Last week, Japan played host to a meeting of the foreign ministers from Japan, Australia, India and the United States. The purpose of the “Quad” meeting was to assess how to reinforce the rules-based international order and move jointly towards securing a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Per the norm following any of these sorts of Quad-related meetings, a debate emerged surrounding the utility of such a security relationship. Is it futile for Japan to be pursuing this? Could the world be seeing the underpinnings of a new NATO-like alliance in Asia? What can Japan’s role even be in such a security arrangement?

Those are all valid questions related to the Quad and indeed all of Japan's prospective security relationships as the country seeks to find its place in global security during the Reiwa Era. Those questions are not easy to answer either, especially given the country’s unique constitutional provisions that limit just how far it can cooperate with any prospective ally. The questions are, however, possible to answer if one understands how to examine Japan’s security relationships in the first place.

The first step is to recognize Japan's limitations as a security partner. The government's Article 9-related policies prohibit the Self-Defense Force from joining combined military commands (like NATO), limit the geographic reach and legal employability of the nation’s military capabilities, and restrict the scope of its ability to exercise collective self defense. The lattermost condition means that Japan is unable to enter a mutual defense pact that so commonly underwrites alliance relationships.

For anyone that is not a global superpower, those limitations may seem like instant deal breakers when considering Japan as an ally. Still, just like any relationship, bonds based on security interests are complex. Countries that have signed alliance treaties can be terrible security partners if their goals no longer align or they have no mechanisms in place for exercising the provisions of an alliance agreement. Conversely, countries that have no formal alliance agreement can be superb partners when they are aligned in their efforts and have taken steps to formalize practical cooperation. Given this, it's useful to break down security relationships into six components, and we'll use the Japan-India alignment as an example.

The first component is common interests, which exist at the core of any security relationship. These can be broad in scale, such as a common threat or a desire to change the security status quo. Conversely, it may be narrow in scope, focusing simply on a mutual area of concern such as counter-terrorism or anti-piracy. For Japan and India, their interests overlap in many meaningful areas, not least of which is the desire to counterbalance China's disruption of a rules-based order.

The second component consists of unilateral policies that one country establishes to foster security engagement with another. Examples include Official Development Assistance (ODA), budgeting for joint military exercises and invitations to security dialogues. Japan's formulation of the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" strategy is an evolution of its "Asian Security Diamond" concept that called for cooperation between India, Japan, the United States and Australia (i.e. the Pacific "diamond") in reinforcing international rules and norms against would-be revisionist powers. They took this strategy to their desired partners with proposals for engagement. Also of note, Japan happens to be a consistent contributor of ODA to India.

The third component is routine security engagement; that is, any activity meant to enhance security that happens with some level of frequency. The term “routine” is important because security relationships are not built upon a one-off action. The engagement that underpins these relationships occurs on a routinized basis, whether formal or informal. This includes exercises, high-level meetings, real-world military or policing operations and others.

Japan and India have engaged in exercises and strategic dialogues with increasingly higher frequency, both bilaterally and multilaterally with other members of the Quad. Japan has participated in the annual Exercise MALABAR (a trilateral exercise with the United States) since 2015 and has stepped up additional exercises in between. The most recent bilateral exercise (JIMEX 2020) took place just two weeks ago in the North Arabian Sea.

The fourth component is negotiated policies, which happen when decisions are made with another state’s security interests specifically in mind. Importantly, the states themselves communicate those interests through direct negotiations or consultations and there is typically some give-and-take. This negotiation creates distinction from two countries moving in parallel towards a common objective and those working in concert.

Japan and India have been negotiating security policies for over a decade now. They signed their Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2008 and have since refined the vision for their security relationship through subsequent joint statements. The most recent of which came in 2019 after Japan and India’s first-ever “2+2” Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting. That latest joint statement identified the countries’ common interests, highlighted their routine security engagement and charted a course for action on the objects that make up the next component.

The fifth component is negotiated instruments meant to institutionalize negotiated policies. These are international agreements, memoranda, operational plans and other things that formalize policies, institutions and activities. Examples include but are not limited to the following: Status of Forces Agreements, which provide the legal basis for routine deployment of foreign forces; a General Sharing of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which codifies the sharing of classified information between countries; and a nonaggression pact, which obligates one signatory to the agreement from using force against another.

There are two features of these instruments that make them important: formality and exclusivity. The formality is critical because it serves as a strategic signal of mutually shared interests and policies, and it provides the legal basis for sustainment of the security relationship. The fact that these instruments include specific rights and obligations denotes a level of exclusivity; that is, not every country has those same rights and obligations.

Although it has taken years of negotiation, Japan and India have signed several instruments to underpin their security cooperation. Just last month, the two countries inked an “Acquisitions and Cross Servicing Agreement” to enable mutual logistics support. And last week, they came to terms on an agreement on cybersecurity cooperation. While neither of those are game-changing, each negotiated instrument represents another brick in the foundation of the security relationship.

Finally, there are alliance treaties. This is the ultimate instrument for security relationships meant to incorporate all of those components in some way or another. What makes it different from any other type of agreement is that it contains an obligation for use of military force when a certain threshold is met. Importantly, while an alliance treaty is the highest level security agreement that can exist between partners, it means nothing if the other components are not also present.

The probability of Japan gaining a treaty ally besides the United States is exceedingly low, since, as indicated earlier, its Constitution makes it unable to offer guarantees of mutual defense. On the other hand, few of Japan's burgeoning security partners are looking to sign themselves up to the defense of others either; not least of which is India, which has a strict nonalignment policy. Thus, the two countries will look past the need to sign an alliance treaty, instead focusing on other components that can bolster their security ties.

This article used the Japan-India alignment as an example, but as Japan moves forward in the Reiwa Era, the approach demonstrated here is useful. To understand Japan’s security relationships, one must try examining each as a sum of its parts. This works whether looking at Japan’s ties with Australia, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, or any other country. It also helps make sense of why the Japanese government takes certain policy positions, especially when the pundits and armchair observers start arguing about matters related to the surface level politics of the day.

For example, this approach makes it understandable why Japan views its GSOMIA with South Korea as so important: It’s because the GSOMIA constitutes the two countries' only political-level negotiated instrument they’ve achieved in their security relationship in recent years, especially as politics has disincentivized policies and engagement that foster closer ties.

The approach also elucidates how the Quad, though still in its fledgling stage, is actually progressively building a foundation through negotiated policies and instruments. The same goes for Japan’s bilateral relationships with Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Canada and the Philippines. Just because those countries have not made it to that pinnacle (and unachievable) alliance treaty with Japan does not mean that there has not been substantive progress. Like anything, it takes time and commitment.

Using the rubric of the six components to examine Japan’s security relationships helps cut through the chaff in all the commentary and punditry out there. At the very least, it helps identify all the work the Japanese government is putting into fostering its future security relationships, even if those efforts are not immediately recognizable.

Dr. Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.