Promises and Pitfalls for the U.S.-Japanese Alliance

November 20, 2014

Promises and Pitfalls for the U.S.-Japanese Alliance
A Trip Report by the FPI Leadership Network [1]

The United States and Japan face a rare opportunity to strengthen their alliance and bring much-needed stability to an increasingly volatile Asia. Over the past two years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has engaged in a bold effort to allow Japan's Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to play a meaningful role in the defense of his countries allies. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has since late 2011 pursued a policy of “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific in order to protect longstanding U.S. interests and alliances in the region.  Yet, both countries have much to overcome in order to achieve these goals.

Prime Minister Abe’s defense policy faces a skeptical public and a shaky economy that may not support additional investments in the JSDF. After two decades of economic stagnation, Tokyo is burning through its foreign currency reserves as it imports energy in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

President Obama also faces considerable hurdles toward realizing a U.S. “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific. Deep cuts in the U.S. defense spending are constraining America’s military across the globe, including Asia. Obama must also convince a war-weary public that strengthening the U.S.-Japanese alliance is not only the best way to prevent miscalculations by an increasingly aggressive China and persistently belligerent North Korea, but also critical to continued peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific.

With these issues and challenges in mind, a delegation from the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) Leadership Network traveled to Japan in summer 2014 to assess the future of the alliance. They discussed a broad range of foreign, economic and security issues with Japanese officials and scholars. Their findings and policy recommendations for U.S. and Japanese policymakers focus on the following areas:

  • An Agenda for the Alliance
  • Navigating the Senkaku Islands Dispute
  • Energy Security and Counter-Proliferation

The authors’ hope is that these assessments and recommendations will inform the efforts of policymakers in Washington and Tokyo to address these challenges and strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance.

An Agenda for the Alliance

For more than six decades, the United States and Japan have worked together to preserve a liberal international order in the Asia-Pacific that has fostered unprecedented prosperity and stability in the region. Today, experts in both capitals are concerned that this achievement is at risk. Both Washington and Tokyo are alarmed by China's rapidly expanding military capabilities, with which Beijing has aggressively pursued territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. North Korea, with its belligerent rhetoric and expanding nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities, remains equally threatening and unpredictable.

In the face of these challenges, numerous Japanese officials and experts expressed apprehension over whether the United States possesses the wherewithal to maintain its commitments in Asia. They noted that even as the Obama administration seeks to rebalance U.S. influence toward the Asia-Pacific, this policy is being undercut by declining resources. An increased share of U.S. naval assets committed to the region will mean little, for example, if defense budgets continue to be reduced by some 10 percent each year through the rest of the decade.

Our Japanese interlocutors focused on two particular questions regarding American credibility. First, they expressed concern that the United States has sent mixed signals in response to China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific. The officials and scholars we met with were pleased with President Obama’s affirmation during his April 2014 visit that the U.S. commitment to Japan’s security is “absolute” and applies to the Senkaku Islands.  But they also noted that U.S. officials raise questions about that commitment when they do not consistently push back on Beijing’s territorial claims, such as during Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to Beijing in December 2013.

Second, Japanese officials and scholars questioned whether either the American public or its leaders would be willing to come to Japan's assistance in the event of a conflict between Tokyo and Beijing. They specifically noted U.S. indecision during its standoff with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in summer 2013, when President Obama walked away from a “red line” concerning the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

In response to these concerns, we recommend that the United States work to strengthen domestic support for the alliance and reassure Japan that it will live up to its security commitments in the event of crisis. Specifically, the U.S. government should:

  • Reaffirm the importance of the U.S.-Japanese alliance as the foundation of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific.
  • Reverse the steep cuts in defense spending and target additional defense resources towards bolstering the security component of the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.
  • Elevate U.S.-Japanese official exchanges, to include travel by Members of Congress and their staff, and by hosting a state visit by Prime Minister Abe.

