The US-Japan Alliance and East Asia: Five Guiding Principles

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s trip to the United States in late April and early May was touted as a success and a boost for US-Japan alliance relations. The personal dynamics between President Obama and Abe appeared much warmer compared with their previous meeting in 2014. Public sentiment between the United States and Japan is at an all-time high. As indicated in the Pew Research Center “Global Trends and Attitudes Poll” just before Abe’s trip, there is an increased sense of trust in the credibility of the alliance in both countries vis-à-vis the rise of China. Moreover, the US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines were successfully revised for the first time since 1997. This represents an important step forward for Japan to take on expanded security roles and increase cooperation with the United States.

Indeed, Abe’s trip evokes memories of Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro’s US trip in 1983. US-Japan relations, already strained over trade frictions, were dented after Prime Minister Suzuki Zenko’s trip to the United States in 1981. When the joint statement between Suzuki and President Ronald Reagan referred to US-Japan relations as an “alliance” for the first time, Suzuki was forced to respond to the Japanese public backlash, denying that the “alliance” contained military elements. In protest, Foreign Minister Ito Masayoshi resigned. Against this background, Nakasone was the first postwar Japanese leader who showed real determination to boost Japan’s defense spending and capabilities. He pledged that Japan would serve as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Pacific” against the Soviet Union, and he established the “Ron-Yasu” relationship revitalizing US-Japan relations.

When Abe reclaimed the prime ministership in December 2012, US-Japan alliance relations had also been, to some extent, dented. Most prominently, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio of the DPJ, after winning election in 2009, which denied the LDP office for only the second time since its formation in 1955, attempted to backtrack on the Futenma marine air station relocation plan. Instead of going ahead with the Henoko plan as had been agreed between the United States and Japan, Hatoyama promised that the Futenma replacement facility would be relocated outside of Okinawa prefecture in a bid to reduce the military footprint and burden borne by the people of Okinawa. Unable to fulfil this promise, Hatoyama ultimately was forced to resign. That loss of confidence in US-Japan relations caused by the Futenma affair now appears to be firmly in the past. Abe has pledged to go ahead with the Henoko plan, Okinawa local opposition to US bases was kept off the agenda for Abe’s trip, and American experts widely applauded Japan for the agreement to revise the US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines. Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry praised the revised guidelines as a “historic transition in the defense relationship between our two countries.”

However, we must not let ourselves fall into a false sense of complacency. During the Cold War, bolstering the US-Japan alliance was at times considered an end in itself, given the focus on strengthening deterrence vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. But given the shifting balance of regional power and the variable nature of both traditional and non-traditional security challenges that must be tackled, the US-Japan alliance must take a multifaceted approach towards promoting regional stability and mutual prosperity; strengthening the US-Japan alliance for its own sake cannot be the end goal. The US rebalance to Asia sketches the initial outlines of such a multifaceted approach with its twin pillars: a political-security pillar aimed at maintaining regional stability (something which must be done through an inclusive regional order); and an economic pillar aimed at nurturing and tapping into East Asia’s dynamic economic growth for the mutual prosperity of the region, such as through the TPP.

Building upon the success of Abe’s US visit, we must consider how the US-Japan alliance can best be utilized as a vehicle to comprehensively engage with the region in an inclusive manner in forging a stable and mutually prosperous regional order over the long term. The United States and Japan should focus on five guiding principles: (1) bolstering multilateral security cooperation; (2) establishing the United States as a residential power in East Asia to spearhead regional confidence building measures; (3) reexamining US forward deployment posture in the region to ensure its long-term political sustainability; (4) engaging with China in concrete areas of mutual benefit; and (5) ensuring that history issues do not hinder cooperation.

Bolstering Multilateral Security Cooperation

As Obama has repeatedly highlighted, Asia-Pacific foreign and security policy is moving toward a framework underpinned by multilateral cooperation. This is necessary in light of a number of factors including: the shifting balance of regional power; the rise of emerging market economies such as China, India, and ASEAN countries; the forecasted growth of the middle classes across Asia; and changes in the United States military budget, in the wake of the billions spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, moving toward a sustainable “lean but mean” posture. From a Japanese perspective, Japan can best position itself and the US-Japan alliance to contribute to multilateral security and diplomatic cooperation through revision of the US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines, passage of relevant laws in order to implement limited forms of collective self-defense expanding the roles and functions of the SDF, and invigoration of trilateral security cooperation such as US-Japan–ROK trilateralism.

