The US-Japan Alliance—Truly “Global” Partners

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By Yuki Tatsumi – In recent years in Washington, discussion of the US-Japan relationship has revolved around the defense cooperation between the two countries. In particular, ever since Japan dispatched its Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to the Middle East in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as well as reconstruction efforts in Iraq, the only conversation topic around town has been how much more forward-leaning defense cooperation Japan can provide.  In fact, because of a grim prospect for Japan to maintain the pace in revising its security policy due to the political uncertainty at home, there is much pessimism that the US-Japan alliance will face a serious test for its effectiveness.  The argument with such a tone begs a simple but important question: is the US-Japan alliance only about bilateral defense cooperation?  

A March 14 conference co-hosted by the Stimson Center and the Embassy of Japan[1] was a refreshing reminder that the United States and Japan, two of the world’s largest economies, have a great deal to talk about beyond the narrow area of defense cooperation in order to meet the security challenges that the international community faces. For instance, conversations in the conference revealed that there is a great deal that the United States and Japan can achieve together on the issue of global climate change. The two countries also have much to offer in meeting the challenges—security and non-security alike—in post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Furthermore, they are both in a position to play key roles in sharing knowledge and technological know-how with the developing world in order to curb the illegitimate transfer of weapons of mass destruction and related materials. Most importantly, the United States and Japan can play critical roles in strengthening international institutions to ensure that they are well-funded and equipped with the tools necessary to explore global solutions for these challenges.

The United States and Japan share a great deal of concern about the security environments in different parts of the world as well. Needless to say, the United States and Japan share an interest in maintaining peace and stability in East Asia with an eye on the resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem as well as managing the rise of China. They both share an interest in encouraging developments in the Middle East that allow the region to emerge as a stable region that is not dominated by religious extremism. And the two countries also have a common interest in ensuring that Afghanistan and Pakistan will not revert to safe havens for international terrorists.

As much as Washington and Tokyo shares common interests and concerns, it has also become clear that the United States and Japan also have important differences in their perspectives of today’s global security environment. For instance, the two countries look at the 9-11 terrorist attacks very differently. For the Untied States, it constituted a direct attack against its values and its way of life. But for Japan, although the significance of 9/11 was understood, the incident was a much more distant experience, and Japan’s participation in the US-led war against terror was therefore perceived more as an act to demonstrate Japan’s responsibility to prove itself as a reliable US ally. While Japan is deeply interested in participating in global peace-building efforts, it is far more cautious about committing its armed forces to the endeavor than the Untied States.

But such differences in perspectives and preferred approaches should not cloud the very fact that the two countries do share a great deal in their security outlook, and that they can accomplish a great deal by working together to address their mutual concerns. In the public session that wrapped up the March 14 conference, Masafumi Ishii, Political Minister at the Embassy of Japan, argued that the time is ripe for the
United States and Japan to explore creative ways in which the bilateral alliance can be broadened both in its geographic scope and in the set of issues that it addresses. He proposed that the two countries begin the groundwork now so that the future leaders can announce a new vision for the alliance after the next round of election season concludes. Indeed, the agenda for such an end is extremely rich and the prospect for such conversation will be promising. The challenge for the two countries is how to stay focused on that goal as both countries enter highly political seasons.

[1] On 14 March 2008, the Stimson Center hosted an all-day seminar entitled “The United States and Japan: Working Together on Global Challenges.”  Throughout the day, mostly in off-the-record settings, former US government officials, foreign diplomats, international organization officials, and non-government experts engaged in a discussion on the global security challenges that the United States and Japan face in today’s world.

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