Our Japanese interlocutors also emphasized that Japan is pursuing major shifts in defense policy in order to strengthen its defense posture and support U.S. presence in the region. Prime Minister Abe is working to significantly increase Japan’s defense budget, relax regulations on arms exports, and transform the JSDF into a more mobile force backed by additional attack submarines, surface ships, and patrol and fighter aircraft. The Abe government has tried to bring coherence to these efforts by establishing a National Security Council and releasing a first-ever National Security Strategy.

Most importantly, Prime Minister Abe has spent tremendous amounts of political capital to reinterpret Article IX of the Constitution and allow the JSDF to engage in “collective self-defense.” This change in policy means that Japan’s armed forces would be able to operate jointly with allied forces and come to their assistance in the event of a conflict. Examples that Prime Minister Abe has described for this type of cooperation include minesweeping operations in the Strait of Hormuz and helping to defend U.S. ships conducting missile defense operations on Japan’s behalf.

Successfully pushing through legislation supporting the reinterpretation of Article IX of the Constitution in the National Diet will be Abe's toughest challenge in his current term. The Abe Cabinet’s July decision was met street protests in Tokyo and his approval ratings have suffered. As Abe himself has acknowledged, “Unfortunately, we cannot say that public is fully supportive. Indeed, it is worth remembering that during Abe's first term as Prime Minister in 2006-2007, the unpopularity of his efforts to make similar changes was one factor that resulted in his resignation.

Going forward, it is essential that Prime Minister Abe continue his initiatives in a manner that demonstrates Tokyo’s commitment to the alliance and addresses the concerns of critics in Japan’s public and among its neighbors. Specifically, the Japanese government should:

  • Press forward with legislation in the National Diet that clears the legal barriers for a reinterpretation of Article IX of the Constitution, explaining how exercising collective self-defense is necessary for Japan to be a full contributor to peace and security.
  • Relax additional restrictions on arms exports in order to participate in joint arms research, development, and acquisition programs with allies.
  • Build on Prime Minister Abe’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue by becoming a forceful voice for democracy, human rights, free trade, peace, and security in regional diplomacy.
  • Address concerns expressed by Japan’s neighbors directly, specifically by refraining from inflammatory political statements that harm relations with South Korea, and continue sincere apologies for past wrongdoing and Tokyo’s determination to be a “proactive contributor to peace.”

Fundamentally, the success of the alliance will require additional steps by the United States and Japan working together.  The most important items on the bilateral agenda at this point involve two sets of negotiations – one over the Bilateral Security Cooperation Guidelines that describe the terms of the alliance, and one over the Trans-Pacific Partnership that could expand free trade among twelve countries in the Asia-Pacific. Specifically, the two countries should:

  • Agree to an updated set of Bilateral Security Cooperation Guidelines.  According to an interim report released in October 2014, the two sides are making important progress toward an agreement that will increase cooperation in a range of contingencies.
  • Overcome special interests and reach agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  This will involve expedited passage of Trade Promotion Authority by the United States, and difficult concessions by both countries in negotiations.

Navigating the Senkaku Islands Dispute

The most critical test of the U.S.-Japanese alliance today is dispute over the Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyutai Islands by China), which was a central topic in our meetings in Japan.

The Senkaku Islands are an archipelago of five, uninhabited islands located in the East China Sea. China has disputed Japan's claims of sovereignty over the islands since 1970, shortly after oil and gas reserves were discovered under its seabed. However, only in recent years has China engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior, systematically intruding into Japanese waters and airspace around the islands with a combination of civilian government ships and military aircraft.

According to data from the Japan Coast Guard (JCG), Chinese government ships first violated the territorial waters around Senkaku in 2008, but aside from a handful of isolated incidents, no additional maritime intrusions took place until mid-2012. At the time, the Japanese government purchased the islands in order to prevent their acquisition by Tokyo’s governor. Ironically, what Tokyo meant as a de-escalatory gesture was interpreted as a provocation by Beijing, which then began deploying dozens of official but non-military Chinese ships into the waters around the islands. China further escalated the dispute in November 2013 by declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that overlapped with Japan's own ADIZ and included the Senkaku Islands.

