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Japan and America: Forging a Global Alliance?

The Buzz

Recently, the US and Japan released the Interim Report on the Revision of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation (PDF). The revision’s the first since 1997 and occurs in the context of Asia-Pacific power shifts. So countries in the region are watching closely just how much the USJapan alliance is changing, both practically and conceptually. That includes the Australian government, which has long been supportive of a more ‘active’ Japanese security and defence policy at both the regional and global level. It’s a line Japan’s current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been pushing.

Indeed, the five-page interim report points to the prospect of a USJapan alliance moving beyond a narrow focus on the territorial defense of Japan against major aggression (from China or North Korea, for example). Instead, it’s based on a “strategic vision for a more expansive partnership” and the need to build the alliance as a “platform for international cooperation that would continue to make positive contributions to the region and beyond.” It stresses that among other things future bilateral defense cooperation would focus on:

- “seamless, robust, flexible, and effective bilateral responses;

- the global nature of the U.S.-Japan Alliance; and

- cooperation with other regional partners.”

Moreover, the report’s interesting for what it doesn’t say: in recognition of the expanding scope of geographical cooperation, the report doesn’t mention “situations in areas surrounding Japan,” a phrase that underpinned the 1997 guidelines.

While the 5-page document isn’t specific on details, the report provides some ideas on what these three aforementioned headings might entail. When it comes to “seamlessly” ensuring Japan’s peace and security, it observes that there could be “cases where swift and robust responses are required to secure the peace and security of Japan even when an armed attack against Japan is not involved [italics mine].” In other words, in theory at least, Japan could be asked to provide protection for US forces in hostile environments beyond its immediate neighborhood; for instance in the area of ship-based ballistic-missile defense.

Concerning increased “cooperation for regional and global peace and security,” the document notes that “areas of cooperation to be described may include, but are not limited to”: peacekeeping operations; international Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief; maritime security; capacity building; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; logistics support; and non-combatant evacuation operations. While the US continues to try to reassure Japan about its security commitments (for instance, the US Navy just announced plans to forward deploy three more ballistic-missile-defense-capable destroyers to Japan over the next three years), Washington also sees the revised guidelines as a chance to move the alliance beyond Tokyo’s preoccupation with the “China threat.”

How likely is the emergence of a more “global” USJapan alliance? The good news is that Japanese officials involved in drafting the interim report agreed to the report’s language, probably in anticipation of the Abe government’s expectations. Moreover, Japan has been stepping up its Asia-Pacific defense engagement. For example, it agreed to provide both the Philippines and Vietnam with modern Coast Guard vessels. As well, Japan and India are in talks about the possible sale of Japanese amphibious aircraft. Lastly, there’s still the prospect of a submarine deal with Australia.

But serious obstacles stand in the way of a truly global—or even regionally more active—USJapan alliance. For a start, Japan’s new ‘three conditions for the “use of force” as measures for self-defense’ still impose significant restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces in the exercise of Japan’s right of collective self-defense. If Japan decides to support the US in a regional or global contingency, it’ll probably remain strictly limited to tasks such as logistical support or minesweeping outside the area of actual combat. Moreover, despite much talk about Japan’s “remilitarization,” in reality there’s no such thing. As Brad Glosserman and David Kang have observed in these pages:

“Japan’s defense policies are evolving to keep pace with a changing regional environment, but the idea that Tokyo will be able to threaten its neighbors is just not credible. There is no will, nor the capability to do so.”

As I’ve argued (here and here), Japan’s defense policy remains fundamentally defensive in nature. As Alessio Patalano has shown (paywalled), Japan’s naval modernization reflects a “targeted enhancement” of capabilities required for the protection of its sea lanes, particularly in the area of anti-submarine warfare and basic expeditionary capabilities to safeguard its many islands. Moreover, security reform in Japan remains a cumbersome process (PDF)—and there are already signs that attempts to flesh out at the legislative level what exactly the JSDF could or couldn’t do in support of the US in a conflict mightn’t come to fruition any time soon. Lastly, the Japanese side’s apparently frustrated that the interim report emphasizes the alliance’s global role but makes no mention of China.

We’ll have to see what the final guidelines bring. But in any case, it’s prudent to expect evolutionary, not revolutionary, changes in the USJapan alliance—and in Japan’s defense policy in particular.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. 

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Why the Battle for Kobane Matters (and Doesn't Matter)

The Buzz

If you relied only on the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that the focus of the fight against ISIS has been on the Syrian city of Kobane.

