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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The U.S.-Japan Alliance

Emma Chanlett-Avery
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, about 53,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Japan and have the exclusive use of 89 facilities throughout the archipelago. In exchange for the bases, the United States guarantees Japan’s security. The alliance has endured over 50 years, through periods of intense partnership and stretches of political drift. In the past decade, the relationship has seen both ends of the spectrum. During the first term of the George W. Bush Administration, converging U.S. and Japanese objectives in confronting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and Japan’s participation in U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforced the notion of the U.S.-Japan alliance as one of the central partnerships of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Asia. By 2007, political developments in Japan and diverging policy approaches to North Korea created some distance in the relationship. After the Democratic Party of Japan took power in a historical election in September 2009, a disagreement over the relocation of the Futenma Marine airbase in Okinawa erupted into a public rift that led many to question the fundamental soundness of the alliance.

Regional developments in 2010, however, appeared to refocus attention in Washington and Tokyo on the value of the alliance. North Korea’s continued and increasingly aggressive actions, coupled with a diplomatic crisis after a Chinese trawler rammed a Japanese Coast Guard ship in disputed waters, drove the allies back together. A new DPJ administration in Tokyo affirmed its intent to work out U.S. base realignment issues and renewed its financial support for hosting the troops. At the same time, solidarity grew in confronting North Korea provocations.

After a brief historical review, this report examines the regional environment that Japan and the United States face in shaping the alliance. While history-related grievances have traditionally dominated Tokyo’s relations with China and the Korean Peninsula, there are some trends that indicate a shift in regional relations. Tensions with Beijing over territorial disputes and China’s growing military capabilities and maritime activities are growing, while Seoul and Tokyo have developed an increasingly cooperative relationship, even exploring nascent military-to-military pacts. North Korea continues to provide ample justification for Japanese supporters of developing a strong missile defense system.

The report then explores the national challenges that frame the alliance, particularly the large presence of U.S. military bases in the southern prefecture of Okinawa. While the Futenma base relocation controversy has dominated the debate, Okinawan frustration with the bases has existed for many years, with outcries spiking in the event of military accidents or crimes committed by U.S. soldiers. For these reasons, the Futenma relocation plan faces major challenges, despite Tokyo’s agreement and pledge to implement it.

The report then examines key features of bilateral agreements to upgrade the alliance, with updates on progress on agreements outside of base realignment and discussion of Japan’s internal and evolving views on security as reflected in official guidelines. Accomplishments in ballistic missile defense co-development, strong maritime cooperation, and Japanese contribution to international missions are outlined, along with some of the unresolved issues that remain. The report concludes with a discussion of the most prominent operational, budgetary, legal, and normative constraints that some see as a cap on expanding the alliance’s effectiveness. Despite the alliance’s sustainment over a half-century, it still faces fundamental challenges, including political paralysis and increasingly tight fiscal conditions in Tokyo and long-standing constitutional and societal limits on Japan’s military.

Date of Report: January 18, 2011
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: RL33740
Price: $29.95

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