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Shifting times lead to changing alliance

TOKYO -- On April 29, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quoted his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi when he addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress. In June 1957, Kishi highlighted Japan's firm "belief in democratic principles and ideals" in his own speech to Congress as prime minister.

     Abe reiterated Japan's belief in those principles and ideals, and called the Japan-U.S. relationship an "alliance of hope." That alliance is now looking to expand its defense cooperation to cover the Asia-Pacific and beyond. This shift is occurring out of necessity. Both countries agree that it is impossible to maintain stability in Japan and the rest of the Asia-Pacific without regionwide cooperation. Looming in the background: an increasingly assertive China.

Keep your balance

Government officials from Japan and the U.S., experts and journalists gathered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on March 28 to discuss the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

      The main focus of the five-hour discussion was how to rein in China's aggressive behavior. In one presentation, participants were shown the latest photographs of China's land reclamation efforts on disputed islands in the South China Sea. The country shows no sign of heeding calls to stop by others in the region. This follows its unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea in November 2013. As Beijing's power grows, it is trying to change the strategic balance in Asia.

     As China continues its military buildup, the U.S., facing budget constraints at home, finds it increasingly difficult to be the Asia-Pacific's sole guarantor of security. China patrols the disputed seas off its southeastern shores with nominally civilian coast guard ships, for example, but if the U.S. Navy were to begin shadowing them, Beijing would insist that it was a military provocation that raised tensions.

     The U.S. military hopes Japan will play a greater role in the South China Sea, but Japan is not equipped for such a mission. The Japan Coast Guard has its hands full dealing with Chinese ships playing cat and mouse in the waters around the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as its own.

New map needed

The rise of China is just one example of the shifts in the global geopolitical landscape since the end of the Cold War. From the Middle East to Ukraine, questions are being asked about the U.S. ability and willingness to maintain peace. If it cannot or will not, who will fill the void?

     The question is particularly urgent for Japan. The country not only sits next to China, it is also within the shooting range of missiles from North Korea, which continues its nuclear development program. Russia, with which Japan has an unresolved territorial dispute, has also stepped up its military activity in the Far East.

     Japan and the U.S. hope to deal with these challenges in the Asia-Pacific through a new security framework. The idea is simple, if difficult to pull off. First, expand and strengthen bilateral security cooperation. Next, broaden its scope to include South Korea, Southeast Asia, India, Australia and others to create a maritime "coalition of the willing" that spans the region.

     Senior Japanese and U.S. policymakers are already working to make this vision a reality, with Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama pledging on April 28 to work together to support global prosperity and stability. A concrete example of this effort came a day earlier at a meeting of the two countries' foreign and defense ministers, where the two sides agreed to revise their defense cooperation guidelines for the first time in 18 years.

     Under the old guidelines, Japan's Self-Defense Forces could only provide a limited range of support to the U.S. military in areas near Japan. The most recent revisions have dramatically relaxed this geographical restriction, making it easier for the SDF to assist the U.S. military further afield, should Japan determine that its critical security interests are at stake.

More equal

This is arguably the biggest change since the creation of the Japan-U.S. alliance, which began in 1951 with the signing of the Japan-U.S. security treaty. In 1960, the pact was revised to explicitly extend U.S. military protection to Japan. Since then, the roles of the partners have been clear: Japan agrees to host U.S. military bases in exchange for protection from external threats.

     This basic framework was changed slightly in 1997 in response to heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula over North Korea's nuclear program. Under the revised guidelines, Japan offered to provide logistic support to the U.S. military in the event of a crisis near Japan. The latest revisions have expanded Japan's rearguard support for the U.S. and, at least in theory, made it global in scope.

     This is a big departure from Japan's "inward-looking pacifism." Abe instead offers what he calls a "proactive" contribution to global peace. His government is pushing to exercise collective self-defense, enabling SDF vessels to escort U.S. warships, for example, or sweep mines far from Japan. Abe hopes to submit the necessary legislation to the Diet by mid-May, aiming for passage by the end of the summer.

     Easier said than done. Although Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, together with its coalition partner Komeito, controls more than half the Diet seats, the largest opposition force, the Democratic Party of Japan, is expected to oppose the bills. And it appears to have the people on its side. Polls suggest only about 30% of the public backs the proposed changes.

Speed bumps

Meanwhile, some in Washington think Abe's reach exceeds his grasp. One insider calls the prime minister's goals "a pipe dream," in light of Japan's fiscal constraints.

     Others are concerned about the endless arguments between Japan and South Korea over historical issues. Close ties between Japan, the U.S. and South Korea are essential to building a defense network in Asia. The Obama administration is irritated by the inability of Japan and South Korea to mend their strained ties.

     Japan has its own concerns about the Obama administration, specifically that the president is preoccupied with his legacy now that he has less than two years left in his final term.

     According to sources familiar with U.S.-China relations, Chinese leaders had anticipated tough demands from the U.S. when National Security Adviser Susan Rice visited Beijing in September 2014. President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials were bracing for big ideas from the U.S. ahead of a visit by Obama. Instead, the first topic Rice raised to Xi was cooperation on infectious diseases.

    The sources say Rice prefers to focus on areas of potential agreement in her dealings with Beijing, rather than issues where the two sides are likely to clash.

     Whatever the difficulties, Japan and the U.S. are on the verge of writing a new chapter in their alliance on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The outlines of this deeper partnership have been sketched, but filling in the blanks will take time and effort.

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