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USJI Voice Vol.25

The Birth of the Trump Administration and U.S.-Japan Security Cooperation

April 10,2017
Tatsuo Akaneya
Professor, University of Tsukuba

Although more than three months have now elapsed since the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, personnel appointments to major government posts and senior-level positions have not really progressed, and the specific outlines of the Trump administration’s foreign policy have yet to become apparent. However, judging from statements made by Trump during the presidential election campaign, it seems likely that he will chart a different course from that of previous administrations. President Trump’s inaugural speech, rather than lauding the noble ideals of global freedom and democracy, was characterized instead by a repeated determination to protect and primarily consider the interests of the United States of America.

During the administration of George W. Bush in the early 2000s, the United States engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in pursuit of its so-called “War on Terror,” additionally promoting military interventions under the banner of democratization. Today, however, many of the regions in which the U.S. intervened are in a state of turmoil. As costs and casualties increased, the Obama administration declared that America should not be the world’s policeman and took a turn toward isolationism. This trend is also apparent under President Trump. However, unlike the Obama administration, President Trump has called for the strengthening of U.S. military power, demonstrating an attitude toward determined international involvement only in cases that conform to American national interest.

In the midst of the presidential election campaign, Trump singled out Japan for criticism as an allied nation that did not carry its fair share of the burden. Even so, at a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just after the launch of the Trump administration, such misconceptions seem to have been dispelled. In a joint statement issued by Japan and the U.S. after that discussion, there was no evidence of any criticism that Japan does not carry its weight. Furthermore, the alliance between the two countries was lauded as the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, and freedom in the Asia-Pacific region, and it was made explicit in writing that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty also applies to the Senkaku Islands. The U.S. has traditionally maintained a policy of not involving itself in territorial disputes between third-party nations, and neither has it clarified its position on the interpretation of the territorial rights of the Senkakus. Nevertheless, the commitment in writing that the Senkakus are subject to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is epoch making.

The Principles of Mutual Benefit and Mutual Aid as the Foundations of the Alliance

It is possible that, as a candidate, Trump may have had very little actual knowledge of Japan-U.S. security cooperation when, during the campaign, he criticized Japan as taking a “free ride” with regards to its national defense. During Prime Minster Abe’s recent visit to the U.S., he had the opportunity to have a long discussion with the president and seems to have cleared up this misunderstanding. However, although U.S. military and diplomatic officials are well aware of Japan’s contributions under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, there are likely several reasons why they are little known to the average American citizen.

One of the reasons why the U.S.-Japan alliance is not well understood is its so-called “one-sided character.” That is, while the U.S. is obliged to help Japan in the case of an emergency, Japan is under no such obligation with respect to the U.S. An American hearing of this asymmetry would no doubt wonder about “the feasibility of such an alliance.” This is because we hold mutualism to be the foundation of relations between independent states, and it is a major premise that alliances exist on a foundation of mutual benefit and mutual aid.

Since World War II, alliances that have been entered into by the U.S. have been based on the right to collective self-defense as stipulated in the United Nations Charter. The Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is no exception. However, the Japanese government has thus far recused itself from providing support to the U.S. based on “the right of collective self-defense” – particularly overseas support. Therefore, within the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, the applicable scope of the treaty is limited to the territories under Japan’s administration. This has led to the seemingly strange “mutual” security treaty under which, in the event of an emergency, the U.S. is obliged to help Japan based on the right of collective self-defense. As such, Japan will provide a base for the U.S. based on individual self-defense and is additionally obligated to defend American military bases in Japan through its own national defense obligations.

What has framed Japan’s post-war security policy is the so-called “Peace” Constitution drafted by the GHQ of the U.S.-led occupation forces immediately following World War II. Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution renounces Japan’s right to wage war and stipulates that it will not maintain an army, navy, air force, or any other military force. However, at the time of the Korean War, the head of GHQ, General MacArthur, instructed the Japanese government to rearm itself, leading to Japan’s establishment of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) as what are now its de facto armed forces. Throughout the Cold War, the constitutionality of the SDF and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty has been the single largest point of contention in domestic politics between the conservative camp of the ruling administration and the reformers on the side of the opposition.

At the political level, this constitutional debate was solved – or at least eased–with the end of the Cold War and the accompanying end of the domestic cold war since the mid-1990s. As Japan’s political establishment reeled through the twists and turns following the collapse of the “1955 System” in the early 1990s with the schism and fall from government of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), resulting in the establishment of the Murayama administration by a coalition of the Japan Socialist Party, the LDP, and the New Party Sakigake, Socialist Party Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama caused a major shift in the party’s policies when he resolved to accept the existence of the SDF and also Japan-U.S. security arrangements. Nevertheless, Japan’s exercising the right to collective self-defense continued to be regarded as unconstitutional. Thus, the July 2014 Cabinet decision taken by the Abe administration to authorize the exercise of the right to collective self-defense was a major policy change. The following year, when it sought to enact legislation to this effect, it sparked an opposition movement reminiscent of the former struggle against the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. In recent years, claims that new security legislation was a “war bill,” and that “constitutionalism” itself is being exposed to crisis have often been heard.

The new collective self-defense measures set out in the new security legislation are only to be activated under limited conditions. Specifically, they may only be activated in cases in which “an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and, as a result, threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” The basis of this limitation is reportedly the cautious position advanced by the Clean Government Party (Komeito) as a part of the ruling coalition party. Even thus limited, the establishment and enforcement of this bill has the potential to lay a foundation for future security cooperation between the U.S. and Japan. Although the Abe administration could not have anticipated President Trump’s arrival on the scene at the time this bill was conceived, it was certainly timely for the maintenance of U.S. -Japan relations in the age of a businessman president who emphasizes mutually beneficial transactions.

