Trumpeting the Alliance: How Much Will the United States and Japan Lean on Each Other?


After an election season that called into question the very survival of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, the first month of the Trump administration instead saw the development of the strongest personal relationship between American and Japanese leaders in over a decade. Yet underneath the golf course high fives and limousine hugs between Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe lay unanswered questions about America’s Asia policy, the viability of America’s other alliances, and the future of China’s relations with both Japan and the United States.

Though Asia appears far more stable than the Middle East and possibly even Eastern Europe, the shifting geopolitical balance in Asia means that nothing can be taken for granted. In the face of China’s belligerence, North Korea’s continued threat, and regional populism, the alliance between the United States and Japan faces unique pressures. Whether those pressures forge a closer relationship or cause divisions between the two countries remains to be seen. Based on my extensive discussions with U.S. and Japanese policymakers and experts, it is clear that the alliance is strong, but is likely to be tested over the coming years.

Both countries will again reconsider the alliance’s role in their respective security policies as they attempt to defend particular and common interests and maintain global order. The alliance will remain primarily a tool for maintaining stability in Asia, but given the interests of both nations, Tokyo and Washington will likely feel pressure to push their cooperaton beyond regional issues to those with a more global character.

To move beyond the photo ops, we must assess the significant changes in the Asian security environment, focusing on challenges and opportunities for stability. How might each government look at the opportunities offered by the alliance to achieve foreign policy goals? This question and others cannot be fully understood without first exploring the domestic political environments in Japan and the United States, especially in light of the rise of populism in the latter. Taking all this into account, I outline how this bedrock alliance may evolve over the next decade.

A Regional Security Environment that Continues to Change

During its six decades, the alliance between Tokyo and Washington has been affected as much by the regional security environment it seeks to shape as by domestic politics in both countries. Today, that security environment is rapidly changing both in Asia and around the world, and populist politics threaten to upend traditional diplomatic and security relationships. Perhaps most alarmingly, disorder continues to spread around the globe. The post-World War II rules-based international system is challenged by both the continuing threat of jihadist nonstate actors and by the continued rise of revisionist and revanchist great powers, including China and Russia. Yet the central role of America and Japan in the global political and trading system means that they cannot insulate themselves from disruption outside their borders and beyind their respective regions. Instead, they must instead pursue active policies to ensure their security and continued prosperity.

While the Obama administration should get due praise for elevating Asia to a first-tier priority, its achievements did not measure up to its expectations. Moreover, the security environment has noticeably deteriorated since 2009, leaving a gap between the rhetoric of the rebalance and the reality of a more unstable Asia. Indeed, the Obama administration left office with an Asia at greater risk of conflict than at any time in recent memory. This was a bitter pill for a government that put so much effort into the so-called “rebalance” to the region.

A snapshot of Asian risk during the year before Trump took office illustrates the challenges facing the new administration. To ring in 2016, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test and claimed that it had successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb. Just three weeks later, the U.S. Navy conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, sailing a guided missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels, and drawing severe condemnation from China. Throughout the rest of the year, the Chinese continued to build up their reclaimed islands in the Spratleys, including completing airstrips and emplacing or preparing for the deployment of defensive weaponry. The sweeping rejection of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea by The Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016 exacerbated tensions rather than meaningfully reinforcing international law, as Beijing flatly rejected the court’s ruling and pressed ahead with militarizing its possessions in contested waters. In February 2016, Pyongyang launched yet another long-range rocket over the East and South China Seas, apparently placing a satellite into orbit.

The Trump administration inherits an environment in which the past two U.S. administrations have presided over irrevocable changes in Asia’s security environment: namely, the attainment of a nuclear capability by North Korea and the “militarization” of China’s territorial disputes. Corresponding feelings of uncertainty and insecurity have risen among China and North Korea’s neighbors.

That China is a driver of much of the regional security concern is no longer a controversial belief. Over the past two decades, Beijing has dramatically modernized and increased the size of its armed forces. From a largely coastal defense force, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now far outstrips any other Asian naval force and operates globally, even as far afield as the Mediterranean.

