In February 2007, a study group chaired by Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye released the report, “The U.S.-Japan Alliance; Getting Asia Right through 2020.” To get “Asia Right,” the report argued that “the [U.S.-Japan] alliance can and should remain the core of the United Asia strategy;” that “the key to success of this strategy is for the alliance to continue to evolve from an exclusive alliance … toward a more open, inclusive alliance based on common interests.”
Fourteen years later, President Joseph Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met at the White House on April 16 not only to get ‘Asia Right” but also to address challenges that were only beginning to emerge in 2007 but have acquired definition since – a nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly assertive China ‒ and to expand the breadth of alliance-based cooperation.
The Biden‒Suga Summit represents the latest phase in the evolution of the U.S.‒Japan Alliance. What follows outlines the steps in the adaptation of this critical alliance made by governments in Washington and Tokyo. This paper relies upon key statements made in the most recent summits to strengthen the alliance and broaden its perspective and interests.
Where to begin?
In November 2006, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, in his address “The Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” began to set out a vision of governance for the Asia-Pacific, marked by “values-oriented diplomacy,” embracing “universal values, such as democracy, freedom, human rights, rule of law and the market economy.” Subsequently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expanded on the concept to include Africa, Asia, Australia, and the United States in a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
In its December 2013 National Security Strategy, Abe’s government extended this position by committing Japan to making a “Proactive Contribution to Peace” in support of stability in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, to the global security environment.
At the same time, faced with growing challenges to Japan’s security posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly assertive China, Abe focused on strengthening the Japan-U.S. Alliance. This involved consistent increases in Japan’s defense spending to enhance Japan’s own defense capabilities and the July 2014 decision to reinterpret Japan’s constitution to allow for the limited exercise of collective self-defense. Abe’s initiatives opened the door to greater security cooperation with the United States – all with the objective of making Japan a more attractive alliance partner, to keep the United States in Asia firmly anchored in Japan.
Meanwhile in Washington, the Obama administration was turning the United States’ strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region. In his November 2015 remarks to the Australian Parliament, President Obama announced that the turn, soon identified as the Rebalance, represented a “deliberate and strategic decision … the United States will play a larger role in shaping this region and its future.”
Earlier, the Obama administration had moved to strengthen the U.S.–Japan alliance. In April 2014, at a time of increasing Chinese activity in the Senkaku islands, President Obama reaffirmed that Article V of the alliance extended to the islands. The 2015 U.S.–Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation expanded engagement between the two militaries, allowing for greater integration of security operations, particularly in the areas of missile defense, response to gray zone contingencies, and advancing security cooperation with third countries. The Guidelines also established a bilateral planning mechanism to address contingencies affecting Japan’s and regional peace and security.
Diplomatic and security cooperation continued to flourish during the Trump administration. President Trump, in remarks to the November 2017 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders in Danang Vietnam, presented his vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. The concept was later incorporated in the administration’s defense and foreign policy documents.
Subsequently, the Joint Statement, adopted at the April 2019 Security Consultative Committee, expressed “a shared concern that geopolitical competition and coercive attempts to undermine international rules, norms, and institutions present challenges to the alliance and to the shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” The Joint Statement “welcomed the alignment the strategic policy documents of both countries, namely the [U.S.] National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy and Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines.” Concurrently, the U.S. Navy and Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force stepped up joint exercises in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the western Pacific.
Both the United States and Japan have been instrumental in reviving the “Quad” and elevating it from a meeting of working-level officials to a Ministerial-level meeting in 2019. On March 12, 2021, President Biden hosted a VTC Summit of Quad heads of government.
The Biden administration has continued to advance the evolution of the alliance.
Reflecting growing concerns about China’s actions and intentions, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met in Tokyo with their Japanese counterparts Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi on March 16, 2021.
The March 16, 2021 Two Plus Two Joint Statement is notable for its explicit reference to China and the “political, economic. military and technological challenges” it presented “to the Alliance and the international community, whereas the previous 2019 Two Plus Two Joint Statement spoke only of “concerns” with reference to an unidentified China.
The 2021 Two Plus Two Joint Statement cited in particular China’s new Coast Guard Law; the importance of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait;” China’s “unlawful claims and activities” in the South China Sea; and the human rights situations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The document also reaffirmed the U.S. “unwavering commitment” to the defense of Japan and the Senkaku islands under Article V of the Alliance.
The Biden‒Suga Summit followed on April 16. The Joint Statement issued at the meeting anchored the Alliance in a “shared vision for a Free and Open-Indo Pacific,” governed by universal values, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful resolution of disputes and opposition to coercion – all principles articulated by Foreign Minister Aso and Prime Minister Abe over a decade ago.
Toward China, Biden and Suga “shared their concerns over Chinese activities that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order, including economic and other forms of coercion.” Specifically, they expressed opposition to “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China;” their objections to “China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea,” reaffirming a “shared interest in a free and open South China Sea … in which freedom of navigation and over-flight are guaranteed consistent with the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.”
The Joint Statement expressed “serious concerns with the human rights situations in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region,” and recognized “the importance of candid conversations with China… and acknowledged the need to work with China on areas of common interest.” In a pre-Summit press briefing, a senior administration official acknowledged that on human rights “each of our countries has a slightly different perspective and I don’t think we will insist on Japan signing on to every dimension in our approach… At our core, though, we share a strategic purpose.” In post-Summit remarks at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Prime Minister Suga said that he had a “meaningful debate” with President Biden on democracy, human rights, the rule of law and establishing a stable relationship with China.
On Taiwan, Biden and Suga reiterated the language of the March 16 Joint Statement, underscoring “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and added, at Japan’s bidding, a call for “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” The reference to Taiwan was the first in U.S.-Japan Summit Joint Statement since Nixon-Sato Joint Statement of 1969.
Addressing the region, the Joint Statement, citing “the dangers associated with North Korea’s nuclear and missile program,” called for the “complete denuclearization of North Korea” and on Pyongyang “to abide by its obligations under the UN Security Council resolutions.” In his post-Summit remarks at CSIS, Suga began by citing eighty recent North Korean missile launches that violated UNSC resolutions and calling for the complete denuclearization of North Korea. Suga’s focus on North Korea may be interpreted as a signal to the Biden administration’s on-going policy review ‒ no pulling back from Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID) and no deal on missiles that does not include all of North Korea’s missile inventory, not only long-range but short and medium-range missiles as well ‒ no separating U.S. and Japanese security.
As for the Alliance itself, Japanese sources report that Suga initiated the incorporation into the Joint Statement the language that Japan is committed “to bolster its own national defense capabilities to further strengthen the Alliance and regional security.” In doing so, Suga was following Abe’s strategic playbook. Meanwhile, Biden reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan and, reiterating the assurances of Presidents Obama and Trump, to the defense of the Senkaku Islands under Article V of the Alliance.
However, it was in the section, “An Alliance for a New Era,” that the evolution and expansion of the alliance is most pronounced. The United States and Japan launched a Competitive and Resilience Partnership aimed at “sustainable, inclusive, healthy and green global economic recovery” by focusing on “competitiveness and innovation, COVID-19 response, global health, and health security, climate change, clean energy, and green growth and recovery.” Cooperation in science and technology will focus on “life sciences and biotechnology, artificial intelligence, quantum information sciences and civil space.” Partnering in developing safe and secure 5G and 6G networks and in addressing supply chain issues and protecting critical technologies was defined as “essential to our security and prosperity.”
On his return to Japan, Suga was questioned in the Diet on the Summit and possible military implications of the Taiwan reference in the Joint Statement. Suga replied that the document “does not presuppose military involvement at all” but reiterates Japan’s “existing position expecting a peaceful resolution.” Without question, tactical differences do remain on a range of issues – our interests are not identical but congruent. At the same time, without question, the Summit reflects how Japan’s leaders have moved toward a greater strategic integration with the United States and toward alliance-based regional and global strategies.
Going forward, political leadership in Washington and Tokyo will be challenged to narrow differences, to expand and advance shared interests – a challenge that has been successfully met over the long history and evolution of this alliance.
Dr. James J. Przystup is a Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University. The views expressed in this op-ed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.