Chairman’s Message: The future of the U.S.-Japan alliance

Admiral Dennis Blair
December 21, 2016

Adm. Dennis Blair gave the following speech in Tokyo on December 19, 2016 at a U.S.-Japan LINK NPO 20th anniversary celebration event looking back on U.S.-Japan relations and the U.S.-Japan Alliance. Speaking alongside Blair was Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. Those in attendance included Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


Photos courtesy US-Japan LINK

My experience with the US-Japan Alliance began in the 1970s, when my ship first exercised with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force. In the 1980s I was captain of another guided missile destroyer and our homeport was Yokosuka. Not only did we operate together with JMSDF ships and aircraft, but we also formed ties of friendship. Every Christmas a beautiful evergreen tree would arrive from our JMSDF sister ship. In the 1990s as commander of the Kitty Hawk carrier battle group, I commanded a combined task force of US and JMSDF ships and aircraft in the major Annualex exercise. From 1999 through 2002 I was the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Command, visiting Japan many times and working closely with many officers of the Self Defense Forces, and officials of what was then the Japan Defense Agency. In 2009 as the Director of National Intelligence, I consulted with my Japanese counterparts on our many shared intelligence challenges.

From these forty years of experience, I believe I have a long and deep perspective on our Alliance. I can say without qualification that it is the strongest it ever has been.

A strong US-Japan alliance relationship is very important. It is the best guarantee of the security of both our countries. In addition, it is also the best guarantee of the security, peace and prosperity of all East Asia, the most populous, economically strong but potentially dangerous region of the world.

What are the reasons for this steady and positive strengthening of our alliance over the years, and how has it reached its current high-water mark?

During the Cold War years, when I was a ship commander in the Midway battle group of the Seventh Fleet, both the United States and Japan were motivated to join forces by a large and sinister threat – the Soviet Union. All our intelligence, our planning and training were dedicated to possible combat operations against the formidable forces of the Far East Military District. Their mission was to isolate and invade Japan, and our mission was to stop them. We encountered Soviet ships and aircraft often in the waters around Japan. They watched us; we watched them. I remember vividly an exercise in 1985 when we gathered three carrier battle groups in the Sea of Japan, and dozens of Soviet ships and aircraft scrambled to track and observe us. The goal of the Alliance was to keep American and Japanese forces so powerful and ready to fight, that it would discourage Soviet aggression.

The importance of our common security interests kept our two countries cooperating closely even as disputes over trade threatened to push us apart. President Reagan and Prime Minister Nakasone were able to contain and channel the pressure from business and political constituencies in both their countries. They kept focus on the important security interests for which cooperation was essential.


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During those years, it was the United States that was the dominant military member of the Alliance. Most often it was the United States pushing new ideas, and Japan reacting. However, Japan was not simply a passive partner. While remaining true to its commitment that its military forces would be for defensive purposes only, Japan increased its overall capability and expanded the range of missions they could accomplish in wartime.

Prime Minister Nakasone had been director-general of the Japan Defense Agency in the early 1970s, and developed a 10-year plan to improve Japan’s defense capabilities. His ambitious plan was scaled back in the mid-1970s. However, in 1978, under the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation, Japan extended its own responsibilities within the Alliance from territorial defense of Japan to protection of the sea lanes around the country. By the 1980s the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force had very capable anti-submarine capabilities in its fleet. For its part, the Japan Air Self Defense Force extended its operations and its reach much further off its shores to intercept Soviet bombers. Japanese maritime and air platforms were built to operate with and communicate with US counterparts, making a very powerful combined force.

When the Cold War ended, there was a period in which the Alliance drifted. With the collapse of the Soviet threat, it seemed that there was little justification for anything but reductions in our armed forces. In the United States the public expected a “peace dividend,” and in Japan there was little appetite for further development of the self-defense forces.

Communication within the Alliance was not good. In 1990 when the United States led over 40 nations against Iraq, a country ruled by a tyrant, and threatening the world’s oil supply, Japan could not identify any role to play in the coalition. After the conflict, it wrote a check to the United States to pay some of the costs of the operations and sent minesweeping forces to the Persian Gulf. However, its contributions were widely assessed as “too little, too late” despite the important and dangerous work the minesweeping task force conducted.

During the 1990s, the United States led or joined many international peace operations, removing dictators and alleviating human suffering. Japan could not join any of them. Although the Diet passed the 1992 Act on Cooperation for the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations and Other Operations, its participation in UN peacekeeping operations continued to be very restricted.

On the positive side, when the United States reviewed its worldwide force posture, it decided not to reduce its forces deployed to East Asia. In Europe about two-thirds of deployed American forces came home, but in Asia, the American government made the decision to leave the deployed force level at 100,000, virtually the same as the Cold War level.


