Chairman's Message

Chairman’s Message: The State of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

This month’s Chairman’s Message is an edited version of remarks given by Adm. Dennis Blair at the conclusion of the Sixth Annual Sasakawa USA Security Forum, held on April 24, 2019 in Washington, D.C.


Photo by Joy Asico.

The U.S.-Japan alliance has enjoyed a good year since the previous annual Sasakawa USA Security Forum in May 2018. There have been a few setbacks, but the alliance is getting its act together. More hard work lies ahead, however.

Let me review the important alliance developments over the past year.

Alliance Developments

First, policy alignment: 

As Ambassador Sugiyama said in his opening remarks, the U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the Japanese National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) are remarkably aligned, especially in their assessment of the Indo-Pacific security environment. This policy convergence is in remarkable contrast to several years ago when Japanese officials would complain privately of a perception gap. They thought that the United States did not share Japan’s understanding of the true nature of the Chinese challenge. As Asia Pacific Institute founder Dr. Funabashi said (earlier today), there is certainly no daylight now between Americans and Japanese on the greatest security challenge we both face.

This congruence of views is no accident. American officials consulted with their Japanese counterparts before completing work on the National Defense Strategy; Japanese officials consulted with American counterparts before completing work on the National Defense Program Guidelines. This tight coordination among American and Japanese security policy experts is an important foundation for combined action.

Second, defense budgets:

Both countries have increased their defense budgets at relatively high rates.

The American defense appropriation budget for 2019, the fiscal year that began last October 1, increased by 3%, and was actually passed before the start of the year for the first time in a decade. The Japanese defense budget for the fiscal year beginning on April 1 was a 2.1% increase over last year’s budget, a healthy increase by Japanese standards. (I should point out that the impressive increases in the American and Japanese defense budgets still trail Chinese military spending increases. China announced an increase in the PLA budget of 6.5% for 2019, the second straight year in which budget growth has exceeded GDP growth.)

Third, cyberspace policies:

DNI Coats for the first time called China out in September of last year: “From its continued hacking of our defense secrets to its focus on collecting vast repositories of personal and personality-identifying information to better enable espionage activities, China exploits our transparency and open society…”

In last week’s U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee (2+2) meeting here in Washington, the ministers announced that a major cyberattack on Japan could, “in certain circumstances, constitute an armed attack for the purposes of Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.” This announcement brings the NATO cyberspace extended deterrence model to the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Fourth, complementary economic policies:

The United States took on the mercantilist and predatory Chinese economic practices directly, this year. Negotiations continue over Chinese intellectual property theft, Chinese discriminatory treatment of international business in its domestic market, and its subsidies of state-owned enterprises.

Japan, meanwhile, has adopted policies to offer an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Japan offers what it calls “high quality infrastructure projects,” and the United States has also started to take the Japanese approach with the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) act. I hope that America and Japan can work more with other like-minded partners to offer alternatives that provide space for countries in the Indo-Pacific region to chart their own economic development path.

Fifth, reduction of regional tensions:

It has been a year of friendly but wary summit meetings, with “frank and open” exchanges in private, bland communiques, and somewhat forced smiling photo opportunities in public.

The first trilateral summit meeting among China, Japan, and South Korea took place in Tokyo after a two-and one-half-year hiatus.

President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un have held two summit meetings since our last annual Security Forum. The atmosphere has been frothy and friendly, but there have been no substantive agreements on either side’s main goal—North Korean denuclearization and economic development. President Trump dramatically foreshortened the second summit because of the lack of progress.

President Moon of South Korea has met with Chairman Kim Jong Un three times in the past year with few concrete results.

Prime Minister Abe met with President Moon of South Korea in September on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting and visited Beijing in November.

With all this high-level consulting and hand-shaking, you would expect regional flashpoints to have been relatively quiet, and so they were. North Korea continued to refrain from missile and nuclear tests, although it apparently continues to press forward on its nuclear weapons program. The United States and the ROK refrained from conducting major named military exercises, while maintaining combat readiness through smaller continuous training. I am concerned, however, that Japan-South Korea relations continue to deteriorate. Dr. Funabashi told us that it is hard to see relations improving in the near term.

In the South China Sea, things were quiet until the last few months when China initiated fishing boat swarm tactics around the Philippine-occupied island of Thitu. The United States maintained a steady level of military ship sailings and aircraft flights through the South China Sea, flying and sailing close to Chinese occupied islands, and Japanese, Australian, and European navies also operated in what they consider international waters in the South China Sea.