Last year, China began construction on its first overseas naval base in Djibouti. Its acquisition of aircraft carriers means the PLAN will increase its ability to project power into the South China Sea and western Pacific, while its growing submarine forces will give it further presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, not to mention the inner seas of East Asia. In addition, the growth of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, rocket forces, and cyber capabilities all combine to make the Chinese military the most powerful in Asia.

Instead of becoming more cooperative in regional security affairs, China is using its strength to coerce and threaten its neighbors, take away contested territory (such as at the Scarborough Shoal), and build power projection bases on reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea.

Japan, too, has felt the pressure of a resurgent China. In November 2013, China declared an air defense identification zone over much of the East China Sea, undermining freedom of overflight for civilian airliners. During the summer of 2016, multiple Chinese maritime patrol vessels intruded in contiguous waters near the Senkakus, often while escorting dozens of private fishing vessels. Under President Xi Jinping, China is more assertive and more willing to absorb the diplomatic and political costs incurred by its actions.

Yet there is now a new wrinkle in the story of China’s rise to great-power status: The dramatic slowdown in the Chinese economy raises several intriguing questions about Beijing’s foreign and security policy.

First, how long will the state be able to afford major increases in the military budget? Despite growth rates dropping below 7 percent per annum, the Chinese military budget continues to rise faster than gross domestic product growth each year. While Beijing will try to resource this buildup, expenditures for the Chinese armed forces may drop significantly by 2020 or 2025. Already, the 2016 defense budget increase slipped below 10 percent compared to the previous year for the first time in more than a decade, down to 7.5 percent. A prolonged period of smaller increases in defense spending will make it harder for the Chinese to maintain their military strength over the long run and project power globally.

Second, if the economic slowdown in China continues to worsen, possibly even leading to stagnation, there could be increased domestic unrest from displaced workers and a middle class fearful of losing its wealth. In response, the central government might seek to divert attention away from problems at home through military adventurism abroad, possibly in the East China Sea and very likely in the South China Sea.

Third, the perception of a weaker China could cause the smaller Asian nations to balance against it, and those with territorial disputes may seek to press their advantage against a regime distracted by economic problems. Beijing may well react to such pressure with a military response to head off loss of prestige, influence, and actual territorial claims.

Regardless of which scenario plays out, the next decade will likely witness a new phase in the development of China’s power, as it struggles with slower growth and increased domestic pressure.

Yet China is not the only shaper of the Asian security environment. As shown by its nuclear and missile tests, North Korea remains a danger, one that is objectively becoming more of an acute threat to its neighbors. Over two decades of negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, including the Six-Party Talks, failed to prevent a nuclear-capable North Korea that poses an existential threat to at least two Asian states, including Japan.

In addition, North Korea is steadily developing its long-range ballistic missile program, and an increasing number of analysts believe it can now target at least parts of the American homeland, not to mention all of Japan. Once Pyongyang has a force of nuclear warheads mated to intercontinental ballistic missiles, the world will be forced to recognize it as a full-fledged nuclear power. Given the North Korean regime’s hermetic nature, traditional deterrence models are unlikely to be applicable. Decades of experience have taught North Korean leaders that there will be little price paid for belligerent actions, and China and Russia will help it evade whatever sanctions are levied against it. In return, Pyongyang has perfected the art of intimidation, blackmail, and uncertainty, all designed to keep the United States and its allies off balance.

For U.S. and Japanese officials, recognition that regime survival remains the sine qua non of North Korean political life will continue to serve as the starting point for analysis, policy formation, and diplomatic outreach alike. Here, Japan’s longstanding if often informal links with North Korea must be leveraged to both enhance intelligence gathering and possibly influence different actors inside the Kim government.

The Asia-Pacific region faces other threats to its stability, including the reemergence of Russia as a military player in the process of rebuilding its naval and air power in northeast Asia. Piracyhas also made a comeback in the region’s vital waterways, including around the Malacca Strait. Further, the arms race ignited by China’s military buildup means that more nations in the region now field advanced weapons, including fighter jets, anti-ship missiles, and submarines. This new proliferation raises the general level of regional tension, makes it harder to resolve territorial disputes peacefully, and makes it more likely that miscalculation will lead to armed clashes.

In short, the security environment in the Asia-Pacific has deteriorated over the past decade, even if significant armed clashes have so far been avoided. Without an improvement in relations, a change in Chinese behavior, or the establishment of a durable security architecture, it remains entirely possible that China’s current trajectory will lead to Chinese hegemony in East Asia over the medium term, although the economic constraints noted earlier may make it harder to maintain a position of dominance over the long term. This would then raise doubts about the future of Asia’s open, rules-based system. Both Japanese and American interests would be hurt by such an outcome, leading to difficult policy choices and renewed pressures on the alliance.

A Domestic Environment Facing Political Challenges

These changes in Asia’s security environment are part of a larger increase in global instability over the past decade. As such, they factor into the overall foreign policies of Japan and the United States, but have often been overshadowed by global crises, from the 2008 financial meltdown and subsequent global recession to the rise of the Islamic State. In light of such global challenges, and spurred by the growing risk in the Asia-Pacific, both former President Obama and Prime Minister Abe attempted to shift their Asian foreign and security policies individually and in concert.

Perhaps the more surprising change has occurred in Tokyo, long considered both the junior partner in the alliance, as well as a generally passive player on the global stage. Talk to security officials and experts in Japan today, however, and they are far less restrained than in the past. After downplaying the Chinese threat for so long, they now openly discuss it and make clear that Japan will play a larger role in security issues than in the past. Just as noticeably, Japanese counterparts do not hesitate to share their frustrations with U.S. policy, particularly the Obama administration’s ambiguous response to Beijing’s South China Sea adventurism. They worry that a distracted America is not up to dealing with the plethora of global crises it faces, from the Islamic State and Syria’s unending civil war, to Russian revanchism in Ukraine and the Middle East. This leaves Japan feeling particularly vulnerable in Asia.

Such concerns did not appear overnight, but they intensified in the past decade and upended Tokyo’s traditionally low-profile security policy. After years of minimal response to China’s military buildup and a slowly shifting balance of power, Japan adopted a more activist foreign policy. Former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan led the initial policy moves, including replacing Japan’s aging fighter jets with the stealthy U.S. F-35 and the 2012 decision to purchase several of the Senkaku Islands from their private owner. In addition, under Noda, a shift in overall security strategy was adopted, from focusing on the country’s northeastern frontier to the defense of the southwestern islands, including the Senkakus.

Building on these initiatives, Shinzo Abe has significantly reshaped Japan’s regional security policy since returning to office in late 2012. His approach, described as “Japan’s new realism,” overturned decades of restrictions on Japan’s security activities, including controversially ending the ban on collective self-defense and the prohibition on the export of arms and defense industry cooperation. Both mean that Tokyo will slowly be more able to participate with partners in Asia and globally, partaking more fully in military exercises, co-developing defense-related materials, and possibly supporting nations facing armed pressure.

Government officials and sympathetic experts are far more outspoken under Abe than under previous governments. They make clear that Japan will do the utmost to protect its sovereignty, and they recognize that the first line of defense resides far away from the home islands in the South China Sea or even the Indian Ocean.

Japan’s perspective has broadened in part due to Abe’s activist policies. He has dramatically expanded the range of Japan’s security relationships in Asia with both large and small states. With Australia, he has created a quasi-alliance and enhanced trilateral cooperation with Canberra and Washington. Even though Japan lost out on its bid to build Australia’s new submarines, the broader relationship between Tokyo and Canberra remains strong. The infrastructure that already exists among Japan, Australia, and the United States means that this trilateral grouping forms the primary liberal interest group in Asia today. Abe will likely continue to stress common interests to make Japan an increasingly attractive partner for regional security and political intiatives.

At the other end of the Indo-Pacific region, Abe has formed a particularly close relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two have increased high-level political and military dialogue, and Japan has permanently joined the high-profile India-U.S. Malabar naval exercises. Tokyo has announced plans to sell New Dehli more defense equipment, including maritime patrol planes, though that deal, too, has been delayed. Nonetheless, the overall goal remains: to help New Delhi to monitor Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean, particularly around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are strategically located at the entrance to the Strait of Malacca, thereby linking the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea.

