The Future of the US-Japan Security Partnership

The Future of the US-Japan Security Partnership

On February 22, the Brookings Institution Center for East Asia Policy Studies welcomed Dr. Eric Heginbotham as part of a panel to discuss U.S. extended deterrence in Asia, and the implications for current and future security challenges from North Korea and China. Five Minutes sat down with Dr. Heginbotham after the event to discuss the U.S.-Japan defense relationship and the evolving ideological approaches to regional security in Asia.

GJIA: The U.S. and Japan have regularly updated their defense commitments through various treaties, such as the 1951 U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, the 1978 Guidelines for Defense Cooperation, and the 1997 Defense Guidelines. Given the rapidly developing situation in East Asia including relations with China and North Korea, do you believe it is time for a new defense treaty?

EH: Periodically, we do want new guidelines to address things which might have been tried before and aren’t working, and obviously to address new threats as they emerge or evolve. At some point, yes, we will need a new treaty. The latest guidelines were created in 2015, however, and were designed to incorporate or capitalize on all the legal and policy changes that would take place in 2014- 2015 timeframe; I think right now we're still trying to execute some of those previous commitments. For example, there is an alliance coordination mechanism which under previous guidelines never really become institutionalized, but which now has become fairly well established. Another example is new policy regarding the use of civilian facilities, which is progressing much more slowly, and which needs more time to implement and institutionalize. We may have to reiterate or change certain policies in the future, perhaps in 2020 or 2022.

GJIA: While this particular event focused on the defense relationship between the U.S. and Japan, the U.S. also has strategic alliances with other countries in East Asia, including South Korea. How do you think the U.S. defense commitment to Japan is different than the commitment with other countries like South Korea?

EH: To start, Japan and Korea have unique histories and origins, and those have a fairly profound impact on how subsequent events evolve. For example, since Japan didn't have collective self-defense because of the constitutional limitations on defense forces, the U.S. doesn’t have combined forces with Japan like those we have in Korea. The two forces have to coordinate differently in this case, under combined command, which can be problematic. In general, the alliances have evolved differently, but they're both fairly functional in their own ways.

GJIA: The U.S. and Japan clearly have a strong defense relationship. Do you think it also translates to a strong economic relationship, particularly with the recent Belt and Road Initiative which both the U.S. and Japan seem to oppose?

EH: I'll probably get my dates wrong, but if you look back to the mid-nineties, there were many people in the Japanese government and bureaucracy who favored a type of “Asian block” approach to economic relations, which had legitimate political implications. At that time, there was no pressing threat emanating from other parts of Asia. Japan has changed significantly since then. Now, when China come out with proposals for Asian regional blocking, Japan may participate, but usually pushes to make the blocs more inclusive so that they're not limited to just Northeast Asia or Southeast Asia and at least include Australia and New Zealand. Of course, after much soul searching, Japan also signed on to the TPP, which was a major event. Now the U.S. has let them down on that score by backing out of the agreement, leaving Japan in a quandary.

GJIA: Both U.S. and North Korean leadership seem to be following a policy of brinksmanship in an escalating conflict. While the U.S. stands as Japan’s defensive ally against North Korea, what diplomatic role, if any, do you think Japan can play in moving this situation towards some sort of resolution?

EH: There's always a role for third countries to play in situations like this. The U.S. does have communication channels with North Korea, so it can potentially pass messages on or propose initiatives, but I would say Japan’s more important role is assisting us in putting pressure on North Korea. That does not mean so much engagement, but rather deterrence and coercion. In general, the U.S. has strongly supported sanctions, and Japan has been instrumental in getting other countries to participate in those, so that’s an important role which has really helped the process.

GJIA: What diplomatic role do you think the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games played in East Asian relations? More specifically, do you think the meeting between Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jung, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in is any indication of future progress?

EH: One interesting note on that subject is that there was apparently a scheduled meeting with Mike Pence as well, which ultimately fell through. I think Americans generally would not be hopeful that this kind of informal contact could be a genuine indication from North Korea that they are willing to negotiate; there is also concern that South Korea may break with sanctions or overlap sanctions in ways that take pressure off North Korea. A thaw in relations between the South and the North could also impact China's position. For the most part, I think there's concern about where this will lead, and a lot of skepticism about what North Korea's motives might be. Many people seem to regard this meeting as an attempt to soften sanctions, which have been effective, and to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea, especially given the very different positions President Trump and President Moon Jae-in have taken.

GJIA: The three parties in Japanese security politics are pacifists, nationalists, and security realists. Do you foresee any imminent change in the balance of these ideological parties, and if so, how would this affect the U.S.-Japan defense relationship?

EH: There have recently been changes that are fairly clear, like the collapse of the left wing party, which leaves pacifism without a strong political voice. We also see the transition away from the World War Two generation, which experienced catastrophic war and two nuclear bombings; as a result, there’s a weakening of pacifist sentiment and a corresponding rise in realist positions, especially within the government. Realism still doesn’t have broad appeal at the popular level, but within the government, there seems to be a consensus around a set of realist informed ideas. Nationalism is also a growing force, but remains more at the fringes. Both of those ideologies are strengthening because Japan faces a much more severe security environment, but also because of generational change, and because Japan has largely failed to confront its wartime history. The right is clearly growing and becoming respectable, and now nationalist rallies aren’t just men in their black work clothes, but also middle class folks in suits and ties. This is a new face to Japanese nationalism. On the other hand, the severity of the security problems facing Japan may make the nationalist option less realistic. To pursue autonomous defense, they would have to at least triple the defense budget, which given the current debt problem they cannot afford. The evolution of those ideologies in the future is very path dependent. If there were an event with mass casualties, there could be a strengthening of pacifism, in which we realize the danger and costs involved in war, or a strengthening of nationalism and realism. It’s impossible to say for sure.


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Dr. Eric Heginbotham is a principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies, and a specialist in Asian security issues. He has previously held positions as a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, where he led research projects and regularly briefed senior military and intelligence leaders, and as a Senior Fellow of Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Heginbotham has published numerous articles and studies on regional security and U.S. relations with Asian powers, and served in the U.S. Army Reserves and National Guard. He received his bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College before earning his PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.