The meeting of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda with U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington made few headlines this week, but quiet changes underway in Japan's decades-long tradition of pacifism will have profound implications for the balance of power in Asia.
Generating headlines is perhaps not the point; this transformation is proceeding slowly but steadily. In taking many small steps, Tokyo is setting the stage for a potentially larger regional role in coming decades. Yet the country still lacks a broad vision of its goals and commitments in Asia and beyond. Should Noda or a future leader provide this, Japan could one day take a leadership position on regional security that could, in its turn, transform Asian military relations.
Noda came to Washington bearing a small gift for Obama. As the fourth leader of Japan to meet the American president in just three years, Noda represents a country whose close alliance with the United States has been put under significant strain since 2009. In that year, when Noda's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) became the first opposition party to gain control of the government in half a century, new premier Yukio Hatoyama derailed a 2006 agreement between Washington and Tokyo to relocate Futenma, a controversial U.S. Marine air base, within Okinawa. Since then, both Hatoyama and his successor, Naoto Kan, have left office after just one year, and the agreement has remained in limbo.
Last week, just days before Noda's arrival, however, the two allies formally agreed to delink Futenma from a larger plan to realign U.S. forces in Japan. With powerful local Okinawan groups still opposed to the new location for the helicopter squadron in the less-populated north of Okinawa at Henoko, Washington and Tokyo have decided to put any new base on hold while moving forward with deploying 9,000 Marines off Okinawa. This is a central part of a plan to increase the flexibility of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region by dispersing them more widely. At least 5,000 of the Marines will be based in Guam, while the remaining number will likely rotate through the region, some going to Darwin, Australia, under a new U.S.-Australian agreement; others going to Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific.
For Noda, the deal is smart politics. While the ultimate irritant in the relationship, Futenma, has been left to fester, the prime minister has succeeded in putting it on the back burner, and therefore has moved the U.S.-Japan relationship off this sore spot. He and his American allies are now free to focus on other issues, such as North Korea and China's military buildup. As the main provider of bases for America's forward military presence in Asia, Japan remains the indispensible element in Washington's decades-long strategy to prevent the rise of any dominant military power in the western Pacific. The two sides thus continually talk about "deepening" the alliance and further "enhancing" each partner's "roles, missions, and capabilities" -- in plain English, their responsibilities to each other in times of peace and war.
Japan, however, has long been hampered from playing a larger role in Asia, despite its wealth, size, and stability. Its postwar constitution, essentially written by the United States, forswears the maintenance of offensive military forces, and subsequent interpretation of this clause has led to a prohibition on participating in collective self-defense efforts that don't directly impinge on Japanese national interests., such as helping third-party military forces or civilians in danger. Combined with a traditional cap on defense spending of 1 percent of GDP, Japan has long punched below its weight in international affairs. This, despite its modern, well-trained Self-Defense Force (SDF), has led many to write off Japan as an effective provider of regional or global public goods, and has raised questions for the United States about the ultimate reliability of its ally. It hasn't helped that Japanese politicians, such as DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, have long mused about reducing the U.S. military presence in Japan and curtailing the scope of the 50-year-old alliance.
Japan's position began to change starting a decade ago. After being derided for refusing to contribute troops during the 1991 Gulf War to help secure the oil supplies on which it was dependent, and being ridiculed for instead writing a multi-billion dollar check to pay for American military operations, Tokyo reacted with alacrity to the 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States. Then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party forged a close relationship with President George W. Bush, dispatching support and reconstruction troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and beginning what would turn out to be an eight-year maritime allied refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of anti-terror operations. More recently, Japan also sent ships and planes to the Horn of Africa to conduct anti-piracy operations; this deployment has resulted in Japan building its first overseas base since World War II, in Djibouti. The combined effect of these overseas missions has been to develop a generation of SDF air, sea, and land officers with extensive operational experience and the confidence of dealing with foreign partner militaries.