Other Asian nations have also benefited from Japan’s new realism, as well. To improve long-damaged relations with South Korea, Abe agreed to a landmark apology for World War II–era comfort women in December 2015, along with monetary support for the surviving victims. This was followed by reinvigorated U.S.-Japanese-South Korean trilateral discussion about the North Korean threat and multiple phone conversations on the subject between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who since has been impeached for her role in a bribery scandal. Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have all either received or purchased Japanese maritime patrol vessels, while Manila and Hanoi have either conducted or agreed to conduct naval drills with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Perhaps as significantly, Abe has articulated his strategy in terms of upholding Asia’s rules-based order. In prominent speeches in Canberra, Singapore, Washington, and most symbolically at Pearl Harbor. Abe shared his vision of Japan’s role as a bulwark of the liberal international order. He also weighed in on Asia’s territorial disputes, at least rhetorically, by calling for a peaceful resolution and the rejection of coercion as a tool of statecraft. At the same time, Abe could go further by joining Southeast Asian nations and the U.S. Navy in South China Sea maritime patrols or confidence-building exercises. As Washington’s alliance with the Philippines frays under new president Rodrigo Duterte, expanded Japanese security cooperation becomes more important.

At a minimum, Japanese government sources insist that Maritime Self-Defense Force and Japan Coast Guard ships will increase their presence in the South China Sea, although Tokyo remains unlikely to formally join any freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) or joint patrols conducted by the U.S. Navy. Nonetheless, greater presence would put Japan directly in the middle of Asia’s most heated disputes, something that the country traditionally sought to avoid. Abe’s increased activity in the South China Sea already shoehorned Japan into the broader discussion, “regionalizing” the question of freedom of navigation and maritime disputes and further linking once-separate issues into a larger strategic dialogue.

Unlike Japan, the United States has been deeply engaged in Asia for decades from a military angle, as well as economically and politically. Its alliance commitments have required a constant assessment of the region’s overall security balance, as well as providing opportunities to enhance America’s security position. Nevertheless, the rise of China and the continuing North Korean threat have tested Washington’s largely status quo policy over the past decade.

In response, the American counterpart to Japan’s new realism was President Obama’s so-called “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia. This policy focus was first hinted at in 2010, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced at the ASEAN Regional Forum that Washington considered the peaceful, multilateral solution of the South China Sea territorial disputes to be in America’s national interest. Obama formally declared the rebalance during a visit to Australia in November 2011. For the rest of his presidency, U.S. officials from Obama on down repeated numerous times the essential argument that America is a Pacific nation and that it is committed to enhancing its role in Asia. Despite welcoming Obama’s rhetoric, there was an equal amount of skepticism from domestic and foreign sources alike, deriving not from the ostensible goals of the rebalance, but from the gap that ultimately emerged between Obama’s rhetoric and reality.

By the time Obama left office, the rebalance was at best incomplete. The most noticeable parts of the rebalance were those connected with the U.S. military, though the Obama administration repeatedly took pains to express that the rebalance was more than just a security policy directed against China. Yet most observers paid attention to the military elements nonetheless. These included plans for the eventual rotational presence of U.S. Marines and U.S. Air Force aircraft in Darwin, Australia for the first time. In addition, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship would be rotationally homeported in Singapore, increased the overall number of U.S. Navy ships in Asia to 60 percent of the total fleet, forward deployed advanced fighter jets to bases in Guam and Okinawa, and negotiated renewed access to bases in the Philippines for the first time since U.S. forces left Subic Bay and Clark Air Base in the early 1990s. By the end of Obama’s second term, these plans had just begun to come to fruition, though the agreement with the Philippines seems almost certain to fall apart, thanks to Duterte’s shift toward China.

Yet even with the rest of the policies moving ahead, Washington’s rebalance was less successful in improving the worsening security situation. While the Obama administration repeated its expectation that the East and South China Sea maritime disputes be peacefully settled, China continued to coerce the other claimants. Its flat rejection of The Hague arbitration ruling in July 2016 set it at odds with the international community, yet Beijing not only used its economic and political influence to bring Manila toward its position, but also employed Cambodia to obstruct any ASEAN joint statements recognizing The Hague decision, while offering financial blandishments to Malaysia to woo it over to China’s side.

