Developing an Alliance Agenda for an Era of Geostrategic Change

Date September 12, 2014
Speaker Sheila A. SMITH(Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR))
Moderator KURODA Junichiro(Director, Americas Division, Trade Policy Bureau, METI)


Sheila A. SMITH's Photo

I wanted to talk about how we collectively conceive of the U.S.-Japan alliance within the broader context of a changing Asia-Pacific. I believe we have to consider carefully whether we are ready to cope with an increasingly volatile world. Our alliance has to do with both the military balance and the variety of resources we have to bring to bear, including economic resources and stronger intellectual resources. The end point is to position Tokyo and Washington better for collective action both bilaterally and regionally.

We have to reexamine carefully whether we are doing enough and if it is fast enough and where we should focus our resources to prepare the alliance for the future. It would be important to return to the formative moment of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Japan is seen by some as possibly moving away from the Yoshida Doctrine and the basic premises of its post-war approach, not only to the alliance but also to its own security. Japan can hear this in its conversation about its Constitution, in how it views its environment and neighborhood, and in terms of the professional dialogue of its uniformed services. Today's Self-Defense Forces is very different from that under the term of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. U.S. policy is likewise very different than it was during the era of former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said much the same thing during a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations which I attended. She said that the 21st century United States has to lead in a very different way than did the 20th century post-war United States.

New national leaders and issues for the current U.S.-Japan alliance

This is not the first time our alliance has confronted significant geostrategic change, but the alliance faces new and fairly significant pressures. Northeast Asia is in the midst of a significant leadership transition, with a new generation of leaders, of which some are more predictable than others. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been working to revitalize Japan economically and has focused on its defense needs. The Communist Party of China faces possibly its most significant challenges ever as the government of China, yet General Secretary Xi Jinping seems to have moved carefully but adeptly to consolidate his power in this much more complicated China.

President Park Geun-hye represents a different vision for South Korea as well. She's a conservative but with broad political support across the progressive-conservative divide in South Korea. And, of course, we have North Korea's third-generation Kim Jong-un, a young leader who is somewhat unpredictable and ruthless and is trying to consolidate his own legitimacy while running into problems with his long-term ally Beijing and seeking ways to create better interactions with Japan and the United States.

Some in Tokyo have made reference to the so-called G2, this U.S. overture to Xi at the beginning of his term to see whether the two highest-level leaders could have a conversation about the future for Japan, China, and the rest of the Asia-Pacific, and the United States' role. The issue of the U.S. government's ability to deal with China is very complex, and since this attempt at dialogue was made by U.S. President Barack Obama, there has not been a similar conversation. We are about to have another visit and Obama will be talking with Xi at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting.

The Asia-Pacific, China, and maritime boundary issues

The alliance has to learn to contend with basic issues. The Asia-Pacific today has some major problems at its core. The island disputes are one of the biggest challenges. It's not just one island; it's a plethora of flashpoints where we could see the use of force.

The other piece of the puzzle is the ways in which China's neighbors are responding. There's a great deal of anxiety as governments and societies try to deal with the variety of influences emanating from China with a complex mix of domestic policy and diplomacy. Chinese influence is unsettling much of the region, putting a great deal of pressure on governments.

We also have the maritime boundary issues. The South China Sea has all of the complexity of historical legacy and of the maritime boundary issue in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and all of the implications of a rising military confrontation, if not a clash, between the United States and China. Similar dynamics exist in the East China Sea where South Korea, Japan, and China intersect economically and militarily. A large part of the strategic story is also going on underneath the waters of the East China Sea and offshore.

The United States has alliances with South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, all of which have slightly different basing agreements in terms of forward deployed U.S. forces. The Philippines has just renewed its agreement to allow the United States greater access, but the United States no longer has fixed bases there. The military piece of the rebalancing strategy is to look for places, not bases, and rotate forces and build collaboration with partners throughout the region. That's a maritime function and a question of air superiority and how to maintain both in the face of a Chinese rise.

Events in the Korean Peninsula could also fundamentally alter the strategic balance in Northeast Asia. Japan's military and strategic planning with the United States since the 1950s has been focused on the Korean Peninsula, given the large probability that conflict in the region would emanate from there. The United States remains not very far away from that contingency today. The Korean situation has changed. Nuclear proliferation and missile delivery capabilities have begun to change fundamentally the way we think about extended deterrence in the alliance.