Future Concerns

So the news of the past twelve months has been more good than bad for the alliance. What are the concerns? Where do we need to concentrate in future?

First, the regional threat requires a higher sense of urgency:  

Communiques and budgets and hardware are important, but the heart of deterrence is combined warfighting capability. It is that demonstrated capacity and intent to protect our interests that ensures that enemies and competitors do not attempt to use military force against us.

Japan has established an operational headquarters for a Senkaku Islands incursion, and the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force has established a single operational command over its individual armies. However, the Japan Self-Defense Force has not yet established a standing joint operational headquarters that would handle a crisis or conflict in Taiwan or North Korea. The United States, for its part, has not established a corresponding operational headquarters in Japan for these contingencies.

The establishment of these two operational staffs in Japan, with their headquarters preferably co-located, would provide better counterpart staffs on the military side of the alliance. It would promote the development of operational concepts, clarify equipment requirements for these contingencies, and facilitate a combined exercise program for readiness and continual improvement.

The recent U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee fact sheet cited recent initiatives to “deepen operational cooperation”: “the steady implementation of mutual asset protection; bilateral presence and joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance operations; increased scope of logistical support under the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement; and ongoing exchange of liaison officers.”

While a Combined Forces Command on the Korean model is not appropriate, there needs to be much closer and more integrated operational organization and training for the range of very specific threats that both countries face.

Second, the alliance needs to move quickly in the new, important and difficult areas of space, cyberspace and electromagnetic warfare:

According to the 2+2 joint press statement “The Ministers highlighted space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum as priority areas to better prepare the Alliance for cross-domain operations.” This aspiration is welcome. However, the fact sheet that accompanied the statement listed only one specific current area of cooperation: space situational awareness.

Japan has no NSA-equivalent, so cyber cooperation will be difficult. Japan’s information security system is still not adequate to the challenge of protecting highly classified information.  The United States, for its part has not concentrated enough bilateral attention on electronic warfare, an area in which classification need not be as great a problem, in which Japan has high potential for military capabilities, and in which long-range Chinese sensors and weapons are very vulnerable.

The greatest difficulty to overcome will be in establishing the authority for Japan to operate in these new domains. Current Japanese law prohibits cyber operations outside Japanese networks; it was extremely difficult for the government to gain Diet approval for Japanese ships to defend nearby U.S. ships in case of enemy attack. Obtaining Diet approval for cooperation on dealing with cyber and space attacks will be even more complicated and difficult.

The 2+2 statement is correct that these new warfare areas will be important in the future, and the United States and Japan need to move rapidly to build combined capability. Assignment of responsibilities, exercises, acquisition priorities and the ability to exchange sensitive information are the keys.

Third, the United States and Japan lack a South China Sea strategy:

Japan and the United States have sailed ships and flown aircraft through international waters and have provided limited military and coast guard assistance to other claimant states. However, we have not yet developed a coherent strategy. We have made it clear what we do not want but have not made it clear what we will support. By taking no position on any of the territorial issues, we leave the region vulnerable to Chinese cabbage-slicing tactics.

The 2016 Permanent Court of Appeals decision on the South China Sea did not rule on sovereignty issues, but it provided the legal framework for a comprehensive settlement. With the help of international experts, the claimant states besides China, which would not participate in the process, need to agree on a map adjudicating the conflicting claims. As did the 2016 decision, the map should take account of China’s legitimate claims even if China does not participate in the negotiations. The United States, Japan, and other countries can then recognize that map. With a policy established, the United States and other forces would have a basis for determining how to support treaty obligations and interests with military deployments and military force, if necessary.

In conclusion, the U.S.-Japan alliance is making great progress, but our competitors, technology and world events continue to move fast. The alliance must accelerate the pace if we are to maintain the kind of world in which we want our children to live and prosper.

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About the expert

Blair.Headshot square

Adm. Dennis C. Blair is a Distinguished Senior Fellow (Non-Resident) of Sasakawa USA, and additionally led the Foundation as CEO from 2014 to February 2017 and as Chairman of the Board from 2014 through September 2019. He is a renowned expert on Asia Pacific policy and issues, having served as Director of National Intelligence and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command. Read his Chairman's Message column here or his other publications and analysis here