China’s advances in the South China Sea may garner the most headlines, but for Japan, the contest over the Senkakus in the East China Sea remain its primary security worry. Incursions by Chinese fishing boats, maritime patrol vessels, and even the PLAN continue to send signals that Beijijng is serious about challenging Tokyo’s administrative control of the islands. Concern in Japan became serious enough that Obama was forced to publicly state that the Senkakus fell under Article 5 of the mutual defense treaty between Washington and Tokyo; similarly, newly-inaugurated President Trump offered similar assurances during his first summit with Abe, in February 2017. Yet Chinese probing of the islands did not cease with either presidential statement. Similarly, Chinese harassment of Southeast Asian nations continues apace in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, and when the Obama administration repeatedly demanded that China stop its land-reclamation activities, Beijing dismissed them out of hand.

Within the U.S. government, fault lines grew between the military and the Obama White House. Echoing the complaint of previous military leaders, Pacific Command’s Admiral Harry B. Harris testified to Congress in February 2016 that the Navy could only meet 62 percent of his need for attack submarines  Harris also warned that Beijing was seeking hegemony in East Asia and that U.S. policy had failed to alter China’s trajectory. Meanwhile, up in the north, the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” vis-à-vis North Korea did not change Pyongyang’s behavior; more advanced nuclear and missile tests continued unabated, taking place as well during the first months of the Trump administration, when North Korea fired off ballistic missiles.

In response to the worsening security environment in its last years, the Obama administration belatedly approved the ambiguous freedom of navigation and innocent passage sailings of two U.S. Navy destroyers near Chinese-claimed territory, as well as the overflight of P-8 patrol planes. The public announcement of the operations was meant to send a signal to both China and to America’s allies and partners in the region, who worried about continued U.S. commitment to upholding order. Yet reports swirled that Pacific Command was frustrated with the White House’s reluctance to carry our regular FONOPs in the South China Sea, and that when such operations did occur, they were confusingly claimed as “innocent passage.”

Despite the Obama administration’s public rhetoric, moves to secure basing and access, and ongoing military activities, travelers through the region regularly heard doubts expressed by Asian interlocutors about whether China and North Korea can be deterred from their current courses of provocation and confrontation. In part, Asian capitals wanted an unambiguous U.S. statement of interests and far more public displays of U.S. commitment to upholding the open, rules-based system. Fueled by these doubts, the U.S.-Japan alliance has the potential to play a bigger role in shaping Asia’s security environment.

Although America’s security commitment to Japan has been supported by Democratic and Republican presidential administrations alike for the past 60 years, there was a palpable fear during the 2016 campaign that if Donald Trump won the election, he might radically revise U.S. Asia policy. Specifically, Trump promised to walk away from negotiations over host-nation support if Japan did not dramatically increase its payments. In addition, Trump called into question the U.S. nuclear guarantee of extended deterrence, stating in public that he would be willing to let both Japan and South Korea develop their own nuclear weapons. As it turned out, the new administration quickly backed off such dramatic changes, with both Trump and new Secretary of Defense James Mattis publicly reaffirming America’s commitment to the alliance.

However, Trump did follow through on some of his campaign promises, most notably by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. Given the amount of political capital that Abe expended in getting TPP passed, it is no surprise that officials in Tokyo are deeply disappointed by the decision. However, Abe appears focused on the overall state of the U.S.-Japan relationship, and thus did not push the issue during his February summit with Trump.

If Trump appeared to represent a strain of American populism that could undermine Washington’s commitment to remaining engaged in Asia, other Asian partners of the United States have their own populist leanings that represent a challenge to the American alliance system in Asia. The willingness of the Filipino president Duterte to cancel some alliance activities, the lack of cooperation between Washington and the Thai junta, Australia’s nervousness over antagonizing China, and the potential for a progressive South Korean government after 2017 all spell pressure on America’s Asia strategy. It is not entirely far-fetched to envision a period in the near future wherein Tokyo is not only Washington’s most important Asian ally, but perhaps its only real functional one. Should that occur, the pressure on Tokyo would be enormous, both from American policymakers desperate to have as much support as possible and from domestic left-wing opponents, who would seek to limit Japan’s cooperation with the United States. This would represent a moment of key evolution in the alliance, either towards intense cooperation or a less functional, looser arrangement. If one had to bet, the sense of isolation Japan would feel in an Asia tilting toward China would likely result in an intensification of ties with Washington, especially given Trump’s early receptiveness to Abe.