The second point is the maritime impact. In December 2012, North Korea successfully launched an intermediate range missile from a base on its west coast on a trajectory directly over the very problematic East China Sea. This is becoming a very crowded space, contested among Japan, China, the United States, and North Korea.

Countries are moving in the direction of greater defense spending due to threat perception, the increasing focus on maritime domain protection, and increasing prosperity in which the militaries of the region want to share.

The question of risk reduction is equally pertinent in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea. One of the United States' highest priorities in the Asia-Pacific today is persuading China that military risk reduction is in its interest as well as the region's collective interest.

The U.S. rebalance to Asia and territorial issues

What is the status of Obama's rebalance to Asia? The Obama administration was very focused on and successful in energizing its Asia policy from the beginning, hoping to align the U.S. long-term strategic planning with its long-term interests, focus on the Asia-Pacific, build cooperation structures, strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), participate in the East Asia Summit, and strengthen its participation and visibility in the region as a partner with other countries. Crises elsewhere have drawn its attention away, however. Over the last 12 months, increasingly, the Middle East has come calling again. When crises occur, U.S. attention is drawn to them.

There's a final point about these new pressures. Today, because of the Senkaku territorial dispute with China, Japan is on the frontline for the potential use of force for the first time. What happens if Japan experiences a use of force incident before the United States? How does the United States factor into that contingency? We have to consider the gray area of a non-lethal force incident, how that could escalate, and what the U.S.' role could be in tamping down escalation. We need to think about crisis management where Tokyo feels compelled to respond and then the United States will have to respond afterwards. That psychologically shifts our conversation about what this new geostrategic shift really means for the alliance.

Crisis management and risk reduction are high priorities for both Japan and the United States in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea

Maritime boundaries are still being disputed. The Philippines' adjudication at the UNCLOS tribunal will be interesting. Whether we can develop dispute resolution procedures collectively under international law, UNCLOS, or ASEAN is a critical piece of the future Asia-Pacific security challenge.

Dissonance over the question of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)—at least in perception—exists. There's very little dissonance over what this means for us as an alliance and also what it means in terms of Chinese ambitions. The initial announcement of the ADIZ was much more assertive than what has actually happened since. Quiet discussions among the United States, China, Japan and South Korea have been fairly persuasive in pointing out to China that the enforcement it originally publicly announced is not acceptable either under international law or in terms of its relationships with its neighbors. China has stepped back from asserting that an ADIZ is something akin to sovereignty that needs to be defended by its military. Nonetheless, militaries are operating in very close proximity. A lot more conversation with China is needed. It is also increasingly going to be in the air which is much harder to develop risk reduction mechanisms around.

China and the status quo

History shows that rising powers feel that their expansion is in their own interests and that they have a legitimate right to increase their military capabilities, and they don't like to be kept down. I suspect that that's very much the thinking in Beijing. We must engage with China clearly considering fairness among countries and this unfolding process. Our countries will be thinking carefully about how to develop mechanisms to prevent escalation that also incorporate Chinese interests.

The last point is whether China is more tolerant of risk than is the United States. Status quo powers tend to not want to have wars and conflicts and to be satisfied with the status quo. Countries not satisfied may be willing to take greater risks. That doesn't make them hostile, but it makes our calculation of risk reduction more complex. When the U.S. military thinks about these interactions with China, it asks how it can communicate to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) that it is in their interest to be risk averse militarily.

New challenges

Today's guidelines will take into consideration earlier scenarios and China's maritime expansion, specifically the gray area contingencies worrying the Japanese government. They will also take into consideration the broader maritime, aerial and cyber domains. These are new domains which our militaries have to consider in terms of alliance security.

The context in Asia is more complicated. For decades, Japan has supported an ASEAN-centric vision of regional governance. We are now on the same page. However, ASEAN countries are increasingly worried about tensions between Japan and China. Nothing could disintegrate ASEAN more quickly than a sustained rivalry between the two major economic powers in Asia.

There is also a third challenge which I don't know how to resolve: unresolved historical legacies. The tensions that started in 2012 between Japan and South Korea have been a setback for trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea discussions on North Korea and defense cooperation. The Chinese reaction to the purchase of the Senkakus was to leave the China-Japan-Republic of Korea trilateral. The question of historical legacies will affect the summit next year because China is very determined to make the 70th anniversary of the end of the war a focal point of its diplomacy.

There are new alignments for Japan, and I think the Abe Cabinet has been very astute in moving much more quickly with Australia, India, and Russia. I think the overtures to Russia were quite wise.


