The new guidelines will make a common operational coordination system part of the daily regimen. This is essential for dealing with the ongoing grey zone challenges around the Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands). But the bilateral coordination mechanism is also meant to be allow “seamless” operations whether the alliance if facing another 3/11 disaster, a 9/11-type major terror attack, or military conflict in the East China Sea or over North Korea. That should ease the ability to pivot from a homeland security to a national security crisis to a whole-of-government or even whole-of-society response.
Another crucial change in these guidelines is the provision that will set in motion further growth in cooperation over how to deal with challenges in cyber and outer space. More questions than answers remain in these areas, including what kind of response would be triggered if one ally or the other found its computer networks or satellites under attack. But by underlining the mounting significance of these domains, the allies signal their determination to make defense cooperation in these areas a high priority in the years ahead.
But there are momentous questions that remain unanswered that are likely to determine the historic importance of these guidelines. The first concerns strategy and the second centers on implementation.
While the guidelines are not meant to address strategy it is impossible to claim a radical alliance transformation without embedding it in strategic understanding. Strategic ambiguity is fine, but the United States and Japan still need to convince their publics and the region that they share a common and far-sighted vision for an inclusive, peaceful, rules-based region. In other words, all defense preparations and bilateral coordination mechanisms are means to larger political ends. If historic Chinese strategic thinking is any guide, then Beijing ultimately seeks less to fight war than to win the peace. We must be equally determined and prepared to advance our interests and values for a similar end.
Of course a common strategy and common interests are necessary but insufficient bases for preserving an effective alliance. Alliances also take constant attention to produce value. This is why some have likened alliance management to gardening. The new guidelines mark a sea change in alliance intent and organization, but they will only be as successful as the day-to-day follow through. This includes, in Japan, following through on the critical legal basis for Japan’s proactive policies. At this juncture, by the end of the summer the Diet seems likely to pass the dozen or so pieces of law necessary to put teeth into the Prime Minister’s plan. That will allow Japan the legal right of collective-self defense, at least under specified conditions, as well as more expansive alliance integration—for instance, the right of the Maritime Self Defense Force to conduct joint patrols out to the South China Sea. In the United States, it means not just using the bilateral coordination mechanism to play point defense on territorial disputes, but using it as a basis to catalyze wider and deeper strategic discussion. It also means working to bring new actors to the table of alliance discussions, from coast guard and law enforcement to those with interests and responsibilities in cyber and outer space.
Meanwhile, as we have seen during the previous nearly-two-decade-long periods between previous sets of guidelines, the world and regional security landscape will not stand still. The process of adapting to emerging challenges is a constant imperative. Nonetheless, the ascent and trajectory of the alliance from April 28, 1952 to that of April 28, 2015 is nothing short of astonishing.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
Image: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson