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Issues & Insights Vol. 16 – No. 15 – The US-Japan Alliance as a Regional Problem Solving Mechanism

Asia lacks a coherent security architecture. Despite a rich overlay of structures that address a spectrum of security concerns, no single institution or organization has the membership or the capacity to address urgent security challenges. One of the most important elements of Asia’s current and future security system is the US alliance network. That network is indispensable to the protection of US interests in the region, as well as those of its allies and other regional states; it has provided the stability that makes regional security and prosperity possible. For others, however, and despite those benefits, those alliances are “Cold War relics,” instruments of US hegemony and primacy or shields that allow allies to shirk their responsibility to contribute to regional security.

The US and its allies continue to modernize those alliances, updating and adapting them to new realities and the capabilities of each partner. They are pillars of the “rebalance to Asia,” and offer opportunities for outreach and efforts to work with like-minded countries. That cooperation includes potential adversaries, reasoning that the possibility of conflicts in some situations doesn’t preclude cooperation in others – and hoping that cooperative efforts will build trust and confidence that reduces tensions.

In recent years, Japan has accelerated its efforts to “normalize” its security policies, a process that make it better able to defend itself, facilitate more contributions to regional security, and allow it to be a better partner and ally of the United States. Japan seeks to be a more responsible nation, and is moving in that direction, although significant constraints persist. One of the most important is the need to build trust with its most vital security partners, South Korea and China.

The US, Japan, South Korea, and China – and others – share interests and security concerns in Asia. They see the status quo as unsustainable and they are looking for workable and enduring solutions. They all acknowledge that common sense and empathy is required to find them. Too often, however, conversations are monologues in which participants speak past each other, hearing only that which confirms pre-existing views. All are inclined to use the instruments of power and order that support their case without looking for mutually beneficial outcomes. In short, zero-sum thinking prevails.

South Koreans display considerable ambivalence toward the US-Japan alliance. They understand the importance of a forward-looking relationship with Japan and many assume that the alliance will play a vital role in a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, while subsidiary to that of the US-ROK alliance. Since the security outlook in Seoul is dominated by peninsular concerns, the utility of an alliance that deals with problems elsewhere is diminished because the urgency of those problems is diminished as well. Korean ambivalence is compounded by the rancor created by Japan’s brutal behavior on the Korean Peninsula during the first half of the 20th century, residual anxieties about Japanese intentions, and some resentment about Washington’s privileging of Tokyo’s relationship with the US over that of Seoul.

Winning Chinese acquiescence to an expanded alliance role will be difficult. China’s rise has rendered it, in the eyes of many in Washington and Tokyo (and to a lesser degree in Seoul), a revisionist power that seeks to upend the regional status quo. For security planners in those capitals, Beijing is a target of the alliance, not a partner. Not surprisingly, that delegitimizes the alliance in Chinese thinking; it is considered an instrument of containment, not a problem-solving mechanism. Self-aware Chinese concede that their rhetoric and behavior have created suspicions about Beijing’s intentions and in some cases backed China into a corner. The recognition that all parties have contributed to regional tensions is essential to progress in forging cooperation to regional challenges.

Greater transparency is sought by all countries and the readiness of the US and Japan to use their alliance as a tool to enable regional cooperation could serve that end. Washington and Tokyo must disabuse China of two ideas: first, that there is any prospect of the alliance’s deterioration or end – anything that might support the idea that it might be approaching the end of its lifespan and the claim that it is indeed “a Cold War relic” – and second, that it is implacably hostile to China and that there is no room for cooperation or joint action. Beijing must be encouraged to envision ways that the US-Japan partnership can work with China on behalf of Chinese interests.

There was support for more military exercises by the US with allies and partners, along with observers from other countries. Militaries and security establishments need more dialogues – official and track two – to facilitate communication, encourage frank discussion, and build confidence, as well as prepare for a range of contingencies. Maritime domain awareness is one area in which the four countries (and others) can work together. The four governments could also begin to identify, in as much detail as possible, potential crises throughout Asia, their triggers, their impact, and ways the region can respond.

Multilateral cooperation is an increasingly essential component of the Asian security outlook. The US alliance system is for many the most obvious and enticing mechanism for multilateral coordination. Washington and Tokyo must ensure that their alliance remains relevant to and ready for the entire spectrum of regional security challenges. They should offer opportunities and partnerships to all regional governments that are prepared to cooperate to counter instability and maintain peace. Securing Chinese participation in such efforts is a long shot, but it is not impossible, especially if that offer is part of a larger package of measures that provides Beijing a role in regional security management.