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An Expanding Role for Japan: An Interview with Admiral Dennis Blair

January 19, 2017

Interview with Admiral Dennis C. Blair

Stepping Up in the Alliance

INTERVIEWER  During the US presidential campaign Donald Trump characterized the Japan-US alliance as unfair in terms of the financial and military burden carried by the United States. Is this a valid assessment?

DENNIS BLAIR  The Japan-US alliance grew up in the Cold War years and the fairly unequal relationship was pretty much the wish of the United States at that time. Since the end of the Cold War things have evolved. I think we haven’t completely finished that evolution, so I have no problem with the new president taking a look at the alliance to see if it still makes sense.

It’s becoming a more equal alliance than it was forty or fifty years ago. Japan is taking more of a role in its own defense. The change in the interpretation of the Constitution to permit collective self-defense was a major step that removed one of the major inequalities from the alliance—the situation where the United States was obligated to come to Japan’s assistance, but Japan had no similar obligation. The circumstances are somewhat limited, but nonetheless, it’s a step in the right direction.

The United States enters into alliance relationships because it’s in our interest, and Japan is the same. The human ties that have developed over the years are extraordinary. But basically it serves the American interest to have a strong ally where we base 50,000 of our troops in this important part of the world, as it is in Japan’s interest to have a strong American ally that shares the same basic goals. I think that when President Trump and his team actually look at the alliance there will be some things that can be improved and developed, but the fundamentals are pretty strong.

INTERVIEWER  If Trump reduces the US military presence in Asia, how can Japan’s Self-Defense Forces best look after the country’s interests in the region?

BLAIR  I doubt the United States will substantially reduce its presence in this part of world. Consider the early 1990s, when there was an enormous change in the entire security environment. When the Cold War ended the United States reviewed all of its worldwide commitments. In Europe we reduced our forces by about two-thirds, from 300,000 down to about 100,000. The force deployments in East Asia stayed at about the 100,000 level, which is what we now have.

American interests in this part of the world have a consistency and a persistence that are not affected by world events, and I think that the new administration will find the same thing. It’s a little premature to think about Japan building its capacity to compensate for an American withdrawal, but I’m a strong believer that Japan should expand its defense capability for its own reasons.

This part of the world has become more dangerous. Look at what North Korea is doing and the military buildup that China is pursuing. The interests of Japan are also being challenged in places like the Middle East and Africa. Japan expanding its idea of what self-defense means and building military capabilities to support that is a good thing, quite independent of what the United States does.

INTERVIEWER  Prime Minister Abe Shinzō moved quickly to meet with Trump and reaffirm the strength of the bilateral alliance. Considering, however, that unpredictability has been Trump’s trademark from the start, what do you think lies ahead?

BLAIR  Prime Minister Abe is a much more experienced international statesman than is President Trump. I think that it will be little different relationship in terms of experience of leaders as well as the leveling of the relationship. It is time for Japan to make many of its own decisions and to put forward ideas and initiatives of its own. I think Abe’s visit—to establish personal contact and explain to Trump what the world looked like from where Japan stands—was good.

I would argue now that Japan is the single most important ally that the United States has. We used to talk about NATO as our most important ally. In the old days NATO was one body of 12 countries that all pretty much worked together. Now there are 28 members and the actions of NATO countries are different depending on the issue. Japan is a single country that posts 50,000 troops, is increasing its defense budget, is in a dangerous part of the world where the United States has strong interests, and is a strong US ally. I think it’s altogether fitting and proper that the Japanese prime minister and the US president-elect talked very quickly.

A Leading Role

INTERVIEWER  With the Brexit issue roiling the EU and the US election outcome making the future less certain in America, what can Japan do to serve as a calm island in rough seas?

BLAIR  One area where President Trump goes very much against the grain of what the United States and Japan had been working on for many years is his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But TPP agreement is a different type of agreement from other free-trade deals, and I think it would be good for the prime minister to make the case to the president as to what the differences are.

For the first time we have an FTA attacking nontariff barriers—things like environmental regulations in countries that deal with the United States and Japan, labor laws, and intellectual property protection, which many developing countries haven’t paid much attention to. It made their goods a lot cheaper when they took advantage of American and Japanese insistence on following these rules. We need to find a way to get the principles embodied in TPP moving forward. It also shows Japanese and American international economic leadership against Chinese-style trade dominated by large, state-owned enterprises.

In the area of international peacekeeping, the orders under which the Japanese ground Self-Defense Forces will be placed into action [in South Sudan] will enable them to come to the assistance of nearby contingents that are under fire and have them play a more active role within UN coalitions.

This is one more step in Japan assuming what I think is their rightful place as one of the countries that make up the UN Security Council. Countries that have sophisticated armed forces are the ones that we need in order to take care of very tough situations involving widespread suffering, complicated political situations, and irregular warfare. It will be important for Japan to provide that sort of capability over time.

