Assessing the Japan-U.S. security alliance in the face of evolving challenges in the Indo-Pacific region

February 25, 2019

Participants in a new SPF initiative to foster dialogue on migration issues
A panel of security specialists met at SPF in Tokyo for candid discussions about the Japan-U.S. security alliance

Nearly 70 current and former government and military officials, scholars, and security experts from Japan and the U.S. gathered in Tokyo from January 29–31 for the Japan-U.S. Security and Defense Dialogue Series, an annual workshop cohosted by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) and Stanford University's U.S.-Asia Security Initiative. The conference aims to facilitate candid discussions between security specialists and practitioners to cut through the official government rhetoric and engage on a practical level with the complex challenges facing the Japan-U.S. security alliance in the Indo-Pacific region.

The agenda for the 2019 workshop featured three main topics: recent security trends in the Indo-Pacific region; the impact of Japan's new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) on the Japan-U.S. security alliance, including implications for integrated air and missile defense as well as archipelagic defense; and the NDPG's relevance to the Japan-U.S. alliance and regional maritime security. While the Japanese and U.S. panelists acknowledged differences over certain security and diplomatic issues, the group overwhelmingly reaffirmed the centrality of the Japan-U.S. alliance to regional stability and underscored the value of preserving a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region through multilateral partnerships to manage points of friction and promote areas of agreement.

Japan's new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG)

The revised NDPG, a ten-year defense strategy presented by the Japanese government in December 2018, played a central role throughout the workshop discussions. When describing the provenance of the new guidelines, the Japanese side emphasized various changes in the regional balance of power and the rapid expansion of warfare into new domains, including space and cyber. "There's a sense of urgency to build capabilities to fight battles that are fought in the cross-domain environment," explained one Japanese participant. Other driving factors behind the new guidelines included the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, China's advancement into the maritime domain with the near-completion of its third aircraft carrier, and Russia's development of hybrid warfare including the weaponization of electromagnetic technology, cyberattacks, and fake news.

According to several U.S. participants, the reception of the NDPG has been positive, with U.S. government officials praising its emphasis on increasing operability between Japanese and U.S. forces, investing in technology to promote flexibility in new domains, and boosting Japan's defense capabilities in areas including the East China Sea. However, some U.S. panelists were disappointed that the guidelines did not include plans for a joint operations center in Japan to allow for closer coordination between Japanese and U.S. forces, with one participant suggesting that the current Japan-U.S. headquarters may be unable to handle a hypothetical war with China. "There are lots of models that could be considered, but the idea of having ceremonial commands [in Japan] and trying to fight a war from Hawaii is gone," said one U.S. panelist. Other U.S. participants also voiced concern that the guidelines may be too ambitious in scope and wondered how the Japanese government will prioritize and budget for the various initiatives to ensure smooth implementation.

Areas for continuing discussion in the U.S.-Japan alliance

While the participants overwhelmingly reaffirmed the strength of the Japan-U.S. alliance, the discussions also covered areas of difference over diplomatic strategy and domestic political issues. Regarding ongoing negotiations with North Korea, some participants worried about a potential decoupling of Japanese and U.S. strategy should Donald Trump agree to unfavorable terms during his upcoming summit meeting with Kim Jong Un. One Japanese participant argued that "of course ballistic missiles are important, but there must be denuclearization," noting that failure by the U.S. side to address both outcomes in negotiations would be "perilous" and result in a "strong rift" between the U.S. and Japan. Workshop discussions also touched on the recent deterioration of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea sparked by the accusation by the Japanese government that a South Korean destroyer locked on to a Japanese aircraft using the so-called "fire control" radar. Some U.S. participants worried that the dispute could interfere with Japan-U.S.-South Korea trilateral cooperation to contend with regional security challenges including North Korea.

Concerns about the Trump Administration's "America First" foreign policy also cast a shadow over discussions of multilateralism, with participants from both sides pointing out the contradiction between the security imperatives of the U.S. and the country's recent actions on the world stage. Several panelists argued that the U.S. seems determined to undermine relationships with allies and partners, withdraw from multilateral agreements, and generally step back from leadership positions in the region. However, members from the U.S. side applauded Japan for taking on leadership roles in regional efforts including the successful conclusion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) negotiations and increased political and military presence in the region.

China's presence in the Indo-Pacific region

While China did not appear on the written agenda, the country emerged as a central theme throughout the conference, with panelists discussing how Japan, the U.S., and likeminded partners should understand and contend with China's increasingly assertive diplomatic, economic, and military maneuvers throughout the Indo-Pacific region. One U.S. participant framed the larger competition with China as a struggle to win allies and partners in the region. "President Xi understands the importance of diminishing the U.S. presence by diminishing alliances in the region," remarked one U.S. panelist. Another participant noted that the U.S. has not presented a compelling case to attract new partners. "I have a hard time seeing a country in Asia on the U.S. side of the fence," said one U.S. panelist. "They're either a fence sitter or on the China side."

Both sides agreed that building regional partnerships is critical to contend with instability in the region, but also emphasized that forging coalitions between partners with varying interests requires creative policy solutions. Several participants advised that Japan and the U.S. should develop relationships with emerging regional players such as India and use the so-called "Quad" (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India) as a base for augmenting partnerships. Many also noted the benefit of Japan forging closer ties with countries that may be reluctant to ally too closely with the U.S., such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

Many panelists also expressed concern that China is employing a whole-of-government approach to achieve its foreign policy objectives while Japan, the U.S., and other partners have been unable to marshal a similarly comprehensive response. "If we are really confronting the greatest threat to the U.S. that we've ever experienced, our imagination hasn't caught up with that prescriptive diagnosis," warned one U.S. panelist. A member of the Japanese side argued that the international community needs to consider ways to approach strategic competition with China and articulate a coherent strategic goal, whether it be slowing down China's pursuit of global power, pressuring China to conform to existing international norms, or perhaps both.

Though much of the conversation about China focused on security threats and the need to develop counterstrategies, several panelists questioned the wisdom of categorizing China only as a strategic adversary and argued that portraying the country as a monolithic opponent ignores areas where China's success would buoy the international community. "It's more worrisome to consider the fall of China than the rise of China," argued one U.S. participant. "In the former, we all lose. In the latter, potentially we all win depending on the mechanism by which China rises." Another U.S. panelist pointed out that in some cases China has expressed legitimate grievances about existing institutions that merit consideration by the broader international community. A member from the Japanese side also noted that the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, originally coined by the Japanese government, does not seek to exclude China from the international community. Instead, countries must consider ways to encourage participation by China rather than pursuing a zero-sum competitive strategy.

While the workshop discussions covered a wide range of topics including certain areas of difference between the Japanese and U.S. sides, the event concluded with the participants emphasizing the importance of maintaining open and candid channels of communication, underscoring the value of events like the Japan-U.S. Security and Defense Dialogue Series in the face of collective challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

Jackie Enzmann, Chief Editor

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