The US-Japan Alliance and the Causes of Insecurity in North-East Asia

Aaron Matthews, Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales [About | Email]

Volume 3, Issue 1 (Book review 2 in 2003). First published in ejcjs on 27 March 2003.

DiFilippo, Anthony (2002) The Challenges of the U.S.-Japan Military Arrangement: Competing Security Transitions in a Changing International Environment, New York: M.E. Sharpe ISBN 0-7656-1019-1, Paperback, 260 pages.

Over the last decade a number of books have addressed the future of the US-Japan alliance. Most have attempted either to describe the challenges facing the alliance or to prescribe possible measures to meet the changed post-Cold War security environment of North-East Asia. The alliance has certainly sought to adapt with a concerted, although erratic, move by both Tokyo and Washington to strengthen the relevance of the alliance in the face of an array of threats. The 1996 Joint Declaration on Security, the 1997 revision of the Defence Guidelines, the subsequent passage of relevant legislation in Japan, and an agreement on joint research into missile defence have been clear evidence of a changing alliance. More recently, Japan has further demonstrated its commitment to the alliance with the deployment of Maritime Self Defence Force vessels to the Indian Ocean as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. But the strengthening of the alliance has raised a number of questions about the future stability of the regional security environment. Some have questioned whether a closer US-Japan alliance risks triggering a security dilemma with China, given its apprehensions over Japan’s heightened security role. China, as well as other regional countries, has expressed concern over what is perceived as the undermining of the domestic constraints on Japan’s security role. The Challenges of the U.S.-Japan Military Arrangement presents a passionate case that not only argues against the strengthening of the alliance but in fact argues for the termination of the alliance to prevent regional instability.

DiFilippo argues that the strengthening of the alliance has not only exacerbated tensions within the region but that the alliance itself is a fundamentally flawed approach to security for Japan. He argues that the alliance failed to ensure regional stability in that it did not prevent North Korea pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes or China conducting nuclear testing in 1995. By presupposing enemies the alliance has aggravated regional tension, suspicions and distrust. DiFilippo says that moves to strengthen the alliance will lead to an inevitable reaction by China, Russia and North Korea to offset the perceived challenge. He goes on to argue that the alliance stands in direct contrast to and risks undermining the anti-militarist principles and anti-war constitution of Japan. DiFilippo’s criticism of the US-Japan alliance appears to rest on the value of what may be termed Japan’s anti-militarist culture as an alternative to realist considerations. DiFilippo therefore advocates an ending of the US-Japan alliance and the establishment of a foreign and security policy that allows Japan to play a leading role in international nuclear disarmament and the strengthening of UN global security mechanisms.

The arguments of the book are laid out in six chapters. The first chapter makes the case that the US-Japan alliance does not reinforce regional security and instead risks greater instability. Chapter two examines the current state of the alliance after moves in the mid-1990s to strengthen the relationship, as well as the implications of these moves for Japan’s management of regional security and global disarmament. Chapter three assesses the costs of the alliance for Japan, both in terms of dependence on the US and the undermining of regional relations. Chapter four outlines the differing viewpoints on the alliance, examining the case for maintenance of the alliance through incremental or structural change as well as “Western” and Japanese arguments that favour an end or scaling down of the alliance. Chapter five examines the significance of public opinion surveys on Japanese attitudes towards security issues. The final chapter sets out the options for Japan: to maintain the present course of incrementally strengthening the alliance or to adopt a foreign policy “more in line with its war renouncing constitution and support for nuclear disarmament” (page 159).

The case against the alliance is strongest when it identifies the inherent contradictions between the alliance and Japan’s anti-militarist ideals: commitment to the renunciation of war as a sovereign right in Article 9 stands beside one of the world’s largest defence budgets; dependence on the alliance with the US for security contrasts with the stated aspiration for the UN to assume the primary role in resolving international disputes; opposition to the existence of nuclear weapons is a declared policy while the country is protected by the US nuclear umbrella. Such a clash between idealistic foreign policy objectives and current security policy is not unique: Australia established the Canberra Commission calling for nuclear disarmament while it continued to strengthen its alliance with the US and rely on the nuclear umbrella. But the contrast between Japan’s commitment to global disarmament and renunciation of war and its dependence on the US-Japan alliance is an extreme example of a distinction between the ideals and the reality of a country’s foreign policy.