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It was at the end of this period—from 1998 through 2002—that I had the honor of serving as the Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Command.

During the first two years of my service, the personal relations among Japanese and American leaders—both civilian and military—were excellent. However, we were all frustrated because the purpose of our Alliance was not clear.

Threats in the region did not seem great. In 1994 Kim il Sung had died, the Agreed Framework was signed, and the Korean Peninsula was quiet. In 1996 the United States and China deployed military force around Taiwan, but the situation did not escalate. In the 1997 update of the Bilateral Defense Guidelines, there was a commitment to greater military cooperation between the United States and Japan during “Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan,” which clearly included the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan. However, the United States was using its armed forces in other areas around the world, generally to halt brutality by dictators against their own people and neighbors and to stop widespread suffering. Japan did not believe that these circumstances justified the deployment of its self-defense forces. The scenarios for many Japanese exercises were still based on a Soviet invasion of the home islands. Issues involving American bases in Japan assumed dominant importance in the Alliance, from the behavior of sailors, marines and airmen in Okinawa to the Shinkampo Incinerator showering deadly emissions onto the Atsugi Air Base.

Then came the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They shook the United States out of its sense of superiority and invulnerability, and they shook the Alliance.

I will never forget Japan’s immediate response to 9/11 during the days just after the attack. It was a time of tremendous uncertainty, when we did not know how many more attacks might be coming. Without waiting to be asked, on its own initiative, the Japanese government deployed a cordon of security forces around all US bases in Japan, and maintained them until we better understood the threat. It was a spontaneous gesture of support and solidarity that expressed the true nature of our Alliance. It was to be reciprocated 10 years later, when, on 3/11/2011 Japan suffered a huge blow, this time from nature, and the United States responded with spontaneous support and solidarity.

When the United States struck back at Afghanistan, the base of al Qaeda, Prime Minister Koizumi’s government passed the Act on Special Measures against Terrorism, and Japan sent a small task force into the Indian Ocean to provide fuel to US Navy ships that were deploying to the Middle East.

Following the American invasion of Iraq, the Diet passed the Act on Special Measures Concerning Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance in Iraq, and Ground Self Defense Forces deployed to Iraq.

Meanwhile, the situations in the areas surrounding Japan were becoming more threatening, as China continued its military buildup, and a Chinese naval pilot ran his fighter jet into an American EP-3 that had taken off from a base in Japan. North Korea’s actions to implement the Agreed Framework grew ever more provocative and suspicious, and in 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

So by 2003 it was clear that the security environment in the world, and in East Asia had changed significantly for the worse. The US-Japan Alliance shook off its Cold War rationale and began to adapt to the challenges of the present and the future.


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The most important and new feature of this phase of the US-Japan Alliance is the very strong role that Japan has been playing. In the past almost all the initiatives for positive change had come from the American side, and the Japanese side had been very reactive.

However beginning in the 21st century, Japan decided that it needed to reshape its own defense policies and forces, and that the Alliance itself needed to be modernized. The United States was absorbed in its wars in the Middle East, and there were few security policy initiatives for Asia coming out of Washington.

This new Japanese security policy was not adopted easily. The Democratic Party of Japan initially opposed it, using its victory in the Upper House in 2007 to reject the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law. When it won the Diet elections in 2009, it stopped the naval operations in the Indian Ocean, and attempted to find different policies for the relocation of American forces in Okinawa. However its experience in office, and, more important, Japanese public opinion, brought most DPJ leaders to support a stronger security policy for Japan. Even the tragic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant disruption of 2011 played a role. The heroic rescue operations of the Japan Self-Defense Force, and the outpouring of support and assistance from the American people and the US armed forces reminded the Japanese public of the importance of the Alliance.

Even during these years of debate over Japan’s role in the world, the country took several important steps.

In 2010, the Diet passed the Anti-Piracy Measures Law, providing the legal basis for actions by the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force against pirates worldwide. The same year came the confrontation with China over the Senkaku Islands, involving a Chinese fishing boat ramming a Japan Coast Guard vessel, and the cutoff of rare earth metals by China. The government of Japan issued the National Defense Program Outline of 2010, which provided for enhanced defense capability in the southern and western islands.

Prime Minister Abe, of course, played the key role in this new phase of Japanese security policy, and in the changes to the US-Japan Alliance.

During his first term as prime minister, in 2007, he upgraded the Japan Defense Agency to the Ministry of Defense.

When he was elected a second time, in 2012, he initiated rapid steps to lay the foundation for a modernized Japanese defense—a national security strategy, a national security council, with a full-time staff, a national defense program outline, revision of some of the restrictions on the export of Japanese military equipment, and steady budget increases for the Self-Defense Forces for the next five years.

