On Monday, the U.S. and Japanese government announced the conclusion of their upgrade of their alliance.[1] The U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines have been revised for the second time since they were drafted in 1978, first in 1997 to respond to the early disruptions after the end of the Cold War, and today to cope with the increasing need for crisis management and for cooperation in the new domains of maritime, space and cyber security. If successful, these guidelines will ensure that there is seamless coordination between Tokyo and Washington, and a full understanding of how to avoid the escalation of conflict, especially in maritime Asia.

This effort to upgrade the alliance to a rapidly changing Asia is long overdue.   For more than a decade, alliance managers on both sides of the Pacific have hoped to develop a clearer understanding of the roles, missions and capabilities of the Japanese and U.S. militaries. Since the last guidelines, North Korea has gone nuclear, and while Japan has embraced ballistic missile defense in response,[2] North Korea’s episodic provocations continue to stoke fears in the region. Likewise, the increasing maritime presence of China in and beyond the East China Sea has raised concerns about what this might mean for the U.S. commitment to defend Japan. The Chinese decision to deploy its paramilitary ships, its white hulls, to patrol the Senkakus also raised new questions about the “grey zone” between law enforcement and maritime defenses, a grey zone that had long separated Japan’s own thinking about how to defend its coastal waters.[3]

Since tensions first spiked between Tokyo and Beijing after a Chinese fishing trawler captain rammed Japan Coast Guard vessels in 2010, the United States has worried about the deterioration of bilateral ties between the two Asian powers.[4]  The leadership change in Beijing raised questions about the new vision of Xi Jinping, and also affected the way in which both Tokyo and Washington could communicate their concerns to Beijing. When another round of tensions erupted in 2012, the introduction of Chinese vessels in the Senkaku waters brought the dangers of escalation to a new level, and by early 2013, it was clear that a mishap or misjudgment could easily propel China and Japan towards the use of military force. Many feared that heated popular sentiment would exacerbate the sovereignty dispute making the spiral of escalation especially difficult to control.[5]

The United States and Japan had experience in thinking about integrating force deployments and developing new capabilities to deter aggression, but they had far less experience in thinking about how to integrate their response to manage this kind of escalatory dynamic. Controlling incidents in the East China Sea before they involve militaries will depend on communication in real time between Japan’s Coast Guard and the Self Defense Force, and while the two agencies had established information sharing and discussed cooperation protocols since the arrival of North Korea’s suspicious ships in Japanese waters in the late 1990s, formal planning on incident management was far from complete. The U.S. forces stationed in and around Japan, too, played an important role in deterring aggression, but incidents below the level of a military threat were not part of the bilateral planning conversation.  To start with, Tokyo and Washington quickly identified the need for greater situational awareness and more coordination of their respective intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts.

But the larger question for the alliance, one that the Guidelines only begin to address, is how to avoid conflict in Asia’s maritime spaces. The East China Sea falls more easily into our traditional thinking about the scope of the alliance, and Japan’s new island defense priority emphasizes this mission. Yet we must also consider maritime cooperation beyond the defense of Japan scenario. Now that the Chinese maritime presence in and around the Senkakus has become regularized, a certain amount of predictability in the interactions between the coast guards has resulted.  After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with President Xi Jinping at last November’s APEC meeting, Tokyo and Beijing resumed their stalled effort at developing maritime confidence building.[6]   Xi’s recognition of the need for risk reduction was a critical step forward.  It also helped that in his meeting with President Barack Obama, Xi also signed on to naval confidence building norms and protocols as well.[7]   In other words, China’s confidence building conversations between the United States and Japan, respectively, offer some hope for managing the risk of unintended conflict. Here we should not forget that Taiwan’s interests too come into play, and President Ma Ying-jeou’s leadership in defusing Japan-Taiwan tensions over the islands in late 2012 played an important role in managing East China Sea tensions.

More difficult will be the task of alliance cooperation in the South China Sea. Admiral Robert Thomas, Commander of the Seventh Fleet, made a public statement that he would welcome Japanese patrols of the South China Sea and this surprised many.[8] But it did raise an important subject, and that is Japan’s need to defend its sea-lanes of communication (SLOCs). Since the 1980s, Japan has been willing to define its responsibility for its southern trade routes up to 1,000 nautical miles from its coast. Japan’s navy works closely with the United States on the RIMPAC exercises, and on Western Pacific cooperation.