This is thanks to the easy access for international media to the Turkish side of the border near Kobane and the resulting images, as well as the work of the Kurds and their associated lobby groups who want the world to focus on their issues. At one point the Australian Broadcasting Cooperation (ABC) even claimed that a hill near the town was “strategic.” Tactically important perhaps, but strategic? I don't think so.

As US Secretary of State John Kerry noted, the US does not consider Kobane a defining element of the coalition strategy. Rather, it quite rightly sees that Iraq is ISIS’ main effort and hence the bulk of Washington's force is directed there.

Kobane's value though, lies in what it represents more than what it is. One of the principles of war that applies to insurgent groups as much as it does to conventional armies is the maintenance of momentum. If you have momentum, then you force your opposition to make reactive decisions under pressure that often turn out to be sub-optimal. You can also create fear and panic in the opposition, as ISIS showed in its attack on Mosul and subsequent drive south, which resulted in the collapse of several Iraqi army divisions. ISIS has also relied on battlefield victories to replenish its ammunition stocks and gain military equipment and recruits.

The capture of Mosul, though, may well represent a high point in ISIS's campaign.

While the group is still pressing its advantage in al-Anbar province in Iraq, it has lost Mosul dam and has been investing in Kobane for over a month without success. If it is unable to capture Kobane, it will have lost significant personnel and resources against some Kurdish irregulars (with coalition air support) for little to no gain. One of ISIS's lines of operation will have stalled, and very publicly so.

ISIS is a media savvy organization and it realizes that being beaten back in Kobane would be a very public loss. And in the social media world ISIS inhabits, a public loss can also be a strategic one. Images of coalition airstrikes and Kurdish fighters tearing down ISIS flags don't do much for ISIS's reputation as a near-invincible jihadist war machine, an image on which it has relied for much of its success to date.

Kobane also offers the coalition opportunities greater than the limited value of the town itself. In the past week the coalition has increased its support for the Kurdish fighters, indicating a willingness to fight for the town's defense. This limited action offers some significant practical benefits for the coalition. It will be learning much about integrating airstrikes with indigenous forces and can use the Kobane battle as a live run for future actions against ISIS in Iraq. At the same time, the coalition is able to degrade ISIS forces in the region, which appear to be reinforcing failure in their assault on Kobane.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Flickr. 

TopicsISIS RegionsSyria

America’s Air-Sea Battle Concept: An Attempt to Weaken China’s A2/AD Strategy

The Buzz

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the recent China Policy Institute Report - America’s Air-Sea Battle Concept: An Attempt to Weaken China’s A2/AD Strategy. You can read the full report here.

Significance:

Over the last several years, American military planners have begun the complex task of reorienting U.S. military capabilities towards presumed challenges of the future. While such planning may be slowed thanks to U.S. and allied operations against the “Islamic State”, strategists from both political parties recognize long-term trends in military technology along with the diffusion of advanced, precision strike weapons guarantee that fundamental changes in U.S. military planning, procurement, and overall grand strategy are needed to preserve existing military dominance.

What We Need To Know:

Beginning in roughly 2007 under the George W. Bush administration with a new U.S. Navy maritime strategy, a shift away from counterinsurgency operations began. Indeed, U.S. defensive planners since the early 2000’s have become increasingly concerned over the emergence of what China calls “counter-intervention operations” or what many in the West refer to as Anti-Access-Area Denial (A2/AD) military challenges. Such a strategy, broadly stated, attempts to slow, limit, deny or deter a superior technologically advanced foe from conducting threatening military operations. Using a combination of various military platforms such as ultra-quiet diesel submarines, over 80,000 sea mines, various types of cyber warfare, anti-satellite weapons and swarm attacks by ballistic and cruise missiles Chinese military planners are constructing what various scholars have referred to as an “assassin’s mace” of A2/AD capabilities. Chinese strategists in most scenarios assume United States military forces and their allies would be the intended target in scenarios ranging from military action over the East and South China Seas, operations concerning Taiwan, and increasingly over any and all areas in and around the first island chain.

