Blog post by: Cheng Zhang

The 1951 U.S.-Japan military alliance has been a historically controversial issue. The military alliance places Japan under the protection of American military umbrella in the Asia Pacific region. It assists to defend Japan, who had been forced to abandon its right to declare war after World War II, from potential military aggression around the country. While the alliance meets Japan’s demand for national security, it is also one of the most contentious issues between the two countries. In 1960, a mass movement broke out in Japan calling for the abolishment of the alliance. The revised security treaty of 1960 removed several unequal clauses, but extended American military presence on the islands. Despite their discontentment with the foreign troops, the Japanese were unable to push the Americans out completely. Facing both domestic and external pressures, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now feels an urgent need to maintain the alliance in order to preserve Japan’s security and development.

Since 2012, Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have experienced great pressure at home. The country’s poor economic performance has upset many people. Although there was a boost in exports and consumer spending in the first quarter of 2012, due to increase in money supply and fiscal stimulus, “Abenomics” seems to have stalled during recent recession in November 2014. The increasing disappointment among Japanese voters forced Abe to call for a snap election in December to push through his economic reform plans.

Abe’s struggle to maintain economic growth has led to a feeling of insecurity in regional confrontations. Currently, China is Japan’s biggest rival in the region. Territorial disputes, such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, have led to tensions between the two countries and have dragged Sino-Japanese relations to the lowest point since Abe’s first visit to Beijing in 2006. In response to China’s unexpected actions in the East China Sea, including unilaterally establishing the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), Abe attempted to reinterpret the Constitution in 2014, so as to enable Japan’s exercise of the right to collective self-defense, and to consolidate his grip on domestic reforms.

Abe’s action, however, is rather controversial, as it appears to have violated the spirit of the Constitution. Abe keeps emphasizing that Japan’s military capability remains in constraints, and its exercise of the right of collective self-defense is limited to the circumstances under which no other approach is available. It means that Japan still needs to rely on American military capability to protect itself from external threats. Despite critics, Abe hopes that his constitutional reinterpretation can draw the U.S. attention to East Asian security and keep the U.S. a protector of Japan. If achieved, this objective will reduce Abe’s concern with the insecure regional environment that might hinder domestic economic recovery.

Therefore, the U.S.-Japan military alliance, although controversial, is now one of Abe’s most important leverages against an assertive China next door. Less distraction from external threats will allow Abe to concentrate on domestic economic reforms. This seems to be a continuation of the Yoshida Doctrines back to the 1950s, which called for reliance on the U.S. for Japan’s security and focusing on domestic economic growth. No one can predict how long this alliance will last in the future, but from a historical perspective, one can argue that it is truly a durable alliance. As long as future Japanese leaders feel concerned about their domestic development and growing insecurity in the surrounding areas, the U.S. and Japan will firmly maintain their alliance.