The New and Improved U.S.- Japan Alliance: A Good Deal for Washington?

A revitalized alliance with Japan is making the U.S. position in Asia more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States, including the first ever address by a Prime Minister to a joint session of Congress and much other pomp and circumstance, is without doubt a historic occasion. But what’s in it for the United States? On the defense side, a lot, as it turns out.

The once-in-a-generation revision of the bilateral defense cooperation guidelines, which set out alliance roles and missions, makes the U.S. strategic position in Asia—to borrow a phrase from U.S. strategic documents and previous U.S.-Japan joint statements—more “geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable.” This vision is key for the United States to continue playing its critical stabilizing role both in the defense of Japan and in building a broader regional order, and the new guidelines harbor the potential to advance it on all three counts.

Geographically Distributed

One of the most significant innovations in the new guidelines is enabling the alliance to respond to emerging threats to Japan in new places and with new partners. What exactly constitute “situations that will have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security” is deliberately ambiguous and therefore flexible, but one plausible example is alliance defense of the sea lanes that carry Japanese goods and energy imports, as well as the skies above them.

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Previous policy allowed Japan to participate in defense of sea lines of communication, but with a radius of a thousand nautical miles from Japan—a range carefully delineated to preclude Japan’s involvement beyond the immediate environs of Taiwan. Moreover, Tokyo has for years operated under self-imposed constraints including abjuration of the right of collective self-defense. While gradual evolutions have widened the aperture over the years, Japan’s security activities have in the main been limited to bilateral cooperation with the United States.

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The new guidelines, however, permit both sides to contribute to maritime security across the globe. Recent reporting has suggested that the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) could take on a greater role in the South China Sea, including joint air patrols with the United States. Whether or not that specific proposal comes about, bringing to bear the world’s most capable bilateral security alliance will support the United States’ efforts to increase its security engagement with partners in Southeast Asia, including through joint partner capacity building and greater domain awareness in and above the South China Sea.

Even if it is not directly present, Japan’s provision of logistics support in areas closer to its shores can ease the U.S. burden of conducting expeditionary training, humanitarian assistance, or other operations in Southeast Asia.

At a higher end, the guidelines—contemplating Japan’s limited exercise of collective self-defense as sketched out by the Abe administration—allow for broad alliance cooperation in response to armed attacks against third countries “in a close relationship in Japan.” One could foresee a future in which the alliance declares that this policy applies to Vietnam or the Philippines—both countries with whom Japan is actively strengthening relations.

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Finally, as Abe mentioned in his speech, Japanese assistance with upgrades to facilities on Guam will provide a new venue for training, exercises, and other operations.

Operationally Resilient

Military operations are hard in Asia, and getting harder due to the proliferation of advanced technologies, including those in relatively new domains such as space and cyberspace.

The tyranny of distance makes even low-end, cooperative activities—such as finding an airliner tragically gone astray—exceedingly difficult, as scarce capabilities must be spread over vast areas.