Sailors stand on the deck of the Izumo warship as it departs from the harbor of the Japan United Marine shipyard in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, March 25, 2015. It is the biggest Japanese warship since World War Two.
Thomas Peter / Reuters

In the conclusion of his speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke of an “alliance of hope” between the United States and Japan. His remarks came after the two countries announced newly revised bilateral defense guidelines (the last time they had been updated was in 1997). The new guidelines are meant to help the alliance cope with evolving geostrategic realities in East Asia, including China’s emergence and the persistent threat of North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.

The revisions include a number of measures that will retro-fit the alliance to better serve its main goal: the defense of Japan, including the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. “Our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute,” said Obama, and reiterated that “Article 5 (of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty) covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including Senkaku Islands.” Obama’s pledge, which senior U.S. have repeated on several occasions, is meant to both reassure Tokyo that the United States is serious about its pledges to Japan and to deter Beijing from upping the stakes in the seas surrounding the islands.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, with Washington Monument in the background, April 27, 2015.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, with Washington Monument in the background, April 27, 2015.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Although U.S. support for Japan’s administration of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands is not new, Obama’s tone changed noticeably during Abe’s visit. In the past, the United States had typically insisted that, although it recognized Japanese administration of the islands, it was neutral on the question of sovereignty. But at the joint press conference after their summit, Obama refrained from outlining Washington’s the policy of neutrality again. Although largely unnoticed in Washington, the absence of this caveat during Abe’s visit was welcomed in Tokyo.

The new framework also clarifies how the alliance would respond to armed attacks against Japan. It explicitly mentions potential gray zones in which it would be difficult to prepare for attacks. The most worrying gray zone is the East China Sea, where Beijing has used strategic ambiguity to exploit previous gaps in U.S.-Japanese coordinated response plans. For example, China has used commercial and coast guard—or “white hulled”—vessels in and around Japan’s territorial waters in order to challenge Tokyo’s administration of the area.

The new framework also clarifies how the alliance would respond to armed attacks against Japan.
Tokyo and Washington also created a new Alliance Coordination Mechanism that enables more seamless cooperation in assessing threats, sharing information, and developing a joint response. The new mechanism replaces the previous Bilateral Coordination Mechanism from the earlier guidelines, which was never used due its rigid requirements. The new coordination mechanism is described as “seamless” because it allows both sides to assess a range of situations rapidly, including so-called gray zone incidents, and come up with a joint response. Japan’s Coast Guard, which had previously been excluded from intensive alliance coordination, has also been included in the mechanism. Considering that it is the Coast Guard, rather than Japan’s Self Defense Forces, that is on the front line of Tokyo’s efforts to maintain territorial integrity around the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, it was essential to better integrate the force in joint defense plans.    

The two countries also noted plans for greater interoperability between Japan’s Self Defense Forces and the U.S. military, especially in the areas of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and maritime security. The guidelines call for stronger cooperation in areas such as air and missile defense, space cooperation, cyber security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Some work has been done in these areas already as both sides have been engaged in high-level cyber and space dialogues.

Facilitating these changes are two key factors: significant national security and defense reforms on the Japanese side and a rebalance toward Asia on the United States’ side.

Over the past couple of years, Abe has pushed through a number of reforms of Japan’s defense sector to make Tokyo a “proactive contributor to peace.” Specifically, his government established Japan’s first-ever national security strategy, created a national security council, passed new legislation on the security of classified information, revised national defense program guidelines, and made changes to Japan’s development and arms exports policies. Perhaps the most important—and controversial—change was the Abe cabinet’s decision last summer to reinterpret Japan’s constitutional right to collective self defense. The decision, which still needs to pass through difficult opposition this summer in Japan before it becomes legislation, gives Tokyo the ability to respond to threats against the United States or other close partners. If the collective self defense legislation does pass, it will be refined and restricted due to reservations from the Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition partner. Despite its recent decision to support Abe’s legislation, the Komeito remains deeply suspicious of the change and other efforts to reorient Japan’s security posture.

