pacific forum History of Pacific Forum

Issues and Insights Vol. 14, No. 14 – Changes in Japan Push the Alliance Forward

Japanese version of report available here

The Pacific Forum with support from the Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering WMD (PASCC) and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), held a US-Japan Strategic Dialogue on July 25, 2014. Twenty-nine US and Japanese experts, officials, military officers, observers, and 10 Pacific Forum Young Leaders attended, all in their private capacities. Key findings include:

The state of the alliance is good. There was virtually no discussion of traditional hot- button issues. Japanese had few complaints about US behavior, commitment, or support for Japan or the alliance. There remain important concerns about a divergence among the allies regarding China, however, particularly with regard to “gray-zone” provocations. Stronger deterrence of medium- and high-end conflicts is important to dissuade Beijing from engaging in low-level provocations. Washington and Tokyo also need to coordinate planning and responses in the event of a contingency over the Senkakus.

All participants agreed that the reinterpretation of the right of collective self-defense (CSD) would have far less impact on Japanese security policy and behavior than many (especially within the region) anticipate or fear. There would be no fundamental change in the role or capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces. One significant challenge will be managing the “expectation gap” between what Americans might envision Japan doing and what Japan might actually do.

Some participants warned that even this minimal change in Japanese security policy might be more than the Japanese public would support. Japanese participants added that some politicians might object to the change, but they are cowed by Prime Minister Abe’s popularity ratings – implying that the ruling coalition could fracture on this issue if Abe’s support rate drops.

Japanese and Americans agreed that the real significance of changes in CSD is not to be found in high intensity situations, but in expansion of the scope of peacetime operations, such as joint patrols. Americans in particular emphasized the value of being able to train and plan together.

On a range of issues, and CSD in particular, Japanese bristled at Korean complaints. Japanese worry that on hot-button items, no Japanese response will suffice because Koreans will move the goalposts. Some Japanese participants worry more about “Korea passing” in Japan than Korea bashing. Americans stressed the need to explain what CSD does and does not entail to Japan’s neighbors.

Japanese participants rejected the idea that a Japanese prime minister had no say in the use of bases in Japan for rear-area support for a Korean Peninsula contingency. As one explained, this could subject Japan to a North Korean attack – trading Tokyo for Seoul – and no Japanese leader could be sidelined in such a decision.

“Gray zone” provocations consumed the majority of discussion. The alliance division of labor in gray zone contingencies is unclear. Americans worry that the US-Japan alliance would not be able to match the US-ROK plans for a coordinated response as agreed upon post- Yongpyeongdo.

Planning by the US and Japan should go beyond technical issues to promote the resilience of US bases in Japan, including the hardening and survivability of facilities, and wider dispersal issues, such as the use of civilian and commercial ports and airports.

Japanese worried that the US could set their country up for failure in such situations: expecting their country to do more in such contingencies while simultaneously cautioning Tokyo against actions that would antagonize China.

The United States must signal to all nations in Asia that efforts to promote greater activity by alliance partners is an attempt to strengthen deterrence and is not a sign of – or effort to stave off – US decline.

As the US and its allies think about broader forms of multilateral cooperation – such as linking alliances – all parties must agree on the ultimate objective of such efforts.

Maritime capacity building should be a key dimension of multilateral efforts by the US and Japan, in particular maritime domain awareness that provides a common multilateral operating picture.

Japanese participants also emphasize that the most important part of the bilateral defense guidelines review process is the war planning that follows the review.