Q1. What is your perspective on how to deal with India and Russia more constructively or strategically?

Sheila A. SMITH
In theory, Japan having an independent track with Moscow undoubtedly is a good idea geostrategically. However, given Russian behavior in the Ukraine, there is a question of whether Japan can or should sustain that independent diplomatic line. Japan is probably not going to impose sanctions equivalent to the level of the United States or Europe.

I think Russia President Vladimir Putin is moving in a direction not conducive to Japanese interests, and it makes me feel less convinced that some resolution of the territorial dispute is possible. This could change, but as long as there are Russian troops and Russian military support for the militias in Ukraine, then basically it is a barely disguised invasion of another sovereign country. We need to hold Russia accountable. There's also timing to consider. From the perspective of Japan's partners in Europe and the United States, if Putin were to have a state visit to Tokyo, it would be a shock.

I think Japan has a much greater opportunity with India. Japan's interests with India have been fairly consistent. The question is whether India can move in a direction that will make Japanese investment and engagement in India much more successful. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's success in India will largely determine how far that partnership can go. I think maritime coordination, regular maritime dialogue, and now Sri Lanka will be part of it.

Q2. Japan's understanding on the Senkakus is very clear through historical and diplomatic evidence. If the United States maintains its diplomatic and strategic position on this issue, it may allow Beijing to continue pressing the issue. What is the background to this U.S. diplomatic position?

Sheila A. SMITH
Until the late 1960s, the language used by the United States was "Japan's residual sovereignty." The United States recognized Japan's residual sovereignty over inherently Japanese territories that it occupied until 1972. The diplomatic records show that in the context of the Okinawa Reversion Agreement, the Republic of China (Taiwan) strenuously protested the return of the Senkakus to Japan and said that it would contest it as Chinese territory. By September 1971, the People's Republic of China (PRC) had joined with Taiwan in a formal statement as well. U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger questioned if there was a different position to be taken to get more neutrality. Some say the opening to China changed the United States' thinking, but I don't think we had ever had to think about it that carefully before.

Today, the U.S. policy is not to take a position on sovereignty, but to do so on Article 5 protections, because those islands are under the administrative control of Japan. The United States has developed its position into "We do not accept a coercive change in the status quo." That was added as China attempted to say it could demonstrate at least half of administrative control over the islands so that the United States can recognize the dispute, but the United States refused.

I don't think there will be a change in the basic sovereignty argument. Either Beijing or Tokyo will have to decide to go back to bilateral management of the issue or, at some point, request or require third-party mediation. The political leaders in both Tokyo and Beijing would have to be willing to accept third party mediation. If that happens, then U.S. documentary evidence very easily could become part of the conversation at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). If there is third-party mediation, then we have archives on how the United States understood the sovereignty of those islands and what documentary evidence there is to the effect that this was Japanese territory.

Q3. You mentioned the importance of an institutional framework to persuade China to understand the necessity of reducing risk. However, there was no clear answer as to how to construct the appropriate framework through which to persuade it. Also, what is the role of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?

Sheila A. SMITH
There is no single framework that will solve our problems across the range of issues concerning China. The United States and Japan instead ought to recognize that part of their responsibility is to sustain existing frameworks. I think existing mechanisms of conflict dispute adjudication also have to be used. The United States and Japan have to support institutions that reflect their view of the correct way to adjudicate disputes and not allow China to denigrate or ignore them. Also, it is necessary to improve the currently existing institutions. UNCLOS is a very amorphous organization, but nonetheless it's what we have in terms of developing norms of behavior in the maritime domain. The United States has as much responsibility as other partners, so if it wants to be in the game, it must ratify UNCLOS.

When I talk about risk reduction, I am very clearly thinking about the military domain. The United States has pushed hard for military-to-military talks with China. From the time former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went to China and was treated in a way that some U.S. military leaders thought was very disrespectful, the U.S. leadership has attempted to make the point that it cannot afford to allow this kind of risk to continue. The United States can't prevent every incident in the South China Sea, but it does now have a naval agreement concluded in Shanghai, signed by 22 Asia-Pacific navies, that gives naval commanders a protocol for communication should they find themselves up against each other. It's a start. There is a China that understands that war will not increase its ability to pursue economic development. The reality is that Chinese leaders are not necessarily on a course for war.

