplomatic solution. 5

(2) The Scarborough Shoal Incident (2012)

A standoff between Philippine and Chinese government vessels in the Scarborough Shoal continued for a month. The United States did not intervene and China later gained effective control of the Scarborough Shoal.

There are many unknowns about this incident, including whether an agreement was reached between China and the Philippines on withdrawal from the waters in question to ease tensions. The United States was not ready to deal with gray zone situations short of armed conflict. Despite the US ambassador's confirmation (1999) that Article 4 of the US-Philippines Defense Treaty would apply to the incident if China attacked the Philippine forces in the South China Sea, a US military high-rank official repeated, "Are we going to defend the reef?" Some suggest this might have encouraged China to seize the shoal.

(3) The Ukraine Conflict (2022)

The US policy toward the Ukraine conflict is not to deploy its troops directly to Ukraine but to provide weapons instead. From January 2021 to November 2022, the US provided Ukraine with security assistance worth $19.3 billion, of which $18.6 billion 6 has been offered since February 2022, when the Russian invasion began. The US support included eight NASAMSs (National/Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile System); more than 8,500 Javelin portable anti-tank missiles, and 1,600 sets of Stinger man-portable air defense missile system.

Because the conflict is still evolving and the amount of information available is limited, one can only speculate about US design and actions. However, it is believed that US assistance to Ukraine is aimed at enhancing Ukraine's self-defense capabilities and at preventing the escalation of the conflict. While President Biden clarified his intention to support Ukraine, he has not complied with Ukraine's requests to establish a no-fly zone or to directly provide fighter jets to the country. He also stated that he would "defend every inch of NATO territory." Meanwhile, he declared, "we will not fight the Third World War in Ukraine." 7

(4) Trends of US Military Interventions

One of the trends of US military interventions suggested by these cases is that the United States is making decisions based on cost-benefit calculations. To determine whether or not to carry out military action, the United States appears to compare the importance of a target to defend, the costs of defending it, and expected damage and spending. This suggests that to guarantee the credibility of the alliance and to secure US military commitment, it is necessary to increase the value of the object of defense (itself) and lower the costs for defense.

The second trend is the distinction between allies and other countries. This trend is evident in the Ukraine conflict. In particular, the Ukrainian conflict occurred not long after the wars in Afghanistan (2001-2021) and Iraq (2003-2011). Prioritizing its strategic goal to win the competition with China, the United States seems to have restrained itself in launching a war to defend non-allies.

Thirdly, there is a tendency for the United States to focus on the immediate threat or conflict. A similar trend was apparent in the post-9/11 war on terrorism. Meanwhile, historically, there were quite a few cases in which the United States intervened in emerging conflicts despite the absence of a prior intention to do so. One hypothesis says that the "CNN effect" or the presence or absence of media coverage influences the government's decision to intervene. Reportedly, the more footage we see of the dire situation of a conflict, the more people support the war, influencing the government's policy decisions. However, some studies point to the manipulation of public opinion by the government. Regarding the Ukrainian conflict, many reports were available of the tragic situation. Nonetheless, sufficient data are lacking to determine whether the US government's actions were influenced by those reports.

5. Efforts to Maintain the Japan-US Alliance by Increasing Japan's Security Burden

(1) Past Increases in Japan's Security Burden

(a) Security Burden-Sharing

In the post-Cold War era, Japan continued efforts to maintain the Japan-US alliance by increasing the burden it bore. Whenever a crisis of conflict emerged, debates arose among US experts familiar with the Japan-US alliance: "Will the Japan-US alliance pass the test?" In other words, they questioned, "Can Japan pass a test for an ally?"

Since 1978, Japan has borne the cost of stationing US troops in Japan as part of the so-called "omoiyari (compassionate)" budget. By the 1980s, it had been spending mainly to mitigate US dissatisfaction with its trade deficit with Japan. After the Cold War, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the common threat, criticism arose in the United States of Japan's alleged "free ride" or "cheap ride" on defense, demanding fair burden-sharing. As a result, the Japanese government increased the amount of its burden to stem the "drift" of the alliance. The Compassionate Budget, which started with 6.2 billion yen for the welfare of Japanese base workers, came to include utility expenses in 1991 and training and relocation expenses in 1996. In 2021, it was renamed the "Alliance Resilience Budget." US Forces Japan-related expenses for FY2022 totaled 411.1 billion yen. 8

(b) Enlargement of JSDF Activities

The enlargement of JSDF activities began in the mid-1990s. The "Gulf War trauma" contributed to this. When International assessment was disastrously low of Japan's financial support worth 1.75 trillion yen to the coalition force during the 1990 Gulf War. In addition, Japan failed to respond to the US request for 1,900 items of assistance during the 1993-94 Korean Peninsula crisis. 9 The National Defense Program Guidelines for FY1996 and beyond stipulated that Japan should respond to "situations that will have an important influence" in the areas surrounding Japan. Following the 1997 Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation, in 1999, the Act on Measures to Ensure the Peace and Security of Japan in Perilous Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan was enacted. This law has capacitated the Japanese government to provide logistical support to US forces even in situations where Japan is not directly under attack.

The Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law of 2001 follows a similar line of thinking as the Act on Measures to Ensure the Peace and Security of Japan in Perilous Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan. The former expands the scope of support to include the armed forces of other countries instead of limiting support to US forces. As a consequence, the JSDF conducted supply operations in the Indian Ocean. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the Koizumi administration announced its support for the United States, and about two months later, in November 2001, JMSDF destroyers and supply ships were dispatched to the Indian Ocean. During the Iraq War in 2003, the United States also requested Japan's assistance; the JGSDF operated chiefly around the southern Iraqi city of Samawah, while the JASDF engaged in transportation activities.

(2) Implications of Increased Japanese Burden-Sharing

What, then, were the effects of these increased Japanese contributions to the alliance? Some Japanese and American experts positively evaluate Japan's enlarged role. Experts on the Japan-US alliance, who know Japan's legal constraints, appreciate the above changes if slow in pace. US military personnel also have a strong sense of affinity and solidarity toward the JSDF. During difficult times for Japan-US relations, critical voices against Japan or the JSDF did not come from US military personnel.

The situation in Japan is not well known except by specialists of US-Japan relations. Japan bears a large part of the costs for US stationed troops in Japan. This financial support by Japan is well known. Its enlarged role, however, is not known to general security experts. It is known that Japan can now exercise its right to collective self-defense; however, as a result, an expectation seems to be growing among US Congressional members and staff that Japan can now fight shoulder to shoulder with the United States. Some experts worry that the gap between such a perception and the actual situation may lead to disappointment and criticism on the US side.

6. Is the US-Japan Alliance Dependable?

(1) Support for Japan

In the United States, the public opinion support for Japan is high: An overwhelming 84% of respondents in a 2021 poll were favorable to Japan—the fourth highest percentage after Canada, the United Kingdom, and France. Meanwhile, just 20% of respondents have positive views about China. 10 As for Japan's defense capabilities, 24% of respondents think that Japan should reinforce them, while 39% say that the status quo should be maintained—the former group has marked a significant decrease from 64% in 2013. Contrary to Japanese concerns, the number of those who think that Japan's defense capabilities should increase has been declining since 2017 under the Trump administration (Figure 1).

Figure 1: US Public Opinion on Japan's Defense Capabilities
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

67% of respondents support the long-term stationing of US forces in Japan. As Figure 2 illustrates, the support for long-term US military presence in Japan follows nearly a similar trend as that for long-term military presence in South Korea. Although 56% of respondents support the long-term stationing of US troops in Australia, lower than in the cases of Japan and South Korea, the support has been increasing since 2012, when the question was first asked. This suggests that Australia's importance is growing in US public opinion.

Figure 2: Support for Long-term US Military Presence
Source: Chicago Council on Global Affairs

(2) Support for Intervention in Taiwan Contingencies

In the United States, the public support for Taiwan shows a similar trend as that for Ukraine. 71%, 80%, and 76% of respondents support military assistance to Ukraine, economic sanctions against Russia, and the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees, respectively. Only 38% of respondents support the deployment of US troops in Ukraine, whereas the majority oppose it. In contrast, regarding a Taiwan contingency, 65% of respondents support military assistance to Taiwan, 76% support economic and political sanctions against China, and 67% support accepting Taiwanese refugees. 62% of respondents also favor preventing China's naval blockade by the US Navy. However, those who support the deployment of US troops to Taiwan account for only 40% of respondents, slightly higher than in the case of Ukraine. 11

Perception of threat from China is more intense among Republican supporters than Democrats in all areas—military, political, and economic. 40% of Republican and 32% of Democrat respondents believe that China-Taiwan tensions constitute a grave problem for the United States. 12 According to the trend of public opinion, the current US competitive posture toward China would not change even under a Republican president.

US Congress is currently debating the "Taiwan Policy Bill." The bill passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2022. Although it is uncertain whether the bill will be enacted, US military assistance to Taiwan would increase under a Taiwan policy act than the Taiwan Relations Act. The new act would "treat Taiwan as if it were a non-NATO ally" and would capacitate the US government to offer Taiwan $4.5 billion of military funding over four years and to provide offensive weaponry.

(3) Defense of Japan

Given the high level of public support for Japan and the manifesto of the US government, it is unlikely that the United States will abandon its obligation to defend Japan when the latter is attacked by China. There is no reason to doubt the US policy of extended nuclear deterrence either. The United States cares about its prestige and reputation as an ally far more strongly than Japanese people imagine. This is because the United States believes that once the credibility of the alliance fails, the deterrence provided by the alliance will also decline. Then, the status of the United States as a global power will be shaken.