US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guideline Revisions

The US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines were first established in 1978 in order to facilitate coordinated action in the event of an attack on Japan. Since that time they have been revised twice in 1997 and again in 2015. The revision in 1997 was precipitated by two key crises earlier in the decade: the first Korean nuclear crisis and the Taiwan Strait crisis. In 1993, North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and declared that UN sanctions against it would be considered an act of war; an immediate crisis was averted with a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and former president Jimmy Carter in 1994 and, subsequently, the United States and North Korea agreeing to the Agreed Framework. At the same time, tensions with China surrounding the status of Taiwan flared—triggered by visas for Taiwanese leaders visiting the United States, Chinese missile tests in the waters surrounding Taiwan in 1995 and 1996, and the US dispatch of aircraft carriers to the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait. These crises illuminated the fact that Japan was unprepared to deal with a regional contingency. There was a lack of provisions detailing what the SDF could or could not do, within the framework of the Article 9 “peace clause” of the Japanese Constitution, to respond to and assist the United States in dealing with an emergency scenario in the region.

Under the interpretation of the Constitution in 1997, the US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines were revised outlining the roles the SDF could perform during a contingency scenario in situations surrounding Japan. The implementation of the revised guidelines was subsequently supported by the 1999 “Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan Law.” Most prominently, the right of the SDF to provide rear-area support to the US military, so long as it did not form an “integral part in the use of force,” was recognized.

Fast-forwarding to the present, the regional security environment has changed yet again, necessitating a new revision of the guidelines to coordinate seamless alliance cooperation over the long-term. Japan-China relations, while making some tentative steps towards rapprochement after the meeting between Abe and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing in November 2014, are increasingly dominated by tensions surrounding the East and South China seas, including the Senkaku Islands. China’s maritime behavior has become increasingly assertive in recent years as it continues to send ships into the waters in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands in ever greater numbers, announced an Air Defense Identification Zone covering the Senkakus in November 2013, and is unilaterally constructing landfill islands in areas of the South China Sea disputed with ASEAN countries. Based on the assumption that China will continue to rise, both economically and militarily—but recognizing that the direction of China’s rise is not predetermined, that regional countries should engage with China to help steer it toward mutually beneficial outcomes, and violent conflict with China is both highly undesirable and at present unlikely—the US-Japan alliance must be prepared for further possible unilateral or unpredictable behavior from China.

US-Japan-ROK Trilateral Contingency Planning

Expanding the role of the SDF will also open the way for deepening US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation including contingency planning, which is necessary given the uncertain situation on the Korean Peninsula. Since taking over as leader of North Korea three and a half years ago, Kim Jong-un has purged a startlingly high number of high-ranking officials, most recently executing Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol, according to reports by the South Korean National Intelligence Service. While this can be interpreted as Kim Jong-un simply stamping his mark and consolidating his grip on power, the recent purges appear to be more than simply disposing of dissenters. Of the seven highest ranking political and military officials who stood with Kim Jong-un as pallbearers at his father’s funeral in December 2011 only two remain; the other five have either been executed, including Kim Jong-un’s own uncle Jang Song-thaek, or disappeared. Moreover, Kim Jong-un is personalizing his power base by appointing loyalists and close family members, including his younger sister, to positions of high power. As such, his power base appears narrow, and even members of the inner circle may fear not just for their future position but also their personal safety.

It is imperative that the United States, Japan, and South Korea coordinate closely to devise detailed contingency planning for a worst-case scenario, including a regime collapse. Moreover, US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation should also aim to engage China and Russia on consultations regarding common interests. Such consultations should start to consider ways to make preparations now to steer the situation toward soft-landing style unification scenarios, and should utilize track II diplomacy to inject fresh ideas from academia to ensure the long-term stability of the Korean Peninsula.

The United States as a Residential Power

Amidst the shifting balance of power in the region, with the rise of China and other emerging market economies such as India and ASEAN countries, in order to maintain the requisite regional stability needed to tackle various urgent challenges as well as to protect and build upon the prosperity the region has realized in the postwar era, the United States needs to establish itself as a residential power in East Asia. The shift in balance is forecast to continue in the decades ahead. According to OECD reports, Asia is predicted to be home to two-thirds of the global middle-class population by 2030. This swelling of the middle class will be accompanied by concomitant spending power; Asian Development Bank (ADB) reports project that Asia will account for more than half of global GDP by 2050. Thus, as the regional order evolves to reflect the new regional power balance, it is critical that the United States is intimately involved in the process. This will require the United States to readjust its mode of engagement with Asia, continuing to move away from acting purely as an external balancer or extra-regional global superpower and further toward involvement in and leading of day-to-day work, such as in regional multilateral forums like the East Asia Summit (EAS).

