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The Japan-United States security alliance took a critical step last weekend. The two governments released a joint declaration that made explicit what has long been left unsaid in their thinking about regional security. The new statement provides a foundation for the continued vitality and relevance of the bilateral alliance. Most important, it makes plain the interests both countries have in extending their relationship and how they can work together to build a safer world.

The Security Consultative Committee (SCC) is a regular bilateral get-together that includes the top officials from each country dealing with foreign and defense affairs. Last weekend’s meeting involved Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and Defense Agency Director General Yoshinori Ono and their U.S. counterparts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It was notable on several counts. The most important was that it marked the first real attempt to present a rationale for the alliance in the post-September 11 world.

The last SCC meeting was held in December 2002. Then, the participants reiterated their commitment to the alliance and the need to work together to combat new threats. But the statement read more like a policy checklist than a genuine and fundamental appraisal of the bilateral relationship.

This time, Japan and the U.S. made a systematic assessment of the emerging threat environment, explained their common interests and explored how they could work together to ensure regional and global peace and security. Global concerns identified in the joint declaration include the promoting of fundamental values such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law; consolidating the Japan-U.S. partnership to help bring peace, stability and prosperity worldwide; fighting the spread of weapons of mass destruction; eliminating terrorism; strengthening the United Nations; and stabilizing global energy supplies.

Closer to home, the two countries vowed to ensure Japan’s security; promote peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula and peaceful resolution of all issues related to North Korea, including its missile programs and the abduction of Japanese nationals; develop a cooperative relationship with Beijing while encouraging it to be more transparent in its military affairs; and seek the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait. Relations with Russia and Southeast Asia were also singled out.

The readiness to identify crucial concerns reveals the second most important element of the joint declaration: It makes explicit what has long been left unsaid in the alliance. In the past, when the two countries talked about regional security and ways to ensure the relevance of the alliance, they preferred Delphic statements that prompted as many questions as answers. The most famous is the 1997 “Defense Guidelines,” which noted that Japan and the U.S. will cooperate in contingencies “in areas surrounding Japan.”

This elliptical phrase was assumed to refer to a Taiwan Strait crisis, but the two governments, and most especially Tokyo, were reluctant to be explicit and risk offending China — or alert the Japanese public to the potential risks attendant to a cross-strait contingency that involved the U.S. and, by extension, Japan.

China has responded with predictable alarm to the most recent declaration, saying that Taiwan is an internal Chinese affair and that Japan and the U.S. are interfering in China’s sovereignty. Considering that the declaration only calls on both sides to find a peaceful resolution to their differences — Beijing’s often stated preference — it is hard to take seriously the Chinese response. Indeed, a real crisis in the Taiwan Strait is a security concern for Japan and the U.S., and for the region and the entire world. Pretending otherwise serves no purpose.

Rather than complaining, Beijing would be better served by taking up the declaration’s call for China to play a responsible role in global affairs and to cooperate with Tokyo and Washington to realize shared goals and common objectives. Similarly, China would contribute to regional peace and stability — and build confidence in its intentions — by being more transparent about its military modernization plans.

The third important component of the joint declaration is the agreement to promote sharing of U.S. military bases in Japan between U.S. troops and the Self-Defense Forces. This will help lighten the burden on municipalities that host bases and facilitate discussion on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan and regionally. Interoperability and revised roles and missions are another essential element of a modern Japan-U.S. alliance.

Finally, the SCC declaration offers the Japanese people insight into national security policy and the direction of our alliance with the U.S. The publication in December of the “National Defense Program Outline” and the “Mid-Term Defense Program” laid out the contours of Japan’s national strategy and its role in the world. Reaching a national consensus on those issues are two of the most pressing items on the national agenda. It is time Japan took up that debate in earnest.

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