An Alliance in Evolution, Though Not Through Disruption

While Abe’s policies seem radical to many, they are part of a much longer development of Japan’s security interests and a concomitant maturing of the alliance. The U.S.-Japanese alliance evolved slowly during and after the Cold War, from a focus solely on the defense of the Japanese homelands to a broader concern with regional stability. This natural evolution came through careful, sustained diplomatic and security engagement on both sides. Changes in the alliance were guided by successive generations of experts and avoided dramatic disruptions that could have upset the delicate equilibrium between the two partners.

During the 1980s, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone agreed to defend Japan’s sea lanes out to 1,000 miles and its Maritime Self-Defense Forces developed elite  antisubmarine warfare capabilities, primarily through fielding 100 P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft. Using U.S. forces based in Japan, the alliance served as the first line of defense against Soviet expansionism in northeast Asia and the northern Pacific.

In the post–Cold War period, the alliance broadened its focus to encompass emerging challenges, namely China and North Korea. Japan was not involved in the early nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, such as those that led to the 1994 Agreed Framework, but once the North launched a Taepodong medium-range ballistic missile across Honshu in August 1998, the alliance focused on building its ballistic missile defense capability.

In the succeeding years, Japan became the closest U.S. ally for anti-ballistic missile development and deployment, including building Aegis-equipped destroyers. Further, the two began to integrate their air defense operations and improve on sharing information related to the North Korean missile threat. The alliance’s overall expansion to include peninsular issues was encapsulated by the concept of “situations in areas surrounding Japan” in the 1997 Revised Guidelines. Despite the lack of close Japanese-South Korean cooperation, the new guidelines codified the central role the U.S.-Japan Alliance would play in the case of an outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula.

While North Korea remained a constant focus of the alliance, China’s rise presented a different set of challenges. Both Japan and the United States became major trading partners with China, complicating their response to Beijing’s military modernization and growing assertiveness. As the Senkaku Islands dispute heated up after 2012, the American affirmation that the mutual defense treaty covered the islands raised new questions about how the two alliance partners would respond to a revisionist China. After extensive consultations, Washington and Tokyo released the 2015 Revised Guidelines, the first update of the alliance in nearly two decades.

The Revised Guidelines reflected changes in the regional security environment and the alliance’s evolution in scope. The treaty’s core remains Japan’s defense, but the recognition of new threats is driving broader areas of cooperation. The danger of cyberattacks and the threat of space-based threats to communications systems are now priorities, as is the enhancement of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. Traditional areas of cooperation, such as BMD, air defense, and maritime security all remain top priorities.

Yet this updated alliance also pronounces itself committed to helping maintain stability throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Although far less specific on broader regional cooperation than in relation to Japan’s defense, Tokyo has pledged to work more closely with U.S. forces on partner capacity building, in potential collective self-defense situations, and in humanitarian assistance cases.

The Revised Guidelines provide a set of goals for how the alliance will operate in the future, including new coordinating mechanisms. But what are the specific issues on which the two partners could cooperate? Here, Prime Minister Abe’s policy of “proactive diplomacy” may provide a way forward, though it will require Tokyo to commit to a visible and constant leadership role. At the same time, Washington will need the political will to maintain its influence in Asia through increased action, not just rhetoric.

The gravest risk to Asia is the threat of growing disorder. The best way to manage that risk is proactive cooperation that ultimately builds a new security architecture. Perhaps most dangerous in the short run are the various maritime disputes in the region’s seas. Already, naval and paramilitary standoffs over contested islands pit many of the region’s states against China or each other.

While there is no way to get China to submerge the islands it has built in the Spratlys or release its hold on Scarborough Shoal, creating a maritime community that upholds order through persistent presence and joint support is possible. This can be spearheaded by Japan and the United States, while bringing in nations that have territorial claims, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, and those that have a vested interest in freedom of navigation, such as Australia, India, and South Korea. Joint patrols, multinational naval exercises, increased sharing of information, and the training of smaller navies can all build a community of maritime cooperation.