A series of steps beginning with the establishment of a commission to examine the concept of collective self-defense culminated in legislation in the Diet in 2015 that expanded the authorized activities of the Japan Self Defense Forces, both in responding to security threats in East Asia and in participating more fully in United Nations peacekeeping operations.

In the second major update of the US-Japan Bilateral Defense Guidelines, completed in 2015, it was Japan often pushing the United States to take new steps. President Obama had declared publicly in 2014 that the US-Japan Defense Treaty applied to the Senkaku islands. Japan pressed for clarity in the support that the United States would provide in the case of a crisis. In addition, the Revised Guidelines sharply expanded the roles of the JSDF in the South China Sea, on the Korean Peninsula, and in the areas of cyber and space.


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This brings us to the future of the US-Japan Alliance. As I have said, I believe the Alliance is the strongest that it ever has been.

For the over 40 years that I have been involved in the Alliance, it has proved remarkably stable and consistent. As new administrations have come to office in both Washington and Tokyo, they have found that the Alliance is very much in their national interest. Those who had advocated radical change when out of office have become supporters of the fundamental tenets of the Alliance. Many administrations on both sides of the Pacific have made positive changes. As threats and opportunities have developed in East Asia, and around the world, the Alliance has been remarkably durable and adaptive.

For the over 40 years that I have been involved in the Alliance, it has proved remarkably stable and consistent. As new administrations have come to office in both Washington and Tokyo, they have found that the Alliance is very much in their national interest.

The 2016 election in the United States has been one of the most unusual of our recent history, but I see no reason that the incoming administration of President Trump will make major changes to the Alliance relationship. In many ways, Japan will be playing a much stronger role during this change of one government within the Alliance. Prime Minster Abe has been in office for four years, he is widely traveled and experienced on the world scene, both in bilateral and multilateral relationships. Rather than simply reacting to American initiatives, he has been pursuing active polices of his own, and there are things that he wants the United States to do.

The Trump administration will of course bring changes to the US-Japan relationship. The most important area in which the incoming administration will upset current US-Japan cooperation is with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Candidate Trump denounced many US trade agreements of recent years, and it is very unlikely that the United States will ratify TPP in its current form any time soon. This development is unfortunate, since TPP affirmed American and Japanese leadership in the important area of international economic relations. It addressed many of the non-tariff barriers to trade that were restricting both US and Japanese exports—environmental practices, intellectual property protection and labor practices.

However, this setback must be put in perspective. International trade agreements have always proceeded in fits and starts—periods of progress, followed by long periods of stagnation. The worldwide recession of 2008-2009, the long-term concerns about globalization and technological progress that reduce jobs for less skilled workers, the rising income inequality in the United States, all these factors have undermined public support in the United States for more free trade at this point. The United States needs to address these very fundamental concerns and challenges before it will be ready to take more major international trade initiatives.


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However there are two fundamental reasons I believe that the US-Japan Alliance will continue to grow more important and stronger in coming years.

The first reason is our strong bilateral relationship. We are closely linked economically, with major and enduring investment, business and trade relationships across the Pacific. Japan is American’s most important military ally. It used to be that “NATO” was our most important ally, but NATO is no longer a single body—it is a shifting group of 28 countries that contribute differently to different issues. Japan is a single country hosting 50,000 American service men and women and their families, and on bases in Japan are some of the most advanced American military systems. Japan contributes about $7 billion to stationing those forces, and, as I have described, is increasing its defense budget every year, and widening the range of operations its self-defense forces are authorized to conduct. A relationship and Alliance this strong and complex has momentum that carries it through internal challenges.

The second reason that the Alliance will grow stronger is the increasingly clear competition among the countries with the three largest economies in the world. On the one side is China, the second largest world economy, growing at the fastest rate among large economies. However it is a country combining a single-party, repressive domestic rule, state-controlled and mercantilist economic policies with an aggressive approach to its territorial claims. In its international relations it thinks only of what is best for China. On the other side are the United States and Japan, the largest, and third-largest world economies, with democratic political systems, free markets and generally free trade economies, and a commitment to rule of law, compromise and peaceful settlement of territorial disputes. The United States and Japan feel a sense of responsibility for supporting the international system not only for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of others.

There are many issues in which these three countries can and have worked together—all three are vitally interested in the flow of oil from the Middle East, in constraining the actions of North Korea and Iran, in improving the environment and mitigating climate change, in restraining the proliferation of nuclear weapons. However, Chinese cooperation on these issues is transactional, based on a coincidence of specific interests. Over the long term, there will continue a competition on fundamental approaches to questions of governance, international economic approaches, the settling of international disputes and spheres of influence.