If the United States is frightened by China, which it defines as its archrival, and fails to defend its ally, it will lose its status as a hegemon. If it fails to defend Japan, other allies like South Korea and the Philippines will lose faith in the United States. When the non-allied Southeast Asian countries see that the United States abandons even its ally, they will infer there will be little possibility it will defend a non-ally. This could force them to choose to enter China's sphere of influence. Because the United States knows the price to pay in that case, it has made it a strategic pillar to win the competition with China by increasing its competitiveness and resilience.

However, it is not that the United States will defend Japan in any case. It is doubtful that the American public favors dispatching US troops to protect a small Japanese island inhabited by no Japanese from an attack. It stands to reason to think that the contents of US assistance will be decided within the bounds of common sense.

7. What should be Done to Strengthen the US-Japan Alliance?

The security situation facing the United States and Japan is expected to become more severe than it is today. Yet, as we have seen, it is unlikely that the United States will not intervene in conflicts involving Japan, given the medium- to the long-term strategic significance of the region to the United States and the prospect of continuing competition with China.

To ask whether the US-Japan alliance is dependable is important. However, the more important question to ask is not whether the United States will defend Japan but how the US-Japan alliance can serve Japan's national interests and regional and global peace and stability. If that is the case, the Japan-US alliance as a whole must maintain and improve its capabilities. The following are some proposals.

(1) A Valuable Japan

First, Japan needs to become a country valuable enough to protect. If the fundamental logic of alliances is to balance against a common threat, then one way to ensure the credibility of the alliance is for an ally to be of critical strategic value so that it would be of great loss if it were seized by the adversary. Japan's competitiveness and technological capabilities have declined significantly in recent years. It is imperative to restore them. Although affinity and friendship between the two nations are valuable, the United States does not fight for Japan from a charitable motivation; Japan's strategic value matters.

Institutions and funds are needed to encourage out-of-the-box innovation and new scientific discoveries. In particular, investment in basic research is crucial. In discussions on security, we hear calls for an "all-Japan" approach. This is a welcoming approach. However, it should not end up as a mere reallocation of budget between government ministries and agencies.

(2) Japan's Leading Role in Regional Security

Japan's presence and leadership at the center of the network of regional allies, including South Korea, would strengthen the Japan-US alliance. Diplomacy and security experts in the United States have long expected Japan to play a leading role in the region. Meanwhile, on the economic front, Japan's role in the region is well recognized. Experts from Southeast Asian countries appreciate Japan's contribution to regional economic partnerships. A good example is Japan's achievement of leading the TPP11 negotiations after the US withdrawal from the TPP.

On the diplomatic and security front, however, Japan's presence is less conspicuous. Currently, Australia is serving in the region as a linkage between the QUAD and AUKUS initiatives. Increasing US public support for long-term US military presence in Australia has been noted earlier in this paper. Two American experts who had worked on the US side for US-Japan relations have moved their bases from the United States to Australia. They also shifted the focus of their activities from US-Japan to US-Australia relations. This is just an example but a symbolic one.

The need has long been admitted for cooperation between the US-Japan alliance and other alliances and partners. The United States provides capacity building and other forms of assistance to Southeast Asian countries, but regional institutions have yet to materialize. Expectations are high for a concrete strategy to realize a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region. Some ASEAN member countries have feelings of resistance to the configuration of confrontation between democracy and despotism. It is necessary to aim at establishing rules and norms in a more moderate manner than that adopted by the United States and to share and implement those rules and norms with the countries in the region.

(3) Maintenance of US Forces in Japan, Resilience and Dispersion of US Bases

Maintaining US military bases in Japan will continue to be essential for the Japan-US alliance. While the capability of US forces to conduct operations from bases in Guam, Hawaii, and the US mainland is vital to address conflicts around Japan, US forces in Japan, on the other hand, manifest US commitment and serve as a deterrent signal to potential aggressor nations. It is important for the US bases to maintain its function during the wartime. To this end, many things can be done, such as improving the resilience, survivability and hardening of US bases, and strengthen the air defense system. Deploying surface-to-air missiles and developing and strengthening missile defenses capable of intercepting new types of missiles are likewise important. Establishing a regional missile defense system that includes South Korea would be effective.

In wartime, such action may well have to be taken as temporarily evacuating fighter jets to escape missile attacks and flying them off the aprons into the air. Difficult a political issue as it may be, US military bases in Japan must disperse. Currently, they are excessively concentrated in Okinawa Prefecture alone. The relocation of some of them to, among other areas, the northern part of Honshu should be considered.

(4) Synergy of Japanese and US Strengths

Japan and the United States should play a role in contributing to global and regional prosperity and stability through joint efforts to work out a vision that would make one plus one add up to three instead of just two. Long-term US-China competition is not desirable for the region. Japan and the United States must offer the region a clear vision as to what the world after winning the competition would look like and what each one of us can hope for. It should not be a competition for competition sake.

On the military capabilities, if Japan holds strong concerns of abandonment by the United States, Japan may seek to possess defense capabilities that will overlap with those of the United States. In that case, the combined capabilities of Japan and the United States would be less than "two." Duplication and redundancy must be eliminated.

(Professor, Waseda University)

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