Just as past experiences—events like the 1995-1996 Taiwan Crisis and the 2001 Hainan Island Crisis—have pushed China towards an A2/AD-based strategy, America’s own history will guide its response to future challenges with A2/AD being a major part of Washington’s post “war on terror” strategic outlook. American military planners have long considered A2/AD challenges an area of priority stretching back at least as far a  1992, when the first reference of the term “anti-access” was used in a largely forgotten RAND study. Since then, specifically since 2007 onward, U.S. strategic thinkers have considered a number of options that could negate the impact of A2/AD tactics and weapons platforms, with heavy focus squarely aimed at specific Chinese A2/AD military capabilities.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

A Perfect Solution to Nuclear Talks with Iran: A Deal Deemed Imperfect by All

The Buzz

In today’s Middle East, dysfunction is a bigger enemy than hostile states. The United States needs as many partners as possible in this part of the world to tackle the current chaos. Relations between Iran, a dominant state in the region, and the West are today at a vital crossroads. Reaching a deal with Tehran will not only constrain its nuclear program, but potentially pave the way for engagement on regional security issues.

The rise of ISIS and the instability left behind by the Arab Spring has cemented dysfunction in the Middle East. While hostile states are undesirable, deterring or defeating them is still within the realm of possibilities for a country like the United States. But no one has a solution to utter chaos.

Strong regional partners are vital to managing the current disorder. States like Turkey and Saudi Arabia partially fulfill that role. But Iran is a dominant state in the region. It is large, resource rich and a potentially powerful partner in an unstable region. It is the largest country in the Middle East with the capacity to pursue a serious international agenda. A nonhostile relationship with a Tehran who could be convinced not to want nuclear weapons would be worth its weight in gold.

The future course of the West’s relationship with Iran hangs on reaching a nuclear deal. For better or worst, meaningful dialogue with Iran is predicated on resolving this issue—all other problems have taken a back seat over the past two decades. If the negotiators aren’t able to bridge their differences, then there will be little future dialogue with Iran.

Aside from constraining Iran’s nuclear activities, a deal would boost President Rouhani’s more moderate agenda domestically. While a strong, liberal and independent Iran will naturally pursue its own interests, it will be more sympathetic to Western goals if it develops ties with the EU and the United States. Iran could be coaxed into a role as part of the international community, not in opposition to it. Dialogue could become the norm, rather than the exception.

In Iraq, both sides are conscious of the role the other can take in effectively tackling ISIS. Washington and Tehran share the same goals: avoid Iraq’s partition and defeat ISIS. Iran is more committed to Iraq than any other regional player. Last time Iraq’s interests were fundamentally opposed to Iran’s there was a devastating, eight-year-long war. Not only does ISIS threaten Iran’s interests in Iraq, but it poses a direct threat to Iran’s borders—something Iran hasn’t seen in a long time.

ISIS can’t be defeated with just U.S.-led airstrikes. The coalition needs local and regional support. Of course, it’s politically impossible for either side to openly cooperate with one another. No one envisages joint combat roles, but instead separate and complementary tactical approaches and coordination between the coalition and Iran to effectively tackle ISIS. But very little can be done until the nuclear file has been dealt with.

If there is no deal, the hardliners in Tehran will be strengthened. The failure of the talks will be attributed to the West and their “excessive demands.” Tehran will turn away from the United States and the EU towards countries that are less selective in their foreign relations, such as China and Russia. Iran will continue its often-obstructive foreign policy, because it will have little interest in contributing to Western foreign-policy goals in the region.

It’s imperative that both sides explore all avenues for overlap in the nuclear talks. Tehran believes the P5+1’s demands are “excessive.” For Iran, the key issue is to avoid the reality or appearance of coercion. What would happen to President Obama if he appeared to give in to bullying by a foreign power? The same goes for Tehran—it can’t accept a deal that makes it look like it said “yes” with its tail between its legs.

But the P5+1 seems to have a more flexible negotiating position than the Iranians give it credit for. If the P5+1 can effectively communicate this to Iran, then a settlement is plausibly within reach.

By definition, a successful agreement will be one where neither side feels it has achieved a perfect deal. But if the P5+1 and Iran reach a comprehensive deal, it will constrain Iran’s nuclear program, boost Rouhani’s liberalism in Iran and pave the way for a new era where the West can more comfortably coordinate with Iran on regional crises. Everyone will be better off. 

TopicsDiplomacyNonproliferationNuclear Weapons RegionsIranUnited StatesEurope

The Biggest Threat to U.S. Jobs: The "Contestability" Nightmare

The Buzz

The Federal Reserve’s mandate has never been well defined, and there are no concrete definitions to adhere to. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has begun to deviate from the traditional characterization of full employment to something far more nebulous. Recognizing this shift is critical to understanding the Fed, and its new relationship with the two esoteric mandates of stable prices and full employment. 

