The new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines will upgrade bilateral operational cooperation and enhance the alliance structure. The new Guidelines enable Japanese and U.S. forces to conduct effective combined operations defending each other’s units and assets in the high seas—even beyond Japanese territorial waters. The new Alliance Coordination Mechanism will endorse this upgraded operational cooperation. Under this new Mechanism, the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) and U.S. military will share information and situational awareness from peacetime to gray-zone and full-fledged military contingencies, while coordinating bilateral responses. The Guidelines will have huge implications for U.S.-Japan cooperation in the maritime domain.

For the last several years, China has been challenging Japanese territory and sovereignty in the East China Sea. China recognizes that the overall military balance still favors Japan and the United States, and therefore takes measures short of armed attack to avoid U.S. military intervention. The first responder to Chinese gray-zone challenges in the East China Sea is the Japan Coast Guard (JCG). By involving JCG in the Alliance Coordination Mechanism, the alliance can effectively respond to Chinese creeping coercion. The new Guidelines will also allow the JSDF and US forces to prepare flexible deterrent options (FDOs) for escalation control. By demonstrating its will and determination through the deployment of allied units, the alliance can dominate escalation.

The new Guidelines will enhance overall deterrence too. An increasingly important aspect of alliance deterrence is its ability to respond to China’s precision strike capabilities. The new Guidelines refer to dispersion, hardening, and resiliency of existing facilities to deal with China’s ballistic missile threat vis-à-vis, for instance, Kadena Airbase in Okinawa. Even after a Chinese ballistic missile attack, the alliance will maintain counterattack capabilities using other military and commercial facilities, while rapidly recovering damaged ones.

The new Guidelines also define the division of labor between the JSDF and U.S. military for island defense. This is to endorse US commitment to defend the Senkaku Islands and the entire Japanese southwestern island chain. The traditional alliance division of labor was spear and shield—U.S. forces provide offensive strike capabilities and JSDF provide defensive measures. In island defense, however, the JSDF takes the primary responsibility through the Dynamic Joint Defense Force, while the U.S. military plays a supporting role with strategic strike capabilities.

Maritime security and the protection of freedom of navigation without geographical restriction is a core of the new Guidelines. The alliance will continue to be a major security provider for the Taiwan Strait. Given the ongoing Chinese land reclamation and nuclear submarine (SSBN) program in the South China Sea, the new Guidelines will enable Japan-U.S. cooperation for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) in these troubled waters. Japanese ISR activities in the South China Sea will not only secure freedom of navigation but also maintain the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The new Guidelines also assume bilateral cooperation for minesweeping and ship inspection in the international waters.

The new Guidelines call for cooperation with third parties. The alliance can work more with Australia in the Pacific and India in the Indian Ocean. The alliance can conduct more effective and efficient capacity building for countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, too. U.S.-Japan cooperation for the new Australian submarine program will enhance underwater superiority of the alliance in the Pacific.

The Guidelines need to be endorsed by Japanese domestic security legislation reform. The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito has already agreed on the content of the legislation, and they will pass it in the Diet by summer. The new security legislation will allow the JSDF to use force, only in a situation that threatens Japan’s national survival. But how that is defined remains to be seen— Komeito is still reluctant to regard a threat to Japanese sea lanes as a threat to national survival. Seventy years ago, Japan was defeated not by atomic bombing but by commercial raid. To make the new Guidelines work for maritime security, Japanese political leaders need to reach a consensus on the importance of sea lanes, and their role in national defense.

About Tetsuo Kotani

Tetsuo Kotani is a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) and also a lecturer at Hosei University. He was a visiting scholar at Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Mr. Kotani’s research focus is the US-Japan alliance and maritime security, and he won the 2003 Japanese Defense Minister Prize.