In this fundamental competition, the United States and Japan are on the same side, and the strategic logic of strengthening the Alliance is overwhelming. It is to the advantage of both the United States and Japan that their Alliance is the basis on which both to restrain and to cooperate with China, and other authoritarian, mercantilist countries such as Russia.

So there are fundamental forces that drive the United States and Japan together to face the complicated security environment of the future.


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There are also challenges to the Alliance that the Trump administration must handle.

First is the base structure on the southern and western islands. As China increasingly confronts the United States and Japan, their importance grows. As Japan increases its ability to control the air and water space around the chain of islands stretching from Kyushu to Taiwan, of which Okinawa is the largest, it will need to redeploy forces and build bases and other facilities. For American forces, it is Okinawa that is most important. The United States and Japan must complete the plan to relocate the Marine Corps units currently stationed on Okinawa. This means finishing the rotary-wing air base at Camp Schwab, closing the Futenma air base, and redeploying units to Guam and Hawaii. There are agreed plans for all these actions, and they need to be expedited and completed.

With these actions completed, the United States and Japan will be in a much stronger position to deal with potential Chinese military aggression in the East China Sea, and the major basing issues for US forces in Japan will be solved.

The leaders and the dedicated civil servants and military officers in both the United States and Japan have solved problems as difficult as these four challenges many times in the past. There is no reason they cannot do so in the future.

Second are the issues of command relationships for US and Japanese forces operating together in the missions of the future. Operating relationships between the US and Japan have always been complicated, and often based on service relationships as much as on joint relationships. Japan needs to establish a standing joint command to handle the contingencies in its southern and western islands, and the United States needs to designate a corresponding standing joint command for combined planning, exercises and operations. The same two joint task forces, Japanese and US, should also be pre-designated for responding to natural disasters.

Third, the United States and Japan need to enhance their cooperation on cybersecurity. They must defend the military networks on which combined operations depend, the critical infrastructure networks that support the life support systems of society, and the commercial networks that government and business use. Our two countries are the top two targets for cyber-attacks in the world. Each country is developing a unique set of government agencies and regulations for cyber defense and they do not correspond to each other. Without corresponding agencies with similar responsibilities, cooperation is difficult. Both governments need to come up with new and effective ways to share information, to assess threats, and to take integrated, or at least cooperative action to deal with both criminal and nation state-sponsored hacking attacks.

Fourth, and finally, the United States and Japan need to develop the habits and protocols of mutual consultation and combined action in dealing with security challenges. Current trends are in the right direction—communications between counterpart officials in our governments are better than in the past, but there are challenges of time zones and language, and old habits of unilateralism to overcome.

For example, Japan is currently engaged in intense discussions with Russia on a range of issues from a peace treaty to end the Second World War and sovereignty over the Northern Territories to major economic projects. It will be important for the Japanese government to discuss these issues with the incoming Trump administration, to ensure that Japanese actions are understood, and that the Alliance is not weakened. By the same token, as the Trump administration formulates its policies towards China, it is vital that it discuss them with Japan ahead of time, so that the policies of the two countries can reinforce each other, and so that there are no surprises.

The leaders and the dedicated civil servants and military officers in both the United States and Japan have solved problems as difficult as these four challenges many times in the past. There is no reason they cannot do so in the future.


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So let me finish where I began.

The US-Japan Alliance is stronger than it ever has been. Together our two countries represent the democratic, free market and rules-based future of East Asia. We have both an interest and the obligation to provide leadership to achieve our shared vision of the future.

We must and I believe we will continue to cooperate to promote this vision for Asia. It not only safeguards the security of both our countries, but it also supports the continued economic prosperity and political and social development of the region.

We have important work to do together, not only to make our bilateral relationship even stronger, but also to cooperate in a coordinated way with China and other countries to tackle specific issues and to encourage them to become stakeholders in the world order. At the same time, working together, we must turn back the challenges to the international order of China and other authoritarian states.

When there is a change of government in one of our countries, the new administration will bring in its own ideas, and it will look closely at the policies and relationships of the past. Yet, the early indications about the new US administration’s views of Japan are all positive. The meeting the Prime Minister had with the President-elect in New York, the first Mr. Trump had with any world leader after the election; his nomination of Wilbur Ross, who has a long track record of working in and appreciating Japan, for secretary of commerce; and Mr. Trump’s embrace of Masayoshi Son’s plan to invest in the United States and create new jobs all provide important indications that the election has not diminished the bilateral relationship. I am confident that, as has happened in the past, the new American administration will build on the very strong foundation constructed by many governments of many political parties in both our countries. Our next administration will respond to existing challenges, and make the US-Japan Alliance even stronger.



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