U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent musings that maybe America should exit the ‘unfair’ U.S.-Japan defense treaty surprised even his supporters. His opponents predictably blew a gasket.
But as happens, Mr. Trump can be outlandish while also having a point.
Trump is legally correct. The treaty does not require Japan to defend American forces or America. But it also does not specifically require America to defend Japan.
Read the treaty text and it only obliges both sides to “consult” and to respond to an armed attack in accordance with “constitutional provisions and procedures.” Nothing more.
There is no mention of the U.S. 7th Fleet steaming out of Yokosuka and smiting Japan’s enemies.
However, both sides know the defense relationship will disintegrate if America doesn’t jump right in to defend Japan – and likewise if Japan does nothing if U.S. forces and/or the United States are attacked.
A Bit of Back Story
For many years Japanese officials considered it impertinent for Americans to suggest Japan had an obligation – even a moral one – to assist U.S. forces under attack in or around Japan – much less somewhere else on the planet.
But following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi bucked bureaucracy, political opponents and public opinion and ensured that Japan helped the U.S. He sent the Maritime Self Defense Force to the Arabian Sea, the Air Self Defense Force to Kuwait, and the Ground Self Defense Force to Iraq. Non-combatant activities to be sure, but it was something – and by Japanese standards it was considerable.
And since taking office in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to expand the range of activities that the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) can engage in – to include possible combat operations in direct support of U.S. forces.
Pushing a Noodle Uphill
But Abe does not just snap his fingers and get what he wants. Despite some successes, the Prime Minister’s efforts to improve Japan’s defense have faced stiff opposition – especially within his own LDP party and the Japanese bureaucracy.
One long-time observer of Japanese defense matters compared Abe’s efforts to ‘pushing a noodle uphill.’
Indeed, look closely and since Mr. Trump took office Japan hasn’t done or spent anything on defense it wasn’t already planning on – no matter how Japanese officials characterize things. Spending increases are illusory and JSDF capabilities remain largely unimproved.
Stirring the pot?
Here’s an intriguing possibility: Perhaps Mr. Trump is purposely stirring the pot? And he is targeting risk-averse Japanese officials and politicians who by nature wish to keep the JSDF on an unnecessarily tight leash.
But even if Trump’s comments were stream of consciousness rather than calculated – and were not hatched on the golf course, Abe may secretly be pleased and welcome the pressure.
From Abe’s perspective, it’s a good thing if his opponents think that ‘crazy Trump’ might withdraw U.S. forces and end the treaty – or even worse, that many Americans actually agree with the President (which they do). Cautious Japanese bureaucrats and politicians then might be more willing to increase defense budgets and do what is necessary to improve Japan’s defense.
This is known as gaiatsu (foreign pressure). And it would not be the first time gaiatsu has been used – and even welcomed by reform-minded Japanese – to force change in Japan, where taking initiative is resented more than admired.
Indeed, in the 1990’s when U.S. trade negotiators were trying to open up a particular part of the Japanese transport industry, their Japanese counterparts asked them to “go rough on us.” Then they could tell Yakuza gangsters who dominated the industry that “they (the negotiators) had no choice” in the face of foreign demands. In other words, it was somebody else’s fault.
End the Treaty and Help the JSDF?
And there’s another overlooked angle to Trump’s comments: A JSDF serviceman told this writer that he wished Trump would go ahead and end the U.S.-Japan defense treaty.
He is not anti-American. Quite the opposite. But he believes the Japanese government (GOJ) only acts when it experiences a crisis. And he suggests the U.S. pulling out of the treaty is the only way the Japanese government will feel a sense of crisis – and thus do what is necessary to fix the JSDF.
What Needs to be Fixed?
Nobody on the Japanese or American sides will say it as they prefer reciting the mantra: “the relationship has never been stronger.”.
But the JSDF has serious problems. Foremost, it can’t recruit enough people. That’s not surprising given poor living conditions, low pay, lack of respect, and not enough money for proper training and equipment – and all while missions and workloads increase.
Beyond this, JSDF operational capabilities are inadequate.
Spend more on defense. A ballpark figure is an extra $5-10 billion USD a year for the next five years.
But spend it correctly. The defense hardware racket will gladly absorb it all. Instead, as top priority spend as needed to make service in the JSDF a desirable, respected profession.
Otherwise Japan will sooner rather than later have an aged, demoralized force – and it won’t matter what shiny expensive equipment it has. The JSDF will then be of little use to Japan – or its overstretched U.S. partner.
And while addressing the personnel issue, force JSDF services to cooperate so they are a joint force. In other words, so the ASDF, MSDF, and GSDF can conduct coordinated (joint) operations. Currently they cannot, or at least not very well. And thus JSDF is less than the sum of its parts – perhaps operating at 10-20% of potential capability.
Moreover, except for the two navies, U.S. and Japanese forces have embarrassingly limited ability for joint operations with each other.
This is all as simple as it is obvious. But without a sense of crisis, nothing will change. It rarely does in Japan.
So if fear of the U.S. ending the defense treaty creates that sense of crisis in Japan’s ruling class, fine. That’s better than waiting until the Chinese sink an MSDF ship or grab an island in the Nansei Shoto (Japan’s southern islands), or a few North Korean missiles hit Tokyo.
Abe tried his best on defense, but the Tokyo version of ‘the swamp’ preferred to just buy Mr. Trump a Honma golf driver and to “butter him up.” Japanese officials have been doing this to Americans – successfully – for decades.
So maybe Trump should be musing about the U.S.-Japan defense treaty more often.
And Abe won’t mind.
(Click here to learn more about Japan’s Self Defense Force (JSDF))
Author: Grant Newsham