US-Japan alliance is ripe for renewal

President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan are poised for progress when they meet this weekend.

The last time President Obama met his counterpart in Japan, their pledge to revitalize the alliance fell like the proverbial tree in a lonesome forest. That was one year ago. This time, despite being overshadowed by multilateral economic summitry, the American president and the Japanese prime minister are poised for progress when they meet this weekend. After a period of drift, the US-Japan alliance is ripe for renewal.

Political changes

Two events brought this period of drift in the alliance to an end.

The first was the Democratic Party of Japan’s maturation. While the DPJ has a long way to go toward transitioning from an opposition to a governing party, the intraparty election two months ago provided a turning point. By winning a convincing victory over Ichiro Ozawa (the man who created the party), Naoto Kan solidified his authority.

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In addition, the election accelerated the ascendance of a younger generation of politicians, including but by no means limited to foreign minister Seiji Maehara, who take a pragmatic stance on security issues, strongly support the alliance, and are determined for Japan to make a greater contribution in the world. The election dispelled much of the political uncertainty overhanging Tokyo and refashioned the DPJ into a more effective US partner.

The second event was a maritime confrontation between Japan and China. On September 7, as video footage demonstrates, a Chinese fishing trawler rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels patrolling near the Senkakus – an island group administered by Tokyo but also claimed by Beijing. When Japan took the trawler captain into custody, China retaliated by cutting off exports of rare-earth elements, minerals vital to Japan’s high-tech industry. For the DPJ as well as the Japanese public, this crisis underscored the value of the alliance.

Unlike a year ago, the alliance is now ready to move from rhetoric to action. Post-summit efforts to revitalize the alliance should initially focus on the two most pressing issues – China and the economy.

Cooperation to counter China

With increasing assertiveness accompanying China’s continued ascendance, Washington and Tokyo must do more to prepare for the possibility of a non-peaceful rise. This means improving the interoperability of the US military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

In particular, the United States and Japan should boost the interoperability of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations. Both defense establishments should also begin preparing to counter China’s deployment of ballistic missiles capable of targeting foreign ships and bases in the Western Pacific. This will require hardening US military facilities in Japan, enhancing missile defenses, and exploring new basing options.

Further, Japan should strengthen capabilities that exploit weaknesses in China’s military strategy. Tokyo should purchase more diesel attack submarines, invest in naval mines, and expeditiously choose a replacement for its aging F-4EJ fighter.

Hedging against China’s uncertain trajectory will require the United States and Japan to work more closely with other countries in the region. While eschewing a “concert of democracies,” which would appear a thinly veiled attempt to contain China, the two allies should promote greater trilateral cooperation among Asian democracies and other likeminded states.

Renewal depends on economic collaboration

President Obama and Prime Minister Kan have no higher domestic priority than restoring economic growth. Although traditionally downplayed in favor of hard security issues, economic collaboration must become an integral part of alliance renewal.

The United States and Japan remain world leaders in clean energy and already have a program of cooperation under the moniker of a “green alliance.” Existing initiatives such as “smart grid” cooperation and conservation can be expanded and new ones launched, such as cooperation on safer ways to process the world’s growing stockpile of radioactive nuclear waste.

In the health-care field, the United States and Japan enjoy several unique advantages. They not only possess world-class technology, but also have growing populations of elderly citizens with the financial resources to afford the best health care possible. If they work together, the United States and Japan can effectively leverage their large and sophisticated health-care markets to develop products to export to a graying world.

Trade remains a key avenue for achieving sustained economic growth. The United States and Japan should cooperate to expand export opportunities in emerging markets. With respect to China, they should ratchet up pressure for a revaluation of the renminbi by rallying other members of the Group of 20.

Despite the likely absence of a joint security declaration (something that was sought to highlight the 50th anniversary of the alliance), this weekend’s meeting between Obama and Kan bears watching. It marks the inflection point between a period of drift and alliance renewal.

Dr. Patrick Cronin is senior adviser and Asia Security Program senior director at the Center for a New American Security, where Dr. Daniel Kliman is a visiting fellow. They are the authors of the CNAS report “Renewal: Revitalizing the US-Japan Alliance.”

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