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The Future of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Washington and getting ready to address a joint meeting of Congress, the long-awaited “revised guidelines” for the U.S.-Japan Alliance were released yesterday. A copy of the document can be found here. It’s an impressive start, but a lot of the heavy lifting remains.

Both governments have been telegraphing for months what the revisions would likely include, so there were no real surprises for Asia watchers. Perhaps the most interesting revision, and one that may make a real difference, is the establishment of an “Alliance Coordination Mechanism, [to] enhance operational coordination, and strengthen bilateral planning,” according to the document.

After 50-plus years of the alliance, it may be a bit surprising that no such mechanism hitherto existed, but rectifying that gap is a good idea. If it operates the way it should, Tokyo and Washington should be able to discuss on an early and continuous basis specific issues or threats that may fall under alliance auspices. That takes the pressure off of calling for formal alliance discussions when a threat arises, and also means that appropriate alliance managers are communicating regularly on issues that may eventually require a joint response.

The two sides will also upgrade the Bilateral Planning Mechanism, which may allow for a steady evolution of plans for coordinated operations, as well as requirements needed to undertake enhanced operations.

As expected, there is also an increased emphasis on planning with potential partners for situations where Japan is not under attack, but the security environment is deleterious to Japan, including “emerging threats.” This may open the door to far wider-ranging U.S.-Japan regional cooperation, not only on things like intelligence sharing, but also maritime security, refugee situations, and the like. Threats to cyber networks and space assets also have been a hot topic during the months of negotiations, and the revised guidelines have an entire section on notional cooperation on both those issues.

Overall, the document lives up to its billing, but implementation is now the order of the day. Prime Minister Abe will have to push through a raft of legislation in the Diet (parliament) in order to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to undertake the broadened array of operations envisioned in the guidelines. That will be no mean feat, given opposition from other political parties, including his own coalition partners, as well as public wariness of an expanded Japanese role abroad.

As for Washington, the sentiments and promises in the revised guidelines are only part of a broader strategy to deal with increased risk in Asia. In that sense, the document is too reactive. China’s creation of island territory in the South China Sea is giving it de facto sovereignty over those waters, according to worried Philippine officials, while North Korea continues to improve its nuclear and missile capabilities.

If Washington chooses simply to react to threats when they cross unknown redlines, then the U.S.-Japan alliance will forever be playing catch-up. Some bolder thinking on how to utilize Abe’s interest in playing a larger regional role may serve to blunt Chinese moves, and certainly aiming at weakening North Korea’s hermit regime is the best policy for trying to shape the region’s security environment. Even if not spelled out in the new alliance guidelines, those goals should be animating policymakers in Tokyo and Washington going forward.



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