As China is pursuing the new model of great power relations with the United States as its top foreign policy priority, there is a risk that some in China may conceive of the new model as a way to divide the Pacific into spheres of influence. The United States must be unequivocal that its role in East Asian affairs—across security, political, and economic dimensions—is a core foreign policy interest. One way to do this would be to spearhead the establishment of a four-party China-Japan-ROK-US confidence-building mechanism well positioned to tackle two pressing issues: reassurance diplomacy regarding the evolving role of the SDF and the US-Japan alliance, and agreements on crisis avoidance and communication measures.

Intensive diplomacy is needed between the United States, Japan, China, and South Korea to allay concerns regarding revisions to the US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines and to the expansion of SDF roles and functions. The Abe government’s intended defense policy reforms to recognize Japan’s right to exercise a limited form of collective self-defense are within the purview of Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented security policy framework, and are concerned with the defense of Japan and its ability to proactively contribute to regional peace. But without the right confidence building measures to reassure China and South Korea, there is a risk of misperception and increased regional tensions.

Military-to-military direct communication hotlines and crisis management procedure agreements are also urgently needed in order to reduce the risk of accidental collision and to mitigate damage in the event of a crisis. This is especially urgent in the East China Sea given the tensions surrounding the Senkaku Islands including a number of recent aerial near misses between Japanese SDF and Chinese People’s Liberation Army aircraft.

Long-Term US Forward Deployment Strategy

The US forward deployment in East Asia also needs to be maintained into the long term as a regional public good against the backdrop of the shifting balance of power and the need to establish the United States as a residential power in East Asia. However, the nature of the US strategy needs to be reexamined regularly, through intensive consultation with alliance partners, to ensure it is both facing up to the ever-changing and dynamic security challenges in the region and is politically sustainable. First, it must be reexamined whether maintaining US forces in such a high concentration in one area of the region, as they currently are in Okinawa, is the best strategy over the long term to fulfill US and US-Japan alliance goals. Given advances in new military technologies and the changing nature of regional security challenges, it will be increasingly, strategically desirable to establish a broader and dynamic forward deployment posture where US soldiers are more evenly distributed and rotated across the region. This trend is already underway with the expanding military cooperation between the United States and its other regional partners—such as Australia, India, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam—, but further efforts in this direction are needed. From a Japanese perspective, while the LDP has contained the domestic political costs of the concentration of US bases in Okinawa to within the prefecture, the local opposition to the bases makes the current situation politically unsustainable over the long-term. The transfer of the Futenma station, away from the densely populated Ginowan City, to the more remote Henoko will help reduce the impact of the military footprint on the local population and the risk of an accident sparking public backlash. But over the longer term, this move is unlikely to be sufficient to quell the tide of Okinawa public discontent, which demands a reduction in bases.

Second, as Japan continues its defense reforms and the SDF expands per the newly revised Defense Cooperation Guidelines toward recognizing limited exercise of the right to collective self-defense, there will be greater cooperative potential for joint base sharing arrangements between the US military and the SDF. Such sharing arrangements should be utilized as an opportunity to deepen US-Japan security cooperation and ensure that responses to regional situations, such as infringements short of an armed attack, are coordinated in a seamless manner among the relevant Japanese agencies and between the United States and Japan under alliance auspices. Moreover, joint base arrangements would also allow the United States to more intimately assist the SDF to gradually transition toward fulfilling greater contributions to regional peace including taking greater responsibility for Japan’s own defense.

Engaging China

The future of East Asian regional stability and prosperity depends not just on confidence building and military strategy but also crucially on how the rest of the region responds to the rise of China. To this end, it must be considered how the US-Japan alliance can best be utilized as a vehicle to promote a regional environment where Japan and the United States can constructively engage with a rising China. Japan and the United States should coordinate to target overlapping areas of mutual cooperation including: multilateral finance institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB); mega-regional trade agreements, such as the TPP and RCEP; energy cooperation; and the environment.

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

The AIIB presents a litmus test for how the region and greater world will react to the rise of China. To date, 57 countries have signed on as founding members of the bank including major democratic economies in Asia—Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea—as well as from the EU—France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The two prominent absences are the United States and Japan. While the participation of the United States seems highly remote given domestic political realities, it should not hinder the bank or stand in the way of Japan joining. Moreover, given the vast demand for infrastructure finance, the fact that the US Congress blocked voting reform efforts which would have engaged China more meaningfully in the IMF, and that Japan and the United States have dominated the ADB since its creation, China’s move to establish the AIIB should not come as a surprise.