Japanese public opinion towards security issues is assessed by DiFilippo as an indication of the continued strength of anti-militarist attitudes in Japan. Public opinion surveys demonstrate ongoing support for the anti-war ideals of Article 9, the three non-nuclear principles, and Japan’s reliance on UN institutions. DiFilippo also considers evidence of public support for the US-Japan alliance to be ambivalent. Demographic and historical information leads him to question whether the current support for the US-Japan alliance reflects acceptance as a norm rather than active support or even comfort with the alliance. However, DiFilippo does not accept data that indicates growing public concern over the risk of regional instability, particularly relating to North Korea. Public support for some of the moves to strengthen the alliance leads him to conclude that public opinion is possibly being manipulated by Japanese government officials in order to strengthen the alliance. The North Korean 1998 Taepo-dong missile launch is cited as an example of such manipulation with the portrayal of the launch as a threat rather than a failed satellite launch.

DiFilippo does not accept that new regional security challenges in the post-Cold War environment require a strengthening of the alliance.

Washington and Tokyo have found reasons to rationalise the continuation of the bilateral arrangement. The centrepiece of this rationalisation is the putative instability of East Asia and therefore the continuing need for America’s military presence and a strengthened bilateral alliance to forestall regional problems. (page 55)

He argues that because the US-Japan alliance is constructed on mistrust and suspicion virtually any regional issue can be misunderstood and spun out of control.

Although DiFilippo accepts that Pyongyang is not an innocent victim, the concerns of Japan and the US over North Korea are portrayed as often exaggerated. “Working hard to cast off the nefarious labels of both a rogue and a reclusive state, North Korea has recently been making it clear that it wants to be integrated into the regional and world communities and that it is willing to put on a cooperative suit to do this” (page 9). US assertions about an ongoing North Korean nuclear weapons programme in the late 1990s are described as unfounded; but they have instead been used to sustain the image of a threatening environment conducive to a strengthened US-Japan alliance. Japan’s identification of North Korea as a missile threat and its participation in missile defence research are criticised for making it “very difficult to have a normal relationship with Pyongyang” (page 11).

Likewise, DiFilippo describes the risk posed by China to regional stability as exaggerated. The Jiang Zemin visit to Japan in 1998 is portrayed as an indication of a strengthened relationship (even though it was widely viewed as a disaster for Sino-Japanese relations with considerable acrimony over historical issues). Military conflict is seen as unlikely due to the economic and political ties between the two countries. China’s nuclear forces capable of striking Japan are also not seen as a direct threat. “The probability that Beijing would hurl nuclear weapons at Japan, a non-nuclear state, is utterly remote and … unequivocally against China’s stated foreign policy” (page 154).

In dismissing concerns over regional security threats as exaggerated, DiFilippo rejects the deterrence capability of the US-Japan alliance to enhance Japan’s security. Japanese military capabilities were “good enough” to provide an adequate defence “during most times” (page 163). Instead, the US-Japan alliance is described as destabilising the region by undermining the potential for cooperation with China, North Korea and Russia. Beijing perceives the strengthening of the alliance as non-defensive, contrary to the trends of multilateral security institutions, and a possible instrument of containment. Pyongyang sees the strengthened alliance as threatening to its security. Moscow also opposes the strengthening of the US-Japan alliance and particularly Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) cooperation. DiFilippo portrays the strengthened alliance, including missile defence, as sowing the seeds of an arms race in the region.

But the sources of insecurity in Northeast Asia are more complex and pose far greater challenges for policymakers than the situation portrayed by DiFilippo. The central thesis of the book — that the alliance is based on distrust and suspicion that feeds regional tension — reverses the dynamic that has been occurring in Northeast Asia. North Korea and China are not distrusted because of the strengthening of the alliance; the alliance was strengthened because of the distrust over those countries’ future intentions. In the early 1990s, a serious debate over the value and role of the alliance occurred within Japan. The nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula in 1993–4, the firing of missiles near Taiwan in 1996, and the ongoing proliferation of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons in the region led to a realisation that the post-Cold War era required a strengthening of the alliance rather than its demise.