The Necessity of Abandoning Japan’s “Unilateral Pacifism”

Japan’s security policy since the end of World War II has been constrained by a variety of elements that have included debates surrounding Article 9; the new and old Japan-U.S. security regimes; the international security environment and relations with the U.S.; domestic politics; and the experience, memory, and reflections of the war on the part of the Japanese people themselves. That Japan has resisted rearming itself in earnest (preferring to rely on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty for security and, in particular, to recuse itself from dispatching the SDF overseas), while observing the constraints imposed by Article 9, seems also to stem from anti-war sentiment based on Japan’s own wartime experience. Japan has avoided “overseas military engagements” as much as possible. On the other hand, the United States, after initially imposing the Constitution’s Article 9, instructed the Japanese government to rearm the country amidst the circumstances of the Korean War. In the wake of the end of the Cold War, Washington has acted to encourage Japan’s cooperation in willing coalitions and dispatch of Self-Defense Forces as PKOs to sites of regional conflicts. Successive Japanese governments may be said to have pursued a security policy that has sought to strike a delicate balance between maintaining relations with the U.S. and domestic anti-war/anti-military sentiment in Japan.

Until quite recently, the 1981 Cabinet decision that acknowledged the unconstitutionality of Japan’s exercise of the right of collective self-defense had been observed by successive LDP administrations. Here the right of collective self-defense is defined by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau as “the right to use force to stop an armed attack on a foreign country with which the state has close relations, even though the state itself is not under direct attack,” a provision that has been commonly used for a long time, for example, in each issue of Defense of Japan (Japan’s Defense White Paper). I personally cannot but perceive a negative tone in the Japanese wording of this provision – i.e., “the right [to go so far as] to use force to protect a foreign country […], even though [or despite the fact that] the state itself is not under direct attack, [thereby meddling in another country’s affairs].” Its original rationale has been that for Japan, being constitutionally limited to possess only the minimum amount of force necessary for its national defense, to exercise the right of collective self-defense for the defense of another country would be tantamount to be doing something uncalled-for.

However, originally, under the terms of the UN Charter, the right of collective self-defense was a provision for recognizing the creation of regional mechanisms setting out the mutual defense of Latin American nations, and these Latin American nations did not conceive of “the right of collective self-defense” in the negative sense described above. The UN concept of collective security is itself based on the concept that “peace is indivisible”- i.e., that the failure of peace for any one country in the world is nothing other than the failure of world peace. In other words, the invasion of another country should be regarded not as someone else’s affair, but as a serious problem facing none other than one’s own country. Under this philosophy, peace can only be preserved if the entire world supports the nation that is the victim of an invasion; in this sense, the philosophy of regional security arrangements based on the right of collective self-defense is consistent with the philosophy and mindset of collective security that was celebrated at the time of the UN’s establishment.

However, most Japanese pacifists have a negative impression regarding the right of collective self-defense. There are various reasons for this. For one thing, during the Cold War, when the two superpowers – the U.S. and the USSR – conducted military interventions in foreign countries to advance their own strategic interests, their argument for doing so was couched in the excusatory language of the right of collective self-defense. There seems also to be an understanding in Japan that the right of collective self-defense is the right for the defense of other countries, rather than self-defense, and, as such, it is inappropriately regarded as an inherent national right. With regard to Japan, in particular, there seems also to be a line of thought to the effect that while the U.S. as a superpower has repeatedly carried out military interventions on a global scale, it would be unendurable if Japan were requested to become party to such wars based on the right of collective self-defense as an allied nation. Since a U.S.-friendly LDP administration would likely not be able to refuse a request from Washington, there is an extreme danger that Japan might be embroiled in someone else’s war.

Despite the fact that the right of collective self-defense has been perceived negatively in this way and its exercise avoided, another feasible interpretation is that Japan has actually been engaged in the exercise of the right of collective self-defense since accepting the presence of U.S. military bases at the time that it concluded the original Security Treaty. Providing the bases is itself an important exercise of the right of collective self-defense. This is demonstrated by the case of Iceland. Geographically situated along the shortest route connecting Moscow and Washington, D.C., Iceland occupied a position of extreme strategic importance for NATO and the U.S. during the Cold War. Despite no modern military, the country made an overwhelmingly important contribution to NATO by providing the site for a base – in other words, through the exercise of the right of collective self-defense.

When a country provides a base function in cases of emergency, that country can no longer be neutral, and is therefore in danger of attack by enemy nations. In other words, the provision of a base function makes that nation complicit and party to the war in its own right. Accordingly, the provision of a base function is in and of itself an exercise of the right of collective self-defense, even if there is no direct participation on the battlefield. In this sense, during and even after the end of the Cold War, Japan has, therefore, been engaged in the exercise of the right of collective self-defense through its provision of bases for the U.S. military. Moreover, American bases in Japan are distinctive in that many of them are massive logistics bases for potential worldwide deployment of the U.S. military, and their scale is overwhelming in comparison with U.S. military bases in other regions. The long-held strong opposition by the post-war Japanese populace to becoming embroiled or participating in war means that the Japanese have been extremely negative about military support for the United States, including the provision of bases, particularly among “progressive” political forces. For these domestic political reasons, LDP-led conservative governments have intentionally refrained from publicizing the provision of bases and host-nation support as outstanding contributions to the alliance. Thus, Japan’s major contribution to the alliance has not been conveyed to anyone other than confined parties already aware of this fact within the U.S. government.



The USJI Voice is a policy-related opinion paper produced by researchers at USJI-affiliated universities. The USJI Voice is written for experts in areas connected to U.S.-Japan relations. Please share with us your opinions and suggestions related to your areas of interest.

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