Part of it will be multilateral persuasion. The TPP is also important. It will demonstrate that the United States is still capable of moving a trade agreement forward with the region, and that it has enough invested in this process so that it will continue to see it through. Also, Japan's choice to join the TPP and lead the process with the United States has provided an entirely different momentum. The conclusion of the TPP is not just about China. The impact in terms of economic growth in both Japan and the United States cannot be underestimated. The TPP is an investment—not just in the United States' own national economic performance and growth but also in the kind of region that we in Washington and Tokyo want to build and lead.

Q4. On the Senkaku issue, the Japanese government has been adamant that there is no dispute. What you said seems to contradict that. If there is no dispute, then there is no discussion about management of the dispute. Second, if Japan were to agree that there is a dispute and begin talks about how to manage it with China, it would just be another step for China in developing its territorial demands. That's the concern.

Sheila A. SMITH
Governments can have disputes without calling them disputes. I wouldn't get backed into the Chinese precondition that we have to say it's a dispute. However, the Japanese government has acknowledged that China has a different point of view. The United States has a different point of view over Taiwan, yet it has a policy and a relationship with Beijing.

My Japanese colleagues often asked, "What if the Chinese build a base on the Senkakus?" The realities of both maritime operations and surveillance techniques and technologies say that: A) it wouldn't matter; it is unnecessary for their surveillance of us or their maritime defense of their territorial boundaries, and, as a strategic base, it doesn't make sense, and B) there's no fresh water, so people can't live there, and it's not a very easy place to defend and maintain for both Japan and China. So the strategic value for those islands is only symbolic, in terms of the two countries' interactions in the East China Sea. The psychological value for the political elite in China is very high. Also, notice that the ADIZ is entirely congruent with China's continental shelf claim. Similarly, I suspect China will also be consistent in the way it attempts to gain military control over the South China Sea. We should do everything we can to make sure that it is unsuccessful.

Q5. I thought that the Obama administration's Asia shift policy would have a great tailwind effect for Japan, but the recent Obama speech regarding the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) would involve extended military engagement in the Middle East again. How much influence will this situation have on the U.S. rebalance to Asia?

Sheila A. SMITH
For most Americans, the idea that ISIS could develop into an organization that could threaten the U.S. homeland is at the surface of our thinking. I suspect that the decision has been made that this is not a conflict that the United States can ignore and that its allies in the Middle East want the United States to deal with it. As for the Asia rebalance, it may be too early to know the effect. I don't think it will cut U.S. spending in terms of the long-term modernization of its forces.

KURODA Junichiro
What do you think the impact of the sequestration or budget defense cuts will be in the mid-term?

Sheila A. SMITH
The United States will be looking for opportunities for strategic leverage. Its budget has already been cut back by 20% and will go further. After the mid-terms, it will revisit the budgetary debate. On the defense side, the sequestration itself and the shutdown affect day-to-day operations and its readiness. As to the effect on the U.S.' long-term planning, the cuts are already being made and there will be tradeoffs to discuss.

KURODA Junichiro
Do you think there is any gap between the expectations and what Japan is doing or willing to do?

Sheila A. SMITH
The relaxation of defense technology transfer is a very significant signal that Japan is willing to think about things it has not been willing to in the past. We will have to watch and see how fast Japan is really prepared to move in the direction of expanding its defense cooperation and in which ways. There will be a very sophisticated transformation of Japan's defense technology transfer regime but which way it will go is unpredictable.

Q6. You gave a very positive assessment of Japan's defense technology export cooperation, but no institutional framework has been built. There's much talk but not much happening on the ground. This is somewhat typical from my experience. Fortunately, we have strong leadership in the Japanese government, so it would be good if you could instruct them so that they understand the importance you are giving to this cooperation.

Sheila A. SMITH
I think expectations are high for Abe, but there is also some caution regarding the issues of history and the ability and politics particularly surrounding the issue of sexual slavery or comfort women and the Korea relationship. I think people are watching with some confusion as to what's happening internally with this issue. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga's management of the politics in the Diet was quite adroit, but with the Asahi Shimbun retraction and the reaction thereto, there is a mood right now that I worry about.

I think most people in Washington would commend Japan's leadership. On the defense side, there may be some bureaucratic frustrations about going faster, but Abe has managed to do things that no other political leader has done in a long time. However, I worry about the diplomatic estrangement with Seoul which could allow a poisonous atmosphere to develop between the two countries. That would make it very hard to get back on track. There is cautious optimism on collective self defense, and the signals are positive.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.