North Korea’s commitment to the development of a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile capability to threaten and potentially blackmail Japan is a real threat. It may be unfair to judge a book on subsequent developments but in early 2003 the risk of a nuclear-armed North Korea appears more real than DiFilippo allows. A direct conflict between China and Japan appears unlikely in the near term but serious doubts have also been expressed in Tokyo over China’s commitment to its No-First-Use nuclear doctrine and targeting of Japan especially after it criticised Japan for participating in missile defence research. Considerable uncertainty exists in the region over the possibility of conflict in the Taiwan Strait and the long-term implications of China’s rise for stability in North-East Asia. Japan’s security policy must therefore take into account the real risk of regional conflict on the Korean peninsula or in the Taiwan Strait.

The challenge for Japanese policymakers has been to develop mechanisms to respond to these difficulties without unduly heightening suspicion of Japan’s intentions. The danger of spiralling tension in North-East Asia is real and there has been debate as to whether the strengthening of the US-Japan alliance may undermine the very stability it seeks to provide, particularly by undermining the engagement of China (see Christensen 1999). But DiFilippo’s portrayal of alliance strengthening as the prime driver of regional instability is a gross exaggeration. Russia does not view the US-Japan alliance as a security threat and opposition to TMD cooperation represented concerns associated with the implications of the now demised ABM Treaty rather than a direct security challenge. Japan’s policy towards North Korea and China has not relied exclusively on confrontation. DiFilippo’s criticism that the Japanese government’s policy of deterrence and dialogue towards Pyongyang sends mixed signals ignores the logic that underlined the carrot and stick approach advocated in the Perry process. A policy of hedging against the risk of future Chinese assertiveness through strengthening the alliance also seems a prudent supplement to the well-established policy of engagement. By dismissing Japan’s concerns over North Korea and China as possible sources of insecurity, DiFilippo fails to address the very real security issues that confront North-East Asia. Instead, he seeks to explain the strengthening of the alliance as driven by “structural forces” that have sought to ensure its continuation and suggests that the alliance is a means to establish US hegemonic control in the region with Japan playing a supporting role.

The Challenges of the U.S.-Japan Military Arrangement advocates an alternative security and foreign policy based on ending the alliance as the necessary step for Japan to achieve security through multilateral measures and its antimilitarist ideals.

For Japan to accept a significant international leadership responsibility in the present period and realign with its historical commitment to renounce war, encourage a strong UN security system, and help in the abolition of all nuclear weapons, it must move away from the security alliance with the United States. (page 117)

In addition, DiFilippo speaks of preserving Article 9 and the three non-nuclear principles. To strengthen the role of the UN, Japan should place a greater number of Japanese officials in senior UN positions, push more strongly for a permanent Security Council seat, and actively promote the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). He argues that the adoption of an alternative security system could lead to a strengthening of relations with China, Russia and North Korea. Affirmation of Beijing’s No-First-Use declaration and support for multilateral security solutions would pave the way for a stronger bilateral relationship. Foreign aid to North Korea would lead North Korea to “begin to see Japan in a favourable light” (page 193). Finally, leadership of a global disarmament regime “would confirm that Japan is determined to establish international peace and security” (page 195).

Yet it is unclear whether the policies to promote the ideals of disarmament and a UN-centred security system would necessary achieve their goal of improved security for Japan. Past Japanese efforts to secure permanent membership of the Security Council have floundered. Although DiFilippo may argue that an end to the alliance with the US would improve Japan’s prospects, the ability of the UN to be reformed to an extent whereby it could substitute for the security provided by the US-Japan alliance must be seriously doubted. The question also remains as to whether a neutral Japan would secure increased influence over its regional security. China has long demonstrated suspicion of an autonomous Japan and opposition to greater Japanese influence over regional security. Japan’s policy towards North Korea is impeded by domestic constraints and the difficulty in resolving security issues. A break with the US may simply result in Japan’s isolation rather than greater acceptance within the region.