Japan should join the AIIB for three reasons. First, the AIIB’s performance should be held to high international standards on governance and transparency. Japan will be better positioned to cooperate with the other major democratic economies to realize such high performance standards from within. Second, as the traditional leader of the ADB, Japan’s participation is important to foster ADB-AIIB cooperation and improve the AIIB’s efficiency and ultimate impact. Since China joined the ADB in 1986 it has become the ADB’s second-largest borrower with a cumulative total of USD 31.58 billion in loans. In 2014, ADB assistance to China totaled USD 1.49 billion across four priority sectors: natural resources, energy, transport, and urban and social infrastructure and services. But given that China can now self-finance its own infrastructure development, why would it bother to continue to go through the ADB? The answer is that ADB financing comes with accompanying external pressure as well as expertise and guidance including quality control and environmental regulations. ADB-AIIB cooperation would help to establish similar quality control measures in the operation of the AIIB. Third, the funding structure of the AIIB calls for 25 percent to be provided by extra-regional members and 75 percent to be provided by regional members. As such, the addition of Japan, as Asia’s second largest economy, would serve to diversify the sources of Asian funding and mitigate the risk of Chinese dominance of what should be a truly multilateral organization.

Mega-regional Trade Diplomacy

The two mega-regional trade agreements being negotiated in Asia, the TPP and RCEP, must be developed to promote an inclusive economic regional order based on free markets and to establish new high-standard twenty-first century rules that go beyond trade, investment, and services. However, if not carefully coordinated, the TPP and RCEP are in danger of dividing the region into two competing US- and China-led trade blocs. In moving towards final agreements, it is important that a pathway is created allowing for their future amalgamation, a stepping stone toward the establishment of a FTA of the Asia Pacific as proposed by APEC.

Without coordinating such a pathway, there is a risk that China may disengage from any future aspirations of joining the TPP and instead forge its own exclusivist system. It is crucial that the region engage with China and help to steer its rise and the implementation of the projects it pursues in positive and inclusive directions. The TPP should over the long term be utilized as a vehicle to stimulate cooperation with China. To this end, the TPP must include an open accession clause to establish a clear and transparent process by which China, and other RCEP members not currently party to it, can join the TPP in the future when they are ready after reaching pre-determined economic benchmarks. At the same time, RCEP should be utilized as a vehicle not just to deepen economic integration among the ASEAN+6 countries but also to bridge the gap between advanced and developing countries within the region.

Commendable progress has been made in US-Japan TPP negotiations as well as toward passing the trade promotion authority (TPA) bill, which is welcomed by Japan and other TPP member nations. Now, it is earnestly hoped that the negotiations will finally be concluded, given that the TPP is a strategic vehicle to ensure East Asia’s trade and economic system will remain free and adopt high-standard rules needed for twenty-first century economic integration.

The Russia Question

In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine in March 2014, its relations with the other G-8 countries have hit their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Russia has been temporarily suspended from the G-8 as well as being hit with sanctions. For the sake of Ukraine, it is urgent that a continued ceasefire holds and, subsequently, a political solution is forged. Resolving the situation in Ukraine is also important from a broader geopolitical perspective given the potential for Russia to play a constructive role on a number of issues of mutual importance including North Korea, energy, and environmental cooperation.

As tensions between Russia and the G-7 countries have intensified, Sino-Russian ties have grown closer. China and Russia signed ambitious oil and gas deals in May 2014 worth more than an estimated USD 400 billion over the next 30 years. And as Western leaders boycotted Russia’s seventieth anniversary Victory Day celebrations on May 9, 2015, commemorating victory over Nazi Germany, Xi Jinping was by President Vladimir Putin’s side not just for the parade, but also to sign an important agreement promoting China’s New Silk Road initiative. Previously, Russia has rejected Chinese moves to establish an FTA among the SCO member states, a move perceived by China as excluding it. Instead Russia established the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. But now, in the face of continued isolation from the West, Russia has agreed to create a dialogue mechanism within the SCO to integrate and coordinate China’s New Silk Road initiative and the EEU, providing China with an overland trade route to the EU. Rather than sitting back and watching this Sino-Russian cooperation evolve in isolation, it would be desirable to engage with it in order to ensure its connectivity with other regional initiatives as well as to promote the uptake of transparency and international best practices in its implementation.