Japanese officials believe that China's intrusions into the airspace and waters around the islands are largely an effort by the Chinese government to “change the facts on the ground.” Specifically, because the United States has long maintained that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applies to territory under Japan’s administration, Japanese officials believe that Beijing’s intent is to undermine Tokyo’s ability to effectively administer the Senkaku Islands.

To counter this, they explained that the JCG and JSDF have been ordered to actively block and limit Chinese incursions around the islands by cutting off approaching Chinese ships and aircraft. This standoff has resulted in a dangerous game of “chicken,” which could easily escalate in the event of an accidental collision between Chinese and Japanese ships or aircraft. Unfortunately, no negotiated settlement of the territorial disputes appears to be forthcoming.

Japanese officials were grateful for President Obama’s clear statement that the treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands in April 2014.  They also noted the immediate U.S. response to China's declaration of an ADIZ in the East China Sea, when the United States flew two unarmed B-52 bombers through the contested parts of China's ADIZ. Yet, some felt the United States did not take as firm a stance as needed with China, and specifically expressed concern regarding the U.S. government's guidance to commercial airlines to abide by China's ADIZ identification requirements. Several officials from the Ministry of Defense also raised questions regarding whether the United States would honor its treaty commitments with Japan in the event of a “gray zone” incident—an armed conflict short of a full-scale attack—with China.

Because the Senkaku Islands are too small to support a permanent garrison of Japanese troops, they are inherently vulnerable to encroachment by Chinese military or civilian forces. The United States and Japan should take steps to prevent potential confrontations near the islands and to clarify the parameters of U.S.-Japan cooperation in the event of a crisis, especially involving “gray zone” incidents. Specifically, while updating the Bilateral Security Cooperation Guidelines, the United States and Japan should:

  • Create a new permanent body for operational cooperation to replace the current bilateral coordination mechanism (BCM).
  • Increase bilateral training, mutual use of facilities, effective joint operational command, and combined planning.
  • Align U.S. and Japanese defense concepts including AirSea Battle and Dynamic Defense through stepped up military-military dialogue.
  • Expand combined U.S.-Japan intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage of the East China Sea to ensure early detection of potential threats and reliable operational domain awareness.
  • Improve Japan's information security procedures to enable expanded intelligence sharing with the United States and its allies.

Japan should also play a more supportive role in U.S. efforts to deepen domestic political commitment to the alliance by effectively tailoring its messaging of the Senkaku Islands dispute to a U.S. audience. Specifically, Japan should:

  • Emphasize that its territorial dispute with China is not over rocks, but the very principles of rule-based international conduct. By seeking to unilaterally alter the status quo, China is attempting to replace the U.S.-led regional order with one dominated by itself.

Energy Security and Counter-Proliferation

The Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011 fundamentally altered Japan's energy security profile, forcing the country to rely even more heavily on foreign sources of energy. As a resource poor country, Japan had developed one of the most advanced nuclear power infrastructures in the world, which supplied 30 percent of its energy requirements. After the nuclear meltdown, however, the Japanese public turned vehemently against nuclear power production. All of its nuclear power plants were taken offline and as a result, Japan has had to turn almost entirely to fossil fuels in order to meet its energy demands.

This reliance on imported fossil fuels has had damaging economic ramifications for Japan. It has become the world's largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), at a cost multiple times that of domestically produced nuclear energy. This has significantly upset the country's trade balance, placed enormous demands on its foreign currency reserves, and dramatically increased costs for both Japanese businesses and households.

As part of this shift in Japan's energy security profile, Prime Minister Abe is keen to increase LNG imports from Russia as well as the United States. Abe has already met with President Vladimir Putin five times (the most of any other foreign leader), although Russia's recent $400 billion natural gas deal with China has raised doubts among Japanese officials and scholars regarding Russia's reliability as a long-term supplier. Several noted that the Japanese would much rather import U.S. shale gas. Yet, the domestic political and economic implications of allowing natural gas exports, namely rising U.S. gas prices, means that this is an unlikely alternative for Japan in the near term.