Today, there is additional opportunity for the United States and Japan to consider how they might build capacities around the region.  Many Asian countries depend just as much on the same sea-lanes, and to unimpeded access to the Straits of Malacca, through which 25 percent of global trade.[9] The Abe Cabinet has concluded assistance programs to its southern maritime neighbors, the Philippines and Vietnam, which will help them with their own coastal defenses.  Tokyo too has long been a supporter of ASEAN maritime capacity building, including humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, and has expanded its maritime role to include the anti-piracy coalition in the Gulf of Aden.  In this latter multilateral coalition, Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force has worked alongside the Chinese PLA Navy, another important avenue for building maritime confidence between Beijing and Tokyo.  Finally, the growing Japanese security partnership with Australia in the Western Pacific should not be underestimated, and Prime Ministers Abe and Tony Abbott have moved to a conversation about Australia’s purchase of Japanese submarines.

The U.S. -Japan Guidelines revision comes at a time when Japan is better positioned for regional cooperation than it has been in decades.  Of course, the design of a new bilateral crisis management mechanism will reassure many in both capitals that the alliance is ready to cope with emergencies should they occur.  But the broader task of creating a stable maritime domain in the Asia Pacific demands that the alliance broaden its range of vision, both geographically and in terms of new missions.   Beyond the guidelines, the Abe Cabinet has signaled it is ready for a much larger military role in the region.   It has centralized its own institutions, including the new NSC, it has pursued deeper strategic cooperation with Australia and India, and it has relaxed restrictions on defense technology transfer.

What remains to be built now are mechanisms for regional dispute resolution and for regional maritime stability in both the East and South China Seas. Chinese building on the Spratly Islands signals a challenge to the idea that the nations of Asia can negotiate their maritime interests.  Understanding what is happening in the maritime commons is the first place to start.  This is important not only for militaries but for many others.  Fishermen, conservationists, aviators, and law enforcement officials tracking traffickers and smugglers all need to have better awareness of the waters in which they operate, and this is particularly urgent for the expansive but increasingly populated waters of the Asia Pacific. The United States and Japan must work with other partners in the region to ensure the transparency and maritime awareness for the region.  Risk reduction cannot simply be a bilateral endeavor, but must be integrated into maritime institutions that ensure the protection of commerce and respect the territorial integrity of all Asian nations.


[1]  Ministry of Defense, Japan, “The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation,” April 27, 2015, http://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000078188.pdf.

[2]  Ministry of Defense, Japan, “Japan ’s BMD,” http://www.mod.go.jp/e/d_act/bmd/bmd.pdf (accessed April 28, 2015).

[3] Japan Coast Guard, “Kaijoo hoanchoo repooto 2014 [Japan Coast Guard Annual Report 2014],” http://www.kaiho.mlit.go.jp/info/books/report2014/html/tokushu/toku14_01-1.html.

[4] Sheila A. Smith, “A Sino-Japanese Clash in the East China Sea,” Contingency Planning Memorandum,  No. 18,  Council on Foreign Relations, April, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/japan/sino-japanese-clash-east-china-sea/p30504.

[5] For the domestic Japanese response to these pressures, see my new book  Intimate Rivals:  Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2015).

[6]  Sheila A. Smith, “Japan and China Get to Yes on an Abe-Xi Summit,” Asia Unbound, November 7, 2014, http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2014/11/07/japan-and-china-get-to-yes-on-an-abe-xi-summit/.


[8] Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo, “U.S. would welcome Japan air patrols in South China Sea,” Reuters, January 29, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/29/us-japan-southchinasea-idUSKBN0L20HV20150129.

[9] The Straits of Malacca are the shortest sea route linking the Middle East and the Pacific, making them critical for Asian energy supplies. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, they are “ the key chokepoint in Asia, with an estimated 15.2 million bbl/d flow in 2013, compared with 13.5 million bbl/d in 2009. Crude oil generally makes up about 90% of total oil flows per year, and petroleum products make up about 10%.” U.S. Energy Information Administration, “World Oil Transit Chokepoints,” November 10, 2014, http://www.eia.gov/countries/analysisbriefs/World_Oil_Transit_Chokepoints/wotc.pdf (accessed April 28, 2015).

About Sheila Smith

Sheila A. Smith, an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy, is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). She is the author of Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (Columbia University Press, 2015) and Japan's New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance (Council on Foreign Relations, June 2014).