U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcome Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe  for a State Dinner in their honor at the White House in Washington

commentary

(U.S. News & World Report)

April 30, 2015

Shinzo Abe Visit Caps New Dawn in U.S.-Japan Relations

U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcome Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe for a State Dinner in their honor at the White House April 28, 2015

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

by K. Jack Riley and Scott W. Harold

Wednesday's address by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a joint session of Congress caps a monumental shift in Japanese security policy and signals the most consequential turning point in U.S.-Japan relations since the end of World War II, when the U.S. victors imposed a pacifist constitution on the defeated Japanese imperial regime.

From the promulgation of that constitution in 1947 until 2014, its Article 9 was interpreted by Japanese administrations as prohibiting Japan from using military force except in cases of “self-defense” against existential threats. Since July, however, the Abe administration has reinterpreted Article 9, expanding the country's definition of self-defense to permit “collective self-defense.”

The shift toward collective self-defense will allow Japan to take joint military action with its allies even when it is not directly attacked and thereby participate in security measures beyond its geographical borders, a posture that Abe has described as “proactive pacifism.” His trip to Washington this week is intended to cement Japan's deepening bilateral security alliance with the United States, while also pressing forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

The new contours of Japanese self-defense policy will likely remain in place at least until Abe steps down, with many observers speculating that, if possible, he will retain his position long enough to welcome the athletes at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

What security changes are likely to unfold? The most probable outcome is increasingly close coordination of Asia-Pacific security strategy among the United States, Japan, Australia and India, as well as with South Korea, the Philippines and other friendly nations. In discussions with nearly 100 defense and diplomatic officials in Japan earlier this year, we were struck by how determined the leaders of Japan have become to ensure that the Asia-Pacific region evolves toward democracy, free markets and the rule of law — and away from a future dominated by China, with the influence of the United States and Japan marginalized and declining.

Several additional areas also present attractive prospects for enhanced cooperation, including:

  • Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The United States and Japan will likely start moving ahead by expanding the alliance's role in responding to natural disasters and humanitarian crises, such as the recent earthquake in Nepal. Using military assets to deliver greater assistance and relief to neighbors will allow Japan to gain additional experience operating outside its territorial waters and airspace while building regional goodwill. Such operations will also build on Japan's traditional role of contributing logistical support to allied operations.

  • Space and cybersecurity cooperation. Japan possesses strong technical know-how and a solid industrial base in space development and exploration, including satellite technology and imaging systems. Improving allied abilities to mount joint cyberdefenses will close a current gap in the allied deterrence and defense posture.

  • Intelligence collection. An expanded defense role for Japan is spurring it to build a stronger national intelligence infrastructure. A greater capacity for intelligence collection and analysis will make Japan more of an equal within the alliance and could contribute to better assessments of regional trends, threats and opportunities.

  • Defense-acquisition management. Japan's capacity for procuring major weapon systems is being reformed and improved. Such changes will help the United States and Japan cooperate more closely in the defense industrial arena, where integrating U.S. experience with Japanese high-technology has long held promise.

  • Defense exports, sales and transfers. Japanese transfers of defense equipment are already helping to build partner capacity in countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam that are concerned about China's efforts to lay claim to most of the South China Sea. Japan has also agreed to enhance defense industrial cooperation with the United Kingdom and France, while India has expressed interest in Japanese submarine technology. Australia has made its interest in Japanese submarines even more explicit and may be on the cusp of a major purchase. Defense equipment sales and transfers to friendly countries in the Asia-Pacific region represent low-hanging fruit that could allow Japan to modernize its defense industry cost-effectively.

These are some of the developments to look for in the coming years. The pace and scale with which they unfold will be the true tests of the commitment to defense reform in Japan. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has predicted that Japan's new security policy will “transform” the bilateral alliance and allow Tokyo and Washington to “cooperate seamlessly” across the globe. If such a day comes to pass, it could hardly have been imagined by the American architects of Japan's post-World War II constitution, but it will still adhere to their vision of Japan as a peaceful, democratic, free and law-abiding nation that supports the liberal international order.


K. Jack Riley is vice president and director of the National Security Research Division at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Scott W. Harold is deputy director of RAND's Center for Asia-Pacific Policy.

This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on April 29, 2015. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.