It has been a good week for Japan.
The recent meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) showed that the group could make important contributions to regional security. The visit this week to Japan by the U.S. secretaries of State and Defense confirmed the strength of our bilateral alliance and the vitality of our partnership. It is still early in the Biden administration, but it is off to a good start, although much work must be done.
The virtual summit of the four leaders of Quad countries — Japan, Australia, India and the United States — should quiet fears that the forum would be just a talk shop, unable to provide concrete deliverables that would improve Indo-Pacific security.
The establishment of three working groups — on vaccines, climate change and emerging technologies — shows that those governments have a sophisticated understanding of regional security and recognize the need for a realistic and appropriate division of labor to get the most from each member. While military drills send signals, the manufacture and distribution of 1 billion vaccine doses will make a real and immediate difference in the lives of millions of people across the Indo-Pacific.
The meetings between Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and counterparts Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin showed the region and the world the vitality of our partnership and the critical role that the Japan-U.S. alliance can play in regional security. The fact that the first foreign trip of the two U.S. officials was to Asia underscores the Biden administration’s prioritization of this part of this world.
The reaffirmation of the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan and the inclusion of the Senkaku Islands in the Security Treaty has assumed ever more importance given the steadily increasing number of Chinese incursions into the waters around those islands. Significantly, the U.S. pledged to defend Japan with all its military capabilities, including its nuclear forces.
In a marked change from the last meeting of the four ministers in 2019, the statement released after this week’s Security Consultative Committee meeting (the SCC or “2+2”) specifically criticized China for its misbehavior, calling it “inconsistent with the existing international order,” and voiced “serious concerns about recent disruptive developments in the region, such as the China Coast Guard law.”
The ministers discussed other concerns, as well: recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, North Korea’s denuclearization, resolution of the abductions issue, the coup in Myanmar, the importance of peace in the Taiwan Strait and strengthening democracy around the world.
The meetings were an unqualified success and hopefully the U.S. officials will have equally productive meetings in Seoul, their next stop. For all the difficulties between Japan and South Korea in recent years, the two countries’ national security is deeply intertwined. Japan needs a strong U.S.-South Korea alliance and welcomes all steps that those two countries can take to reaffirm their partnership, and work more closely together to deter and defend against destabilizing forces in the region.
The United States is eager to see Tokyo and Seoul work together as well on common security concerns. Our two governments need to get past the current disputes that have poisoned bilateral relations and cooperate to promote regional security and stability. There must be compromise in both capitals, but trust is low.
There is work to be done as well in the Japan-U.S. alliance. Last year’s decision to end the Aegis Ashore deployment was a shock to the United States. The prospect of a missile attack is real and Japan needs a defense against that threat. The options that the government is considering are interim solutions at best; the proposed deployment of two additional Aegis-equipped destroyers makes little sense. A more effective plan is needed.
In Tokyo, there is concern about possible changes in U.S. nuclear policy, especially the adoption of a “single use” doctrine — a declaration that Washington would only use nuclear weapons in response to an “existential attack” on an ally or itself.
Security officials here worry that such a policy is too restrictive and might undermine the deterrent effect of those weapons. Our two governments need to have a comprehensive discussion on nuclear weapons policy; that is the purpose of the Extended Deterrence Dialogue (EDD), and another meeting of the EDD is increasingly urgent.
Both governments are working on their National Security Strategies: Every new U.S. administration must write one and the Japanese government is reportedly revising its only such document, published in 2013 and untouched since. That drafting process is an opportunity for the two national security teams to compare assessments, ensuring that the two visions are aligned. That will ensure that subsequent efforts build on a shared understanding and approach.
This will be part of a much broader agenda, one that includes more active multilateral diplomacy. Tokyo and Washington should be coordinating in global forums such as the G7 and the G20, and regional bodies like APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), to promote the rule of law and the much-needed reform of institutions like the World Trade Organization.
Our governments must coordinate to tackle urgent issues like recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. This week’s meetings are proof that such cooperation is the goal of both governments and achievable. We await — and expect — more such successes.
The Japan Times Editorial Board.
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