APR 28, 2015

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan held a summit meeting at the White House today in conjunction with Abe’s official visit to the United States, the first by a Japanese prime minister in nine years. The visit demonstrates the strength of this alliance to audiences at home in Japan and the United States and in Asia, a region increasingly challenged by uncertainty about the rise of China. The summit meeting was anchored by three core themes.  First, the two leaders endorsed new guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation in response to a range of regional and global security challenges. Second, they reaffirmed a commitment to strengthen the economic pillar of the alliance by concluding bilateral trade negotiations linked to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and addressed cooperation on global issues including development cooperation, climate change, global health and nuclear security. Third, history also features in the bilateral relationship this year, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and on April 29 Prime Minister Abe is expected to reflect on the past and discuss the evolution of the U.S.-Japan alliance as the first Japanese leader to address a joint session of Congress.  Abe’s visit signifies a joint effort to further develop a strategic framework for the alliance based on shared regional and global interests.

Q1: What is the meaning of the defense guidelines?

A1: On April 27 the bilateral Security Consultative Committee or “2+2”, composed of the U.S. secretaries of state and defense and their Japanese counterparts, released updated guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation.  The 1960 bilateral security treaty obligates the United States to defend Japan in exchange for access to bases in Japan for maintaining regional peace and security. This foundation for the U.S.-Japan alliance remains intact but Japanese defense policy and bilateral cooperation have evolved over time in response to changes in the security environment. Guidelines for defense cooperation were first introduced in 1978 to clarify priorities for the defense of Japan during the Cold War and were updated in 1997 to incorporate regional security. However, actual planning proved difficult without knowing whether Japan would exercise the right of collective self-defense, or come to the aid of U.S. forces under attack.  The new guidelines are intended to build on defense policy reforms announced by the Abe government last year including measures that would allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to exercise collective self-defense, a right of all nations under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

The new guidelines impact bilateral security cooperation in two fundamental ways. First, they broaden the scope of functional cooperation to include a range of areas such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, air and missile defense, maritime security, space and cyber, peacekeeping operations, partner capacity building, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and noncombatant evacuation operations. Second, the guidelines deepen bilateral security cooperation by further integrating SDF and U.S. military operations, as well as coordination with third countries. Requisite legislation detailing SDF operations will be subject to parliamentary approval and submitted for debate later this spring, but the new guidelines reference the ability of the SDF to respond not only to an armed attack against Japan but also an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan if it threatens Japan’s survival and the Japanese people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as prescribed in the Japanese constitution. Possible examples of SDF operations referenced in the guidelines include asset protection (during non-combatant evacuation operations, for example), search and rescue, maritime operations (minesweeping; escort operations; interdiction), intercepting ballistic missiles and logistics support. The United States and Japan do not have a joint and combined command like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the U.S. alliance with the Republic of Korea. In fact, Japan’s new policy on collective self-defense focuses on integration with U.S. or other forces from the rear and not on offensive operations.

The guidelines also emphasize joint research, development and production of defense equipment to reflect the Abe government’s decision to relax restrictions on arms exports with the potential to enhance economic efficiency and interoperability between the two militaries. In the face of budgetary constraints in both capitals, jointness and interoperability are critical capabilities for the alliance that can strengthen deterrence in the Asia Pacific region. The two governments have noted that the guidelines are not bound by geography nor aimed at any specific country, but the reality is that this new chapter in U.S.-Japan defense cooperation is in part a response to the increasing threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs as well as China’s military build-up and recent assertiveness in support of its maritime sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas. The two governments should not shy away from discussing the importance of strengthening deterrence to maintain regional security while exploring opportunities to reduce tensions when possible.

Q2: Will the summit inject momentum into bilateral negotiations over TPP?

A2: The two leaders issued a joint vision statement for the alliance including a shared commitment to regional economic prosperity based on efforts to promote high standards for trade and investment through TPP. The statement welcomed “significant progress” in bilateral trade negotiations linked to the broader agreement and reiterated a commitment to bring negotiations with the other parties to a successful conclusion. Prime Minister Abe noted in an interview prior to his departure from Japan that the two governments were close to concluding a bilateral agreement but Japanese tariffs on rice and U.S. tariffs on automobile parts remain sticking points. The introduction of trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation in the Congress and President Obama’s vocal defense of trade liberalization in recent weeks have improved the prospects for TPP in Washington, but the politics of trade remain complicated. The Abe visit to Washington had been widely viewed as an action-forcing event for completing the bilateral deal and giving momentum to the 12-country negotiations, and the lack of an agreement will disappoint and worry TPP advocates. TPP is critical to Japan’s economic reform agenda and the credibility of the U.S. strategic rebalance to Asia. Based on the progress they achieved bilaterally, Tokyo and Washington are likely to step up their efforts over the next several weeks to persuade the other ten TPP countries to quickly conclude an overall deal.

Q3: Are there other issues animating the bilateral agenda?

A3: The joint vision statement and an accompanying fact sheet also emphasize cooperation on global issues such as climate change, energy, sustainable growth, development cooperation, global health, countering violent extremism, maritime security, advancing human rights, promoting girls education and women’s empowerment, and strengthening United Nations peacekeeping. The two governments also released a statement on nuclear security in conjunction with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York and committed to strengthening the treaty’s three pillars of nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The bilateral agenda clearly places great emphasis on promoting globally recognized rules and norms and strengthening regional and global institutions.

Q4: Is history a factor? 

A4: August marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Abe government is expected to issue a statement reflecting on history. The U.S.-Japan joint vision statement issued today notes that the U.S.-Japan relationship is a model of the power of reconciliation as one-time adversaries were able to develop an alliance based on shared values and common interests.  President Obama accompanied Prime Minister Abe to the Lincoln Memorial on April 27 and referenced this stop during a joint press conference today when discussing the importance of reconciliation in a bilateral context. Abe also visited the Holocaust Museum and Arlington Cemetery. Broad public support for the alliance in Japan and the United States notwithstanding, history is a theme for the bilateral relationship.

There is broad support for Japan in Asia and recent polls show 96 percent of Southeast Asians have a positive view of Japan. China continues to hold up history as an obstacle to regional diplomacy but the key for the United States is the Republic of Korea, a close U.S. ally that would like Abe to issue a fresh apology to the euphemistically named “comfort women” forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during the war. In a joint press conference with the president today Abe said he was “deeply pained to think about the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking.” Observers will focus intently on how Abe chooses to address history issues in his address to Congress on April 29.

Q5: Is the U.S.-Japan alliance on track? 

A5: Despite questions about whether the Obama administration might embrace Chinese president Xi Jinping’s call for a “new model of great power relations” that would implicitly diminish Japan’s status, this summit should leave no doubt about the centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance to U.S. strategy in Asia and Japanese foreign policy.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Matt Goodman holds the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy and is senior adviser for Asian Economics at CSIS. Nicholas Szechenyi is deputy director and senior fellow at the CSIS Japan Chair.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

About AMTI Leadership

Dr. Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Executive Advisor to AMTI. Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.