The new Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation, announced on April 27, have been celebrated by many as something “historic.” The U.S.-Japan Joint Vision Statement, issued following the meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 28, referred to the new guidelines as a mechanism that will “transform” the alliance. The new guidelines offer a set of defense cooperation principles that will allow the U.S. military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to plan operational cooperation without being tied to emergency situations or contingency scenarios in specific geographic areas.
Indeed, the time was ripe for Washington and Tokyo to revise the guidelines. The original guidelines were created in 1979 to set the parameters for cooperation between the U.S. military and the SDF in case of military attack against Japan. Its revision in 1997 took place in a post-Cold War strategic environment when the two sides sought to redefine the U.S.-Japan alliance — which had been positioned as an anti-Soviet alliance — to be the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
The last revision began in earnest in the fall of 2013 after the foreign and defense ministers of both sides met in the Security Consultative Committee (“two-plus-two”) meeting. There were different drivers for the revision. On the one hand, Japan was primarily driven by concern over the increasing assertiveness demonstrated by China in the East China Sea area and the strong desire to clarify the U.S. military role in what are often referred to as “gray zone” situations — the use of coercive measures short of use of military force to challenge the status quo. On the other hand, the United States was driven by a desire to have Japan commit to a wider range of operations regionally and globally.
Japan’s participation in active combat was out of the question from the beginning, given the constitutional constraints that Japan remains under even with its reinterpretation of the Japanese Constitution’s Article 9. The United States was also sufficiently frustrated by China’s aggressive behavior in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea that reaffirmation of its obligation to come to Japan’s aid under Article 5 of the Mutual Security Treaty with Japan, along with the clarification of its role in potential responses to attempts to coercively change the status quo, was deemed necessary to demonstrate U.S. resolve to keep playing a role of security guarantor in the Asia-Pacific region. The bottom line was that Washington and Tokyo both saw the need for guidance for bilateral defense cooperation that allows greater flexibility for defense planners in both countries.
As such, the new guidelines pursue “seamless, robust, flexible and effective” bilateral responses and provide “the general framework and policy direction” for the cooperation necessary for such responses. Most notably to this end, the new guidelines announced that the United States and Japan will launch a new standing Alliance Coordination Mechanism (ACM) to “enhance operational coordination, and strengthen bilateral planning.” One of the major “lessons learned” from Operation Tomodachi in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, when it took the U.S. military and the SDF roughly a week to set up bilateral coordination teams, was the desirability of having a standing coordination mechanism for bilateral defense planning. The decision to establish the ACM is a step in this direction.
Furthermore, the new guidelines have identified outer space and cyberspace as the two major domains that have the great potential for bilateral defense cooperation. The necessity for U.S.-Japan cooperation in these two domains was first explicitly mentioned in the Joint Statement following the 2013 two-plus-two meeting. The reaffirmation of these two domains as new areas for deeper cooperation reflects the growing recognition both in Washington and in Tokyo that they will be strategically critical domains in which the United States and its allies must maintain superiority in order to face the security challenges of the 21st century.
Finally, the new guidelines referred to cooperation in defense equipment. Under the leadership of then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the U.S. Department of Defense launched a renewed effort to reform its acquisition process. Inheriting Gate’s effort, the Pentagon’s current top leadership — Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Deputy Secretary Robert Work and Undersecretary Frank Kendall — emphasize innovation and cooperation with foreign partners as key to this effort. In Japan, the Abe government’s revision of its arms export policy in April 2014 generated new energy in revitalizing the somewhat dormant Japanese defense industry. In other words, there is a growing synergy between the two countries toward facilitating broader and wider defense industrial cooperation.
So, all in all, the new guidelines suggest considerable potential for the U.S.-Japan alliance to reach a new level of partnership. There are still challenges, however. Most notably, the new guidelines are predominantly focused on how the two countries will respond to the security concerns that directly affect Japan’s security. In contrast, the new guidelines stops at very general description of how the two countries will cooperate in regional and global activities. This clearly reflects the current political reality in Japan. While the Japanese government decided to reinterpret Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution to allow itself to exercise the right of collective self-defense, the exercise of this right is expected to be very limited. Furthermore, the Japanese government has yet to propose the legislative package that will allow the SDF to assume wider roles in various circumstances. While the new guidelines set a useful parameter for future bilateral defense cooperation, its details will depend on what Japanese Diet ultimately authorizes.
Furthermore, even in the areas that do offer greater potential, what can actually be done depends on Tokyo’s action. For example, Japan’s own cyber and space capabilities are still very limited. While the 2013 National Defense Program Guidelines prioritize these two areas for SDF force planning, these capabilities cannot be developed overnight. Even in the areas of defense industrial cooperation, where there is a lot of excitement, Japan must first come up with its own defense industrial policy, including how to develop its domestic industrial base and how to establish safeguards for the technologies that are not only exported by Japanese companies but also come into Japan as its industry widens cooperation with foreign partners.
In short, the new guidelines lay out an ambitious agenda for the alliance, much of which requires Japanese action in order to fully maximize its potential. It is now time for Japan to deliver.
This article originally appeared in The Japan News on May 12, 2015.