The Imperative of Stronger U.S.-Japan Relations

The recent reevaluation of Japan’s pacifist security policy has created an opportunity for the United States to double down on its commitments to Japan, one of its most important alliances in the world. U.S. foreign policy continues to be preoccupied by pressing developments in other regions, but Washington must not let this opportunity slip away.

This September, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) achieved a politically contentious, but sorely overdue, legislative achievement—a fundamental reevaluation of Japan’s pacifist security policy and a departure from seventy years of political tradition. This has created a timely opportunity for the United States to double down on its commitments to Japan, one of its longest-standing and most important alliances in the world. Such a strategic reassurance, through stronger coordination and joint training with partner militaries across the region like Japan, would be a welcome reaffirmation of American commitment during this period of increasing uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific. Yet considering the propensity for distraction inherent in U.S. foreign policy, policymakers in Washington must not let this opportunity slip away—its benefits are uniquely ours to lose.

Prime Minister Abe oversaw the passage of two specific bills in the Japanese legislature that officially reinterpreted Article IX of Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution. Under the previous structure, Japan’s constitution only allowed for the use of military force in response to a direct attack. Under this new structure, the veritable gloves have been taken off the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF), affording them the ability to respond to an attack on assets – including those on the United States. For the first time since World War II, this will effectively allow the Japanese to reemerge in their own right as a stakeholder in regional security and peacekeeping efforts: an important step to complement their global economic might.

These defense reforms were a legacy for both Abe’s administration and his family: Abe’s own grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, worked to revise the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty during the 1950s, but was ultimately forced to resign in response to significant public opposition, highlighted by the death of a university protestor at the hands of police. History seemed to be repeating itself for Abe throughout the summer, with massive public demonstrations across Japan. Yet the prime minister endured, announcing the revised U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines in April 2015 during his visit to Washington, DC, and announcing the full reinterpretation of Japan’s Article IX this past September.

These reforms were not one-off achievements in Japan’s security policy. These bills were the result of decades of complex and drawn-out nemawashi, a Japanese political term of art for “feeling around the roots” to socialize a new policy by slowly building support and consensus. These efforts were cumulative, slowly constructed to enact a stronger Japanese defense policy structure and in turn buttress U.S. security operations in Asia. Reforms such as the establishment of a Japanese Ministry of Defense during Abe’s first stint as prime minister in 2007, as well as the 2013 creation of a Japanese National Security Secretariat to better coordinate issues of national defense with the U.S. National Security Council, are examples of this gradual effort to normalize Japan’s defense identity.

And U.S. policymakers have not been silent in supporting Japan’s normalization, either. The 1997 revision of the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines (the predecessor to the April 2015 edition) was a significant, and contentious, rendition, achieved through close consultations with and support from interlocutors in the U.S. Department of Defense. Furthermore, Abe’s visit to Washington, DC in April culminated in the first official address to a joint session of Congress by a Japanese prime minister in U.S. history, an important forum for Abe to reaffirm his desire for a stronger U.S.-Japan Alliance. And in the wake of the passage of the security legislation, the Department of Defense has increased coordination with Ministry of Defense counterparts. This culminated most recently in the October Maritime Self-Defense Force Fleet Review, where Abe was the first Japanese prime minister to visit a U.S. aircraft carrier (the USS Ronald Reagan) at sea. Joint operations and training exercises are set to pick up pace throughout the fall as a means to better prepare and integrate U.S. and Japanese forces for a collective self-defense scenario.

This increased emphasis on cooperation and coordination in the comes at a time of growing uncertainty across Asia. Tensions in the South China Sea between territorial claimants have reached their most unstable period in recent memory. Chinese island building efforts have injected a degree of pronounced strategic anxiety into the region’s security environment. Meanwhile, North Korean provocations have been highlighted most recently by imminent threats of another nuclear missile test, which could plunge peninsular and ultimately broader regional stability into chaos. In the context of this uncertain strategic environment, Japan’s revision of its national security policy is a welcome development for U.S. operations in the region, and indicative of Japan’s commitment to more equitable burden sharing in the relationship.

Yet as Japan fulfills its commitment to undertake more substantive defense cooperation with the United States, U.S. foreign policy continues to be preoccupied by pressing developments half a world away. The ongoing threat of the Islamic State (or ISIL), questions regarding Russian intentions in Ukraine and Syria, and lingering concern over the stability of Afghanistan monopolize the administration’s foreign and defense policy bandwidth. Indeed, the United States cannot ignore these strategic challenges: they are imminent and tangible, and their resolution is tantamount to broader U.S. staying power in the region. In this context, the nature of these Middle East issues contrast markedly to the evolution of Asian security challenges, which are inherently slower to develop and therefore less perceivable to casual observers. As a result, Asian security challenges have a propensity to be swept aside by the U.S. news cycle and put on the backburner by U.S. policymakers focused on the immediate and the obvious. Yet it is without a doubt in the long-term strategic interest of the United States to deepen our engagement with steadfast Asian Allies like Japan—our fourth largest trading partner—which has continually intimated its desire to assume a stronger regional role.

The LDP’s passage of collective self-defense is a window—a clear call in an otherwise muddled cacophony—for the United States to double down on its security commitments with Japan, and in turn achieve greater extended deterrence in the Asia-Pacific region. To its credit, the Department of Defense is responding, deepening interoperability exercises and joint training with our Japanese partners. This was highlighted most recently by the U.S.-Japan-India trilateral Malabar Exercise, for which Japan just became a full-time member this year. Yet U.S. policymakers must ensure that this commitment endures, and is pursued with the same vim and vigor as U.S. obligations in the Middle East. Without this long-term assurance, Japan’s offer is ours to lose.

David Rubin is an Associate at The Asia Group, a strategic and capital advisory firm that helps firms doing business in the Asia-Pacific region advance new business opportunities and navigate complex political environments. David is concurrently pursuing an M.A. in International Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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