In addition to LNG, Japan is also the world’s third largest importer of crude oil, with 79 percent of its supplies coming from five Middle Eastern countries. In the past, Iran was a major supplier of oil to Japan, although Japan has since reduced Iranian imports in accordance with international sanctions.  Given the volatility and insecurity of the region, Abe is looking to diversify Japan's sources for crude oil and has made several trips to Africa where he is seeking to increase Japanese investment overall.

At the same time Japan has halted domestic nuclear production, there are important questions about its plans to stockpile plutonium for nuclear reactors. According to some U.S. officials, Japan's plutonium stockpiles are lightly protected, making them vulnerable to theft. Additionally, Japan's decision to stockpile plutonium has raised concerns among various neighboring state that Japan could secretly divert the material for use in a nuclear weapon.

Japan has, of course, long played a leading role in the international community's nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts in the hopes of realizing “a world free of nuclear weapons,” a phrase repeated to the FPI delegation by officials in Tokyo and Hiroshima. In 2011, along with 98 other countries, Japan submitted a draft resolution on nuclear disarmament to the United Nations General Assembly, which called for the steady implementation of the outcomes of the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. The resolution placed the greatest priority on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT).

In addition, the Japanese government continues to develop nuclear safeguard technologies for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is the cornerstone of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. Concurrently, Japan is an active participant in various international export control regimes and the Proliferation Security Initiative.

Given that one of Japan's most critical vulnerabilities is its dependence on foreign sources of energy, both the United States and Japan should adopt the following measures to enhance Japan's energy security:

  • Enhance collaborative nuclear energy research and development with a focus on safe reactor designs and regulatory best practices.
  • Commit to an expanded partnership on the research and development of alternative energy technologies.
  • Identify additional opportunities within the NPT and PSI frameworks for enhancing counter-proliferation initiatives and strengthening international norms and institutions that help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

In addition, the United States should:

  • Clear regulatory obstacles for the export of LNG to Japan.
  • Consider possible strategies to provide a steady supply of energy to Japan in a time of crisis.
  • Maintain that the development of nuclear weapons is not in Japan’s national interest, while reaffirming that the United States remains dedicated to its defense commitments to Japan, including through extended nuclear deterrence.

For its part, Japan should:

  • Cautiously resume nuclear power generation to reduce its dependence on energy imports, especially from countries such as Russia.
  • Reaffirm its commitment to maintain diplomatic and economic pressure targeted at would-be proliferators, such as Iran.


For over six decades, the U.S.-Japan alliance has served as a pillar of the U.S.-led liberal international order.  Now, in the midst of growing tension in East Asia, the United States and Japan have the rare opportunity to strengthen their partnership and maintain peace and prosperity in the region. Success in doing so, however, is far from guaranteed. At a minimum, it requires that President Obama and Prime Minister Abe devote significant time and precious resources toward addressing and resolving the formidable problems identified in this study. Yet, this group of FPI Young Leaders believes that given the strategic stakes at hand, the consequences of inaction are simply far too grave.

FPI Leadership Network – Japan Study Group

Joseph E. Lin (rapporteur)
University of Pennsylvania

Hamid Arsalan
National Endowment for Democracy

Anna Borshchevskaya
European Foundation for Democracy

Jay Hallen
Moody's Analytics

Kilic Kanat
Penn State University

Aaron Menenberg
Israel Allies Foundation

Stephen Rodriguez
Coldon Strategic Advisors

Carrie Sheffield

Dustin Walker

Stephanie Young
The RAND Corporation


[1] The Leadership Network is the alumni program of FPI’s leadership programs. The mission of the Leadership Network is to foster an exclusive community of professionals dedicated to promoting a strong and principled American foreign policy.

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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