People protest the planned relocation of the U.S. military base to Okinawa's Henoko coast shout slogans in front of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo, April 17, 2015.
People protest the planned relocation of the U.S. military base to Okinawa's Henoko coast shout slogans in front of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo, April 17, 2015.
Issei Kato / Reuters
The acceptance of collective self defense will ultimately depend on the Japanese public, which remains cool toward more muscular foreign and security policies. Recent polling in Japan by the Asahi Shimbun and Kyodo news shows that the majority remain opposed to both the measure and constitutional reform in general. Meanwhile, a related poll by Kyodo news indicated that nearly 48 percent of Japanese oppose the new bilateral defense guidelines with United States; only 35.5 percent of those polled were supportive of the role the guidelines prescribed for Japan. Therefore, this will remain an enormous challenge for Abe. 

The second main enabler of a new U.S.-Japanese alliance is the Obama administration’s rebalance toward Asia. In addition to supporting Japan’s national security, the guidelines tilt the alliance beyond Japan’s immediate neighborhood to the broader Asia-Pacific region and beyond. They removed the previous restriction of only responding to areas in “situations in areas surrounding Japan,” which effectively green-lights cooperation within a larger geographical range and would allow the two sides to cooperate on disaster relief or the enforcement of UN Security Council sanctions.

During Abe’s visit, the U.S.–Japan Security Consultative Committee—or “2+2” meeting between foreign and defense ministers—agreed that the alliance should prioritize its role as a “cornerstone of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.” This is where Japan’s “proactive contribution to peace” dovetails nicely with the U.S. rebalance, which is largely premised on Washington’s allies taking more ownership as part of a larger integrated alliance network in the region.

In this light, Tokyo and Washington will look to enhance trilateral partnerships with Australia and South Korea. And there will be a push to build up less developed partnerships with India and countries in Southeast Asia. On this front, there are already some positive signs. The trilateral strategic dialogue between Tokyo, Washington, and Canberra has been longstanding and continues to be the gold standard for networked alliances in the region. Meanwhile, the trilateral relationship with South Korea, despite restraints caused by seemingly intractable bilateral tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, has been evolving as it faces down provocations from North Korea. Meanwhile, Japan has focused on developing its defense and security relations with ASEAN states. For example, Tokyo is contributing to maritime capacity building efforts in the region and has provided patrol vessels and defense exchanges with Vietnam and the Philippines, the two countries most affected by China’s attempts to change the status quo in the South China Sea.  

Nearly 48 percent of Japanese oppose the new bilateral defense guidelines with United States.
To be sure, serious challenges remain. Some question Washington’s ability to stick with its rebalancing policy in the medium and long term in light of domestic fiscal constraints and other regional interests. There are also legitimate concerns from Japan and other U.S. allies in the region, that the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership will continue to lag due to Obama’s difficulties in obtaining so-called “fast track authority” from Congress.

There are stumbling blocks for Japan, too. Aside from the Japanese public’s deep-seated reticence regarding a new security paradigm, there are also existential issues that will inhibit Tokyo’s ability to become an active security player. First, it still isn’t clear whether Abe’s reforms to kick-start Japan’s sluggish economy have worked. The future trajectory of the economy is critical, since Abe has staked his political life on controversial structural reforms and a successful conclusion of the TPP, both of which remain incomplete. Second, to deal with its demographic pressures­—record-low birth rates, low immigration, and a disproportionate amount of seniors—Japan will need to tighten its belt, which will constrain the country’s long-term efforts to take a more active security role in the region.

Finally, on a bilateral level, one of the critical elements of the U.S.-Japanese alliance is Tokyo’s permission for U.S. forces to use their bases on Japan for power projection and deterrence. The current U.S. base in Futenma remains a politically sensitive issue in Japan and the Okinawa government continues to oppose the plan to move it to a less inhabited part of the island. Despite Abe’s support for the new replacement facility and Washington’s assurances of a gradual transition of the U.S. forces to Guam, the issue remains a potential irritant as the alliance evolves.  

These challenges will continue to be a reality for the alliance. Despite this, the new defense guidelines, combined with the ongoing work to finish negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, form the two key yardsticks of the U.S.-Japanese strategic partnership going forward. These pillars will help to enable the integration of the U.S. rebalance toward Asia with Japan’s proactive contribution to peace in order to serve as the foundation for a networked alliance approach to peace and security challenges in the Asia-Pacific.

  • J. BERKSHIRE MILLER is Chair of the Japan-Korea Working Group at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Fellow on East Asia at the EastWest Institute.
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