INTERVIEWER  Considering the risk of casualties, do you see much public support in Japan for expanding the role of the SDF?

BLAIR  It is a matter of leadership. Japan cannot send people off to do difficult peacekeeping jobs and say that it will be absolutely cost-free; that there will be no casualties. As long as the Self-Defense Force members themselves are ready to do that job, we should support them. The worst thing that you can do if you are sending people out on dangerous missions is to not be honest—to pretend that it’s safer than it is.

Responding to Regional Pressures

INTERVIEWER  President Barack Obama stated very clearly his commitment to the Japan-US alliance. It’s still unclear, however, how Trump views the relationship. Considering Chinese activity in the East China Sea, do you feel he will stand by Japan if China brings military force to bear on the island issue?

BLAIR  I agree that it is something President Trump should say at the appropriate time. The same is true of our commitment to Taiwan, which is written into law. And of course we have defense obligations to the Republic of Korea as well. We have a range of obligations in this part of the world that a new president would want to reaffirm.

China is pushing out on its maritime frontiers to the east towards the Senkakus and south into the South China Sea. Those countries that either have ratified or support, as the United States does, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea have to stand up and say how maritime areas are to be treated. I think President Trump will not tolerate this behavior from China any more than other presidents do.

INTERVIEWER  There are many people in Okinawa that feel the prefecture carries an unfair burden of US troops stationed in Japan. Do you see moving bases to other prefectures or outside of Japan as a viable option?

BLAIR  There’s an actual plan that was agreed by both the United States and Japan to cut the number of Marines in Okinawa by about half and deploy them to Guam, Hawaii, and Australia. The problem with that plan is it takes such a long time because you have to build places for them to go. I think the plan is a good one, though. It maintains the readiness and combat capability of those forces moving to other areas. I think we need to speed up that plan, and that will take more resources—primarily from the United States, but also from Japan.

On the question of the US presence in Okinawa, it’s unfair to say this percentage of forces and that percentage of land. What you need to look at is the impact on Okinawa itself. I lived many years on Oahu in Hawaii, which has a very heavy American military presence. But the presence is placed so it does not interfere with the rest of life on the island.

The rearrangement on Okinawa is also very important. The main thing that needs to be done is to move that helicopter base out of Futenma, where it has become completely surrounded by a city. That is why building that base in Nago, where planes come in over water, not over populated areas, is so important. Once that’s accomplished, we can begin to return tracts of land to Okinawa that can be used for other purposes. The land around Naha is particularly important because the Naha Airport is becoming a key transshipment center for many products that have to be moved by air.

Another thing going on in the southwest islands from Kyūshū down to Taiwan is a buildup of Japanese SDF capabilities. With the increase in Chinese capability, Japan needs to build up its ability to assert sovereignty and defend its own air, water, and land space. Okinawa sits in the middle of that chain, so Japan is going to see a buildup in its Self-Defense Forces in that part of the country.

Building Connections

INTERVIEWER  President Trump has received quite a lot of heat for having many high-ranking retired military generals and admirals on his staff. Do you see that as a benefit, especially with regard to security issues?

BLAIR  I was a retired military officer who came into government as a director of national intelligence. I certainly didn’t think it was any impediment to my qualifications to do the job. On the other hand, I had colleagues from both backgrounds. I think it depends on the individual. I know General [James] Mattis, who has been nominated to be secretary of defense, well. He’s a very fine officer and I think he will make a terrific secretary of defense.

INTERVIEWER  While President Trump has had business dealings with Japan, he has almost no connection with government leaders. How does this bode for Japan politically and economically?

BLAIR  I think his nomination of Wilbur Ross to be the Secretary of Commerce certainly put a very strong friend of Japan who knows the country well into a key job. The commerce job has a lot of important roles to play in some of the economic and business issues, so that certainly is a strong signal.

Everybody knows Japan is an extremely important country and the ambassador to Japan is a very important appointment. One of the things that I have noticed is that ten or twenty years ago the US relationship with Japan was very formal. Things went through the chain of command. But that is not the relationship of mature countries in the twenty-first century. Heads of state talk to each other, national security advisers talk to each other, and secretaries of defense talk. Japan and United States are finally developing that sort of relationship.

When I was commander-in-chief of the Pacific Command seventeen years ago, I remember going to the office of our national security advisor at that time. On his desk was a phone that had seven buttons to call his counterparts in United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy. But there was no button to call Japan. Now there’s a button he can push to talk to the Japanese national security advisor.

Japan and the United States have a mature relationship that is supported by a vast number of strong connections. Change always brings a little uncertainty, but I’m confident the alliance will stand up just fine.