Regional Energy Cooperation

Over the long term, toward 2050, there are going to be huge increases in energy demand particularly from emerging economies with growing middle classes such as China, India, Russia, and ASEAN countries. Taking a zero-sum, race-to-the-bottom approach to claim diminishing resources will only ensure that everybody loses. Regional cooperation is needed to ensure that the energy demands of all nations are met. This should include joint exploration and development of energy sources such as oil and natural gas, joint development of new technologies for the extraction of previously inaccessible resources; and nuclear energy cooperation to ensure the most rigorous application of international standards regarding safety measures.

Environmental Cooperation

The increased energy demands of the expanding Asian middle class also mean that even with rigorous cooperation regional demands will not be met purely through traditional fossil fuel energy sources. Moreover, the unabated use of fossil fuels will cause environmental damage detrimental to sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction as well as to the ecology of the planet. The experience of Japan in decades past and of China recently demonstrates the impact of worsening environmental problems as a limitation on economic growth. In order to meet growing regional energy demands in an environmentally sustainable manner, lessons from Japan’s experience in overcoming high levels of air pollution in the 1960s can be applied. Moreover, the United States and Japan as global leaders in technology development should coordinate and invite all likeminded nations to promote cooperation for jointly funded and developed green energy technologies.

Transcending History as an Obstacle to Engagement

Finally, in order to utilize the US-Japan alliance as a vehicle in a multifaceted manner to promote regional stability and shared prosperity, history issues must not be allowed to hinder broader cooperation. During his US trip, Abe’s speeches at Harvard University and to a joint sitting of Congress came under intense scrutiny regarding Japan’s war history. Abe stated clearly that he would uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers on Japan’s wartime record, referred to Japan’s transgressions in Pearl Harbor, Bataan Corregidor, and the Coral Sea, and offered his “deep repentance.” For a general US audience Abe hit the right notes. However, a group of US lawmakers led by Congressman Mike Honda criticized Abe for failing to refer to the “comfort women” issue in his speech to Congress, while the Chinese and South Korean governments protested that Abe fell short of a direct “apology”.

For an Asian and global audience, the upcoming seventieth anniversary of World War II offers a diplomatic opportunity for the Abe government to affirm Japan’s postwar identity as a peace loving nation and to mend strained ties with South Korea and China. For the sake of regional cooperation, as well as to do justice by those who suffered at the hands of Japanese wartime aggression, this chance must not be missed. It is especially crucial given that Abe and President Park Geun-hye have yet to hold a bilateral meeting after more than two years in office, and follow-through is needed on the tentative steps toward Japan-China rapprochement. In his anticipated speech in August, Abe must unequivocally face Japan’s historical wartime transgressions without missing any of the key words of the Murayama statement. At the same time, Abe must set out Japan’s defense policy in a forward looking and practical way aimed solely at defending Japan and contributing to the peaceful enhancement of the regional security environment in order to dispel any misperceptions in China and South Korea surrounding the revised US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines or the question of Japan exercising limited forms of collective self-defense.


Recent successes to bolster US-Japan security cooperation have provided important steps in the evolution of the alliance to meet post-Cold War challenges. However, the alliance needs to take a multifaceted approach in implementing the Asian rebalance and ensuring regional stability and shared prosperity. Utilizing the alliance as a vehicle to promote regional cooperation, the United States and Japan must follow the above five guiding principles and steer the evolving regional order in a positive and inclusive direction, with a free and high-standard economic system for the mutual prosperity of all.

In order to best manage the shifting balance of power, it is imperative that multilateral security cooperation among US allies and partners is enhanced, and that the United States establishes itself as a residential power in East Asia. As China continues to implement the new model of great power relations with the United States to the east, continues to act increasingly unilaterally in the South China Sea to the south, and pursues the New Silk Road initiative with the cooperation of Russia to the west, new confidence building measures and increased US participation in regional multilateral forums such as the EAS are needed to help steer the rise of China in positive and mutually beneficial directions.

As a starting point toward the construction of a stable and mutually prosperous region, intensive cooperation in areas of mutual benefit is needed, including with China and Russia. Such cooperation should include international finance institutions, mega-regional trade agreements, energy cooperation, and the environment, and should be conducted in an inclusive manner while encouraging the uptake of best international practice. Such a multifaceted approach to regional cooperation will ensure the peace and prosperity of the Asia Pacific throughout this Asian Century.


  • Godfree Roberts

    ‘The US forward deployment in East Asia also needs to be maintained into the long term as a regional public good’. I’m not sure that the Vietnamese people experienced it as a ‘public good’. It’s nothing more than a sinister standover game. And it’s already obsolete.