Furthermore, reliance on diplomatic measures alone would appear an insufficient strategy for tackling regional security concerns. The regional security environment in Northeast Asia remains problematic and is driven by a number of factors that lie outside Japan’s influence. The multilateral security system is not sufficiently robust to be able to respond to a major crisis in Northeast Asia. Japanese leadership alone will not be a sufficient condition to establish a more capable multilateral system. Although DiFilippo argues that a break with the US would see the regional environment improved, a decline in Japan’s ability to influence and respond to its security environment would seem to be the most likely result.

The book also suffers from its failure to consider adequately the impact of dismantling the US alliance on Japan’s defence policy. The current structure of the Japanese Self Defence Force means that it is highly reliant on the US to perform a number of military roles. For instance, it relies heavily on high-tech US military equipment. A discussion on the political and security implications of the alliance’s demise for Japan’s defence policy and capabilities would have been valuable.

The Challenges of the U.S.-Japan Military Arrangement also gives undue weight to criticism of Japan’s security role. One notable example is the inclusion, without any critical comment, of Chinese claims that Japanese defence spending increased by 67 per cent from 1998 to 2000 (pages 15–16). According to the Defense of Japan 2002, the actual figures for defence related expenditure decreased slightly from 4,939.7 billion yen in 1998 to 4,935.8 billion in 2000. To cite such a 67 per cent increase without any discussion on the basis or accuracy of the claim presents an extremely misleading picture. Other statements reflect a limited understanding of some vital aspects of US-Japan cooperation. The statement that in TMD cooperation Japan would supply the satellites and radar while the US would be responsible for the construction of the interceptor missiles contradicts both Japan’s ongoing joint research with the US to develop four components of the SM-3 interceptor missile and its reliance on US early warning satellites. The argument that Washington forced Tokyo to buy eleven components of sophisticated technological parts for its satellite reconnaissance programme does not address Japan’s inability to produce the envisioned satellites without US components.

Overall, one could not describe the book as a balanced examination of the pros and cons of the alliance with the US. But that is not the intention of the book. Instead, it presents the case that an end of the alliance is necessary to protect the anti-militarist ideals within Japanese society and obtain the regional environment to which these ideals aspire. But without a frank treatment of the security challenges in North-East Asia the emphasis on the anti-war ideals as an alternative to the alliance fails to address a number of issues that would be crucial for a radical transformation of Japan’s security strategy. Although DiFilippo identifies risks and inconsistencies within the current reliance on the US-Japan alliance, he fails to present a creditable alternative to deal with the changing security environment of North-East Asia.


Boeicho (2002), Defense of Japan 2002, Tokyo: Urban Connections.

Christensen, Thomas J. (1999), “China, the U.S.-Japan alliance, and the security dilemma in East Asia”, International Security, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 49–80.

Further Reading

Cossa, Ralph A. (ed) (1997), Restructuring the US-Japan Alliance: Toward a More Equal Partnership, Washington DC: CSIS.

Funabashi, Yoichi (1999), Alliance Adrift, New York: Council of Foreign Relations.

Green, Michael J. and Patrick M. Cronin (eds) (1999), The US-Japan Alliance: Past Present, and Future, New York: Council of Foreign Relations.

Nishihara, Masashi (ed) (2000), The Japan-US Alliance: New Challenges for the Twenty-first Century, Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange.

The National Institute for Defense Studies (2002), East Asian Strategic Review 2002, Tokyo: The National Institute for Defense Studies.

Online Reading

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1996), Japan-U.S. Joint Declaration on Security: Alliance for the Twenty-first Century, 17 April.

——— (1997), The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, September.

About the Author

Aaron Matthews is a PhD candidate of the Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales. He is based in Tokyo to conduct research on Japan’s approach to missile defence. Prior to undertaking his doctorate, he worked as an intelligence analyst for the New Zealand government from 1994 to 2000. He has a Master of Arts in Strategic Studies from the Australian National University and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Science from Otago University.

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