FPI Bulletin: Advancing the U.S.-Japanese Alliance

April 28, 2015

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is poised to make history when he appears before a Joint Session of Congress tomorrow.  As the first Japanese head of government to address Congress, Abe’s speech marks an overdue milestone for one of America’s most important allies. Abe’s history-making achievements will not be found in the pomp and circumstance of the joint session or state dinner, however, but in his work over the past two years to transform Japan’s role in its alliance with the United States.

When Abe returned as prime minster in December 2012, he inherited a country that faced more dire challenges than during his brief tenure five years earlier. A strengthened China had dramatically escalated its provocations in the waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands. North Korea had advanced its WMD programs to the point that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that Pyongyang can deliver a nuclear weapon on a missile. By September 2013, foreign policy experts close to Abe doubted whether the United States was a reliable partner after the Obama administration’s handling of its “red line” standoff with Syria.

Prime Minister Abe responded by committing Japan to a stronger defense and closer alliance with the United States.  His efforts are now bearing fruit. On Monday, the United States and Japan kicked off Abe’s visit by releasing updated Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation, a document with great potential to strengthen the alliance in spite of its mundane title.

This announcement marks only the third time that the United States and Japan have issued a comprehensive statement about their roles and missions under the 1960 Mutual Security Treaty. The first effort, in 1978, was essentially a reaffirmation of the U.S. commitment to Japan’s security after the Vietnam War. An update issued in 1997, following that decade’s crises on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait, clarified that Tokyo would provide rear area support for U.S. forces in the event of a regional conflict. 

The new guidelines seek to “address seamlessly and effectively any situation that affects Japan’s peace and security or any other situation that may require an Alliance response.” Rather than narrowly describing how the alliance will respond to “an armed attack against Japan,” or “situations in areas surrounding Japan,” the updated Guidelines note that the areas that will require a coordinated response “cannot be defined geographically” and avoid leaving any gaps for potential adversaries to exploit.

The updated guidelines also reflect Prime Minister Abe’s broader efforts to modernize Japan’s national security posture.  Soon after taking office, Abe secured legislation establishing a National Security Council and, in December 2013, released Japan’s first National Security Strategy.

Last year, Abe focused on constitutional restrictions on Japan’s defense capabilities.  In May, he received a comprehensive report on whether Japan can engage in “collective self-defense” activities. This concerns Japan’s ability to come to the aid, for example, of a U.S. missile defense ship if it were attacked by a North Korean vessel. In July 2014, the Japanese government announced that it would henceforth interpret the constitution to allow such operations.

This decision allowed the updated guidelines to describe missions that were previously forbidden. From now on, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces will work with the U.S. military on such missions as protecting military assets, securing sea lines of communication, and intercepting ballistic missiles.  From an American perspective, the most striking aspect of these changes is the idea that they were ever subject to restriction.

When Prime Minister Abe addresses Congress, he will have a rare opportunity to describe these changes and hopefully build domestic support in Japan for their implementation.  Japanese voters remain divided over Abe’s security initiatives, and it will be important for them to see that they are welcomed by the United States and other partners.

This debate raises one issue that Japan must address. The United States and Japan have worked to keep South Korea fully informed about efforts to update the alliance. In addition, the three countries signed an important intelligence sharing agreement in December 2014. Still, much mistrust remains between these two bedrock allies, and many South Koreans will closely watch Mr. Abe’s remarks to see if he affirms earlier apologies that Japan’s leaders have offered for Tokyo’s wartime aggression. It is essential that Mr. Abe utilize the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the war’s end to assuage South Korea’s concerns about Japan’s evolving security policy. 

Going forward, there are two other areas where the United States and Japan must work together to secure the gains that Prime Minister Abe has made over the past two years.

Both countries stand to benefit if Congress swiftly approves Trade Promotion Authority and paves the way for a successful conclusion to negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership. This trade agreement will include a dozen nations, but the most important opportunity it offers is in providing Abe with enhanced leverage to reform Japan’s economy.  The window for concluding an agreement is rapidly closing, and neither Japan nor the United States can afford to postpone it for the next administration.

As importantly, the United States must end the senseless cuts to our own military capabilities that are undermining the “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific.  Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, has warned that the U.S. Navy may be losing its ability to “project power despite an anti-access, area denial challenge.” If the United States does not reverse this decline, it will invite further provocations by actors like China and North Korea.

Prime Minister Abe’s efforts to modernize the U.S.-Japanese alliance merit the laudatory reception that Congress will offer him tomorrow. The task now is to secure those gains and expand upon them.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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