Friends Forever? The U.S. and the Future of Japanese Military Power


Ever since the conclusion of World War II and the drafting of the new Japanese constitution, Article IX has prohibited Japan from becoming a party to any conflict building a traditional military force. This has become the foundation for Japan’s outlook on regional engagement and its role in the international community. However, ever since U.S. President George H.W. Bush requested Japanese foreign aid during Operation Desert Shield / Storm, the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JDSF) has cautiously expanded its expeditionary capabilities. An open question remains: as Japan seeks to play an expanded, constructive security role in Northeast Asia, as a regional power and in support of American peacekeeping operations, what are the emerging constraints to the JDSF posture vis-à-vis other nations in East Asia? This question is especially relevant in light of the recently released National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) and the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security.

Since early December 2013, the government of Japan has launched a series of new initiatives aimed at revising its outlook on self-defense as well as its overall security posture in Northeast Asia. This drove the creation of foundational documents and organizations such as the National Security Council, the National Security Strategy, the NDPG and pronounced increases in overall JDSF budget and personnel. However, the details of these initiatives bear closer scrutiny. In the most recent (2014) version of the National Defense Program Guidelines, Section III (Japan’s Basic Defense Policy) describes a set of strategies based on the policy of “Proactively Contributing to the Peace.” All the appropriate caveats are in place to assuage concerned parties; however, the sum of the principles poses ominous and difficult questions for Japan’s neighbors with long-standing, yet still fresh grievances such as continual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and revisionism on the Imperial Army atrocities committed in Nanking.

These priority initiatives in the NDPG include:

1) establishing a comprehensive defense architecture,

2) building a Dynamic Joint Defense Force,

3) bolstering the U.S.–Japan alliance, and

4) promoting active security cooperation.

These herald a new era in Japanese political and military decision-making, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Yet he faces significant domestic headwinds in the form of negative public opinion towards these initiatives as well as the residual economic drag from the complete shutdown of Japan’s nuclear energy sector in the wake of Fukushima.

On the surface, the new initiatives and joint statements are a positive development for an America beleaguered by more than a decade of war and strapped for cash in the midst of global commitments. It is also refreshing to hear forward-looking, sincere statements of mutual cooperation by a valued ally. What is tendentious is where these Japanese security commitments are directed. The Japanese Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the new National Security Secretariat (NSS) are fixated on the Senkaku Islands as a key security rationale for their expansion. Even though these islands are uninhabited and only add up to about seven square miles of land, from Tokyo’s perspective, these isolated islands within the Ryukyu Chain are strategically located off Taiwan’s eastern coast, forming an ideal overwatch position for monitoring Chinese navy surface and submarine combatants moving out of the East China Sea into the Pacific Ocean. There is also the still-unrealized promise of vast oil and natural gas deposits based on the 1969 United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East. Japanese officials repeatedly offer this last fact as the casus belli for China’s aspirational claims on the island chain.

Taken in isolation, this issue would be relatively minor from an American national security perspective. What is worrisome is the distinct potential for this seemingly minor dispute to escalate into a major regional issue that could test U.S. bilateral commitments to its Japanese ally. Currently, Japanese officials indicate publicly and privately (a) the lack of a strategic buffer zone between Chinese and Japanese coast guard fleets, (b) sole reliance on the U.S. to defuse potential conflict escalation scenarios, and (c) little direct dialogue between belligerents, not only with China but also South Korea dramatically heightens the risk of regional war. Ironically, the aforementioned review and acceleration of JDSF force posture plays into this conflict scenario, and thus flies in the face of the strategy offered in the NDPG.

Balance of power theory claims that pressure-relieving policies, clear direct communication and signaling guidelines are critical in reducing the likelihood of conflict, especially in the case of two hegemons. The United States learned these lessons the hard way during nearly half a century of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The Japanese appear to be violating all of these practices in their relationship with China and other regional neighbors. Even their new NSS places nations like China and Korea after their allies as a second-tier policy focus; the same ones they spend little time in direct contact with. China and Korea make matters worse by refusing to engage Japan diplomatically at the senior Track I level (official governmental), as well as “moving the goalposts” for domestic political purposes with existing disputes like comfort women and territorial claims like Takashima. This is not an encouraging sign for American foreign policy analysts seeking to enable a stable region and a viable counterweight to North Korea.

The recent visit by President Obama as well as the “2+2” ministerial engagement is yet another step in cultivating a resilient U.S.–Japanese security partnership. This is in conjunction with current mid-level exchanges from U.S. Pacific Command, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Mansfield Foundation and their Japanese counterparts in the Ministry of Defense, Foreign Affairs and the NSS. As much as this is appreciated, it is apparent that the Japanese themselves need to pay closer attention to fostering the same level of care in their regional relationships like maritime cooperation with Vietnam and the Philippines and energy exploration with Korea and Russia.

If these relationships are not better cultivated, Americans could be left with the sinking feeling that an enduring alliance with Japan is an operational necessity rather than a product of mutual camaraderie. To allow this to sentiment to continue, real or perceived, would be a disservice to a genuine relationship and a danger to regional security in Northeast Asia.


Stephen Rodriguez has nearly thirteen years of operational experience from Afghanistan to Colombia in strategic planning, corporate strategy, and business development. He serves on three corporate boards, is a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations and a New York Fellow at the National Review Institute. He also Chairman of the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Leadership Council, a member of the Leadership Council at IAVA and the Young Friends Committee of the New-York Historical Society.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery