Forged in the wake of World War II, the US-Japan security alliance is important as ever for both the countries and for Asia as well. This alliance has been one of the fundamental aspects of Japan’s foreign policy too. In recent times, China’s assertiveness, North Korea’s nuclearisation have pushed the alliance to make certain historic adjustments which included crafting a larger role for Japan’s military, owing to the country’s constitutional constraints. Furthermore, the alliance has also been described as the extended deterrence, that is, the US extends its deterrence to Japan. Japan has also increased its ability to exercise a limited form of collective self-defence. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and US President Joe Biden strongly reaffirmed the importance and solidarity of the Japan-United States alliance, during their first-ever summit in April 2021.
Background of the alliance
After the Second World War, the United States began the process of helping to bring Japan back to the international community by strengthening the military, political and economic ties. From 1945-1951, Japan sought economic prosperity and began to embrace the US as an ally. The basis of the alliance was the US-Japan mutual security treaty signed in 1951, in lieu of its pacifist constitution, which would allow US forces to remain on Japan’s soil. In 1960, the U.S.-Japan agreement was revised, granting the United States the right to establish bases on the archipelago in exchange for a commitment to defend Japan in the event of an attack. However, the early 2000s marked a period of increased defence cooperation, wherein, the government of Junichiro Koizumi dispatched the Maritime Self-defence forces to the Indian Ocean to provide logistical support for US military operations in Afghanistan. The U.S.-Japan alliance was strengthened further in 2015 through the release of revised guidelines, which provided for new and expanded forms of security-oriented cooperation.
Challenges ahead of the alliance
The robust nature of the US-Japan alliance is often underscored by China’s assertiveness, North Korea’s nuclearization, climate change and the recent Covid-19 pandemic.
Since the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, China’s rise has been a concern for the alliance. In 2010, it surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, and its growing defence budget and military modernization have prompted worries about its global ambitions. The need for the US to strengthen the military and economic ties with Japan is a response to China’s growing regional influence. The strategy of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific is also seen as a response to China’s ambitions. The strategy includes maintaining peace and the rule of law, reinforcing freedom of navigation at sea, respecting national sovereignty, and protecting open markets.
In recent times, the two nations began engaging in high-level dialogue and created a military hotline to prevent escalation in the East China Sea. Furthermore, in January 2021, Biden and Suga affirmed the importance of the US-Japan alliance as the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific. They also confirmed that the US-Japan security treaty applies to the Senkaku islands, that it falls within the scope of Article 5 of the treaty.
North Korea’s nuclearisation threat
The threat from North Korea dates back to the 1990s when North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan and withdrew from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Tokyo and Washington started working more closely on missile defence after North Korea fired another missile over Japan in 1998. Tokyo’s willingness to hold talks with Pyongyang has been complicated due to the issue of abduction where Japan claims that North Korea abducted seventeen Japanese citizens in the 1970s. However, recent efforts by the former U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to restart a dialogue with North Korea on denuclearization, including historic summits with Kim, have roused fears in Tokyo that Japan’s interests may not be served. The US, Japan and South Korea must work together to uphold peace in the Korean Peninsula.
Climate change poses a devastating and existential threat to Asia and beyond, and the US and Japan must take concrete steps to address this. Biden has committed to implement the policies necessary to put the United States on its way to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This further aligns with the intergovernmental panel on climate change’s recommendation to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degree celsius. PM Suga also made the same important net-zero commitment. It will elevate both countries’ competitive advantage and counter the impacts of climate change.
Japan also has an opportunity to reenvision its traditional oil, gas and nuclear-centred energy agenda at home and in developing countries. The United States and Japan should scrap their long-standing fossil fuel-centred energy partnership and create a clean energy partnership.
Global health and the Covid-19
Both the countries should work together to bolster the global health and pandemic response. Japan and the US should find ways to build public health capacity, ensure vaccine distribution and provide assistance to developing countries and enhance pandemic preparedness. Japan has pledged support for the WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator project to help countries access treatments and vaccines. The United States should join Japan in supporting this effort.
During their first summit, PM Suga and President Biden pledged to work together in addressing the global threats of Covid-19 and climate change while maintaining the free and open rules-based international order. Both the leaders have a common view of developing a coalition of like-minded powers to deal with the growing assertiveness of China.
Biden and Suga launched the ‘US-Japan Climate Partnership’ which is aimed at Paris Agreement implementation and achievement of the 2030 targets/ nationally determined contributions (NDCs); clean energy technology development, deployment, and innovation; and efforts to support decarbonization in other countries, especially in the Indo-Pacific.
The leaders also emphasized the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encouraged the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues. They also shared concerns about the human rights situation in Hong Kong and China’s Xinjiang region, where Washington feels that Beijing is perpetrating genocide against Muslim Uighurs. Japan has been criticized for not taking strict action in alleged human rights abuses due to its fear of harming the business interests of Japanese companies in China.
PM Suga has described the US-Japan alliance as the foundation of peace and stability in the region. He said that ‘freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law are the universal values that link our alliance’. The leaders of India and Japan discussed stepping up joint development and testing of the fifth-generation internet and the sixth-generation technologies for the future. The two leaders have initiated the launch of a ‘new competitiveness and resilience partnership.’ This partnership will help in ensuring a sustainable, inclusive, healthy and global economic recovery and will further generate economic growth through democratic principles. The partnership will focus on competitiveness and innovation, Covid-19 response and climate change.
Biden and Suga have displayed how important the alliance is for both the countries and have pointed out that their interests can be pursued even without fostering a conflict with China.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Simran Walia is a Research Scholar, pursuing M.Phil in Japanese Studies under the Centre for East Asian Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Prior to this, she was working as a Research Assistant at ORF. She has published articles and papers in magazines and websites like ‘The diplomat’, ‘The Geopolitics’, ‘Indian Defence Review’ and Global policy journal. Her research interests include Japanese politics and foreign policy and East Asian foreign policy too.