At a conference in Boston, Yellen stated that she was concerned about rising inequality. Before listing off a blistering round of statistics that show the US has become more unequal over the past few decades, Yellen succinctly articulates why the Great Recession was responsible for widening the gap further: “But widening inequality resumed in the recovery, as the stock market rebounded, wage growth and the healing of the labor market have been slow, and the increase in home prices has not fully restored the housing wealth lost by the large majority of households for which it is their primary asset.”

One piece in particular of the above statement stands out—and has broad implications for the understanding the Fed mandate. A normal recovery would see wage growth and the labor market move together in a lagged fashion—the labor market heals and tightens, followed by wage increases as labor becomes increasingly scarce. But this has not happened during the current recovery, and it has not occurred economy wide in quite some time.

The new target for the Fed may be best described as not simply “full employment” but "full wages". At first glance, it seems unreasonable for the Chair of the Federal Reserve to be concerned with how the income of the country gets dispersed. However, in many ways, “full wages” are at the intersection of the fed mandates. In essence, Yellen is admitting that the past few decades were not kind to a significant swath of the US, and that this endangers future economic growth.

Many of the jobs US middle skilled workers once took for granted can now easily be outsourced or contested—even some previously thought untouchable. This “contestability” is increasing as more jobs become relocateable or replaceable with computing power due to advances in communications technology. Contestability is fundamental to Yellen’s concern. If a US job is contestable internationally, then US workers are competing with cheap labor around the world. This limits the bargaining power of the US worker, and keeps a lid on wage inflation in the US. The cheap-but-educated global labor force is becoming an increasing threat to the US worker.

Yellen sees this middle skilled squeeze phenomenon in the data, but also sees the lack of deflationary wage pressure on the top of the income ladder. The highest paying jobs tend to have little competition from outside—requiring creativity and high levels of education. The question to ask is why this has occurred, and whether the factors underlying it are dangerous to the US economy.

And in many ways—they are dangerous. If ignored long enough, the disintermediation of the middle class is at best disinflationary and may be deflationary. With stagnant wages across the economy, the middle cannot increase consumption—one can only borrow so much. If contestability continues to erode the wages of US middle skilled workers, wages could be pressured or even decrease toward more internationally competitive levels. This would be disastrous for consumption and inflation expectations, especially in a service oriented economy where many of the jobs could be at risk. 

If the U.S. continues to see this type of wage pressure, there may be enough jobs (for people who want them), but the ability to consume at previous levels will not be there. Deflation—generally—is bad for an economy, and wage deflation might be the worst kind. Deflation puts pressure on prices, making it more difficult to consume on the aggregate as the economy previously did. The standard of living declines. Further, the potential for wage pressures, in the current recovery, is low. The jobs created during the recovery disproportionately skew towards part-time relative to previous recoveries, and part-time jobs do not yield much bargaining power. There are few reassurances about the labor market.

This puts the Fed in a particularly odd place. Its mandate is supposed to be two separate pieces of a puzzle, but Yellen appears to have identified an intersection. The Fed runs the risk of missing both its “full employment” and “stable price” mandates without pursuing—either explicitly or implicitly—a “full wage” target.

Yellen’s statement has little to do with fairness or equality. It is directly connected to ensuring the US has created enough uncontestable jobs for the Fed to step away, and these jobs are the type that will lead to—or at least allow for—future wage pressures. Prime examples are the jobs created by the current shale oil boom and housing construction during the boom through 2006. Many of the jobs created for the oil patch require the presence of the worker—and cannot be done without a significant amount of education. These characteristics make them difficult to offshore or relocate. As quantitative easing begins to roll-off, the ability of the US shale revolution to stand on its own will be tested, and the jobs engine of Texas may suffer. This would be a tremendous hit to a sector where wage pressures exist, and the contestability is low. The Fed should be watching this closely.

Yellen's wage war is a battle the US does not know it must win. For the Fed, it ties together both pieces of its mandate, and gives them a reasonable basis for stimulus when observers feel it unnecessary. The Fed is muddling the mandate to fight a wage war, but the Fed will struggle to justify its continuous actions to counteract those forces. The middle skills squeeze is not a swiftly passing phenomenon. It may mean that extraordinary monetary policy and unconventional intervention are increasingly normal.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsUnited States

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