Japan's Alliance with the U.S. Has Just Gone Global

commentary

Apr 16, 2024

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (R) and U.S. President Joe Biden shake hands at an arrival ceremony ahead of their summit meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C.,  April 10, 2024, photo by Kyodo via Reuters Connect

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (R) and U.S. President Joe Biden shake hands at an arrival ceremony ahead of their summit meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., April 10, 2024

Photo by Kyodo via Reuters Connect

This commentary originally appeared on Nikkei Asia on April 16, 2024.

Last week's state visit by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to the White House, the first for a Japanese leader since 2015, was replete with the kind of talk we have come to expect from such events.

The two leaders spoke of strengthening the nuts and bolts of alliance management, finding new roles and capabilities for the alliance, confirming alignment on core strategic challenges, strengthening efforts to bolster economic vulnerabilities, and toughening messaging toward would-be adversaries.…

But the most profound aspect of the summit was not the itemized “deliverables” but rather the underlying message: that the U.S.-Japan alliance is now global.

For those not closely following U.S.-Japan relations, saying the two have a global alliance might not be cause for much excitement. After all, both countries are major economies with a global presence in virtually all domains.

But history matters here. For most of the past seven decades, the U.S.-Japan alliance was strictly a bilateral affair involving both countries focusing exclusively on the defense of Japan.

For most of the past seven decades, the U.S.-Japan alliance was strictly a bilateral affair involving both countries focusing exclusively on the defense of Japan.

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This stemmed from Washington's Cold War strategy to deter Soviet expansionism. Unlike Europe, which had a multinational collective security institution in NATO, in Asia the United States relied on bilateral partnerships with six treaty allies for most of the Cold War, before dropping its pact with Taiwan in 1980.

This was termed a hub-and-spoke strategy with the United States at the center and limited interaction among its Asian allies. For Japan, this arrangement met its needs to bolster its defenses and provide a bulwark against Moscow.

Around the early 1990s, the U.S.-Japan alliance began to incorporate a greater regional focus as the strategic simplicity of the Cold War gave way to a proliferation of security challenges emanating from multiple sources including North Korea, China, and terrorist groups.

Arguably, this shift began with the 1991 Gulf War when the United States looked for Japan to do something commensurate with its political power. Provocations by North Korea and China in the following years impacted the alliance further, as did the global war on terror.

The official Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation were then revised in 1997 and again in 2015 to put a greater focus on the peace and stability of the wider region.

Tokyo also enacted legal changes and reinterpretations which gradually expanded the roles and missions of the alliance beyond Japan's defense toward protecting a free and open Indo-Pacific region. This in turn led the pair into new informal security groupings, or “minilaterals,” with other regional states, particularly trilateral arrangements with states like Australia and the Quad group with it and India.

Over the past five years, the alliance has begun moving into a third phase. The minilateral groupings and other U.S. efforts to tie allies and like-minded partners together weaved Japan into new forums, not only in the Indo-Pacific region. This was particularly evident with enhanced defense ties between Japan and NATO.

Last week may be remembered as the official start of this third stage, which U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel called the beginning of a new era.

This is not because Japan is suddenly a full security partner at the center of U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. Arguably, that has already been the case for many years. Nor is it because of domestic changes in Japan, such as increased defense spending, rising arms exports or the acquisition of counterstrike capabilities. These changes, too, have been in the works for a while.

Rather, the changes we saw last week signal an alliance that is heavily focused on global cooperation. As the title of the U.S.-Japan joint summit statement indicated, the two nations are now posed as “global partners for the future.”

This was highlighted in many of the specific target areas mentioned in last week's statements and agreements, such as the laying of undersea cables in Oceania, strengthened policy coordination in Latin America, joint support for African efforts toward democratization and prosperity, and a unified stance toward the Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars.

Even many agenda items meant to foster a closer bilateral alliance carry wider implications. Examples include pursuing possible Japanese inclusion into some aspects of the AUKUS defense technology arrangement among the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, supporting Japan to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, joint development and production of missiles, maintenance of U.S. naval vessels and aircraft in Japan, and expanded research and cooperation in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and semiconductor design.

Perhaps most notably, the summit agreements expand the alliance's often used “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept into the “free and open international order based on the rule of law.”

Staying aligned on key issues will always be a concern, but the global nature of the alliance is now more prominent.

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This brings the alliance far beyond the days of simply defending Japan. Instead, as U.S. President Joe Biden said, the two countries will “join hands…[to] lead the way in tackling the challenges of the Indo-Pacific and the world.”

This is an alliance now focused on the public goods of global peace, stability, and prosperity. This is not to say it has never focused on global issues, but in the past, the focus was on ensuring alignment and robustness in defense efforts. Staying aligned on key issues will always be a concern, but the global nature of the alliance is now more prominent.

There is much work to left to be done on implementing all the big ideas announced. Nevertheless, the outcome of the summit is clear. The U.S.-Japan alliance is strong, aligned, and truly global.


Jeffrey W. Hornung is a senior political scientist and the Japan lead of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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