This community should also cooperate in the East China and Yellow Seas, because the region’s waters are one connected strategic space. Both the JMSDF and the Japan Coast Guard can play a leading role with the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet in training, organizing exercises, and ultimately participating in joint patrols and operations. Such confidence-building measures among participants will help reduce uncertainty and the feeling of insecurity that many smaller maritime nations have.

Regarding North Korea, the Trump administration should scrap the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience,” which while prudent, also allowed Pyongyang eight years to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities. Going forward, the U.S.-Japan alliance should be increasingly integrated into contingency planning for a Korean crisis with enhanced trilateral discussion, coordination, and activities between Japan, South Korea, and the United States. While the two alliances should not and could not be formally merged, the threat North Korea poses to both Japan and South Korea means that they need to be far more engaged in actual planning for how to deal with an armed conflict on the peninsula or the collapse of the Kim regime in North Korea. Given the crucial role U.S. bases in Japan would play in the logistics operations of any military engagement, Tokyo and Seoul should be thinking about overall strategic stability in northeast Asia. This may be more difficult if a progressive government takes power in Seoul, but long-standing ties between the South Korean and U.S. militaries should offer some degree of continuity, even with a left-leaning government.

Finally, the alliance should play a larger role in supporting and strengthening democratic, liberal states in Asia. President Trump has not spoken that specifically about a democracy agenda, but he has a partner in Prime Minister Abe willing to discuss liberal values in the region. Those states struggling with the democratic process, such as Thailand, or newly committed to a liberalizing path, such as Myanmar, should be a focus of attention from the alliance, encouraging the return to democracy or further liberalization. If China enters a sustained economic slowdown, there is an opportunity to forge closer economic and political ties with southeast Asian nations that rely on export-led growth to modernize their economies. If the Trump administration remains opposed to the TPP, then it should at least energetically pursue bilateral trade treaties, starting with Japan. Including more developing Asian nations over time in bilateral and smaller multilateral treaties would promote better governance and strengthen political ties among states with open economies.

Similarly, the alliance should increasingly link Asia’s democracies by sponsoring legislative, military, media, and student exchanges. It is also time to revisit the idea of a summit of democracies in Asia as a way to promote the strengthening of civil society, rule of law, human rights, equality, and education. As Asia’s most developed democracy, Japan can play a special role with the United States in championing liberal values.

While Japan’s historical experience is very different from most Asian nations, its leadership in developing civil society and solidifying democracy at home can uniquely allow it to discuss its experiences and work with other nations that are exploring the path of liberalization. Not only could the Japanese government do this, but also Japanese nongovernmental organizations could work with American counterparts to develop grassroots ties across the region. Although not formally an alliance activity, support from both Tokyo and Washington for such endeavors would clearly help fulfill the goal of “mutual cooperation” in the alliance.

None of this will come to fruition if populist voices triumph in America or if Japanese hesitancy to get more geopolitically involved reigns. The almost uniquely favorable global position of both countries results from a set of conditions made possible by their cooperative engagement on regional and global issues. To turn away from global responsibilities that benefit their own bottom line would be to reduce the influence of both America and Japan globally and would result in a less dynamic economic and political environment than both countries have generally relied on. The increase in uncertainty alone from a rejection of their commitments would have an unknown but almost certainly malign effect on both China and North Korea, likely leading to further aggression on their parts. Indeed, buying down risk though a robust alliance that continues to evolve to meet new challenges itself helps stabilize regional political and economic relations.

The time is ripe for the alliance between the United States and Japan to help create a new community of liberal nations in Asia and to forge a cooperative security architecture. Based on shared democratic values and concrete security interests, and working with a host of partners throughout the region (and even in Europe), the alliance has the potential to halt the continued deterioration of Asia’s security environment. While increasing joint activity in the South China Sea or in relation to North Korea may appear to raise risk in the short-term, only by changing today’s trends can the Asia-Pacific hope to remain peaceful in the coming decade.


Michael Auslin, a resident scholar and the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The End of the Asian Century (Yale University Press, 2017). This article was adapted from a report presented at the National Institute for Defense Studies’ 2016 International Security Seminar in Tokyo, Japan. The author appreciates the research assistance of Eddie Linczer in the preparation of this article.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Corey Beal