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Just weeks ago, two decades of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan came to a rather abrupt end.

Twenty years ago, at the start of the so-called war on terror, the strategic impact of the Sept. 11 attacks was immense both for U.S. national security policy and the Japan-U.S alliance.

At the time, the U.S. defined the threat of terrorism as a new type of war in the 21st century. As the nature of the threat was asymmetrical and unconventional, it required a major transformation in how the U.S. military operated. As a result, defense spending increased at a significant scale during the George W. Bush administration, both in terms of overseas contingency operations and expanded investments in areas such as counterinsurgency.

As the anti-terrorism operation needed a global outreach, the world saw a new level of global cooperation, post-9/11. The U.S-led coalition’s intervention in Afghanistan, the NATO-led operation in Libya, the Saudi Arabia-led intervention in Yemen and maritime safety cooperation off the coast of Somalia, alongside global law enforcement and police cooperation, have evolved as platforms for global engagement for the U.S. and its coalition partners.

Sept. 11, 2011, was also a turning point for the Japan-U.S. alliance in the global expansion of its function. With the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law in 2001, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force provided logistical support in the Indian Ocean for the vessels of coalition forces engaged in the war on terror — officially named Operation Enduring Freedom. The SDF expanded its activities worldwide, including humanitarian relief and reconstruction services in Iraq and counterpiracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

At the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee (“two plus two”) meeting in February 2005, Tokyo and Washington agreed to pursue their alliance agenda through “Global Common Strategic Objectives.” In a meeting held the following year, then-U.S. President George W. Bush and then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi together heralded a “new U.S.-Japan alliance of global cooperation for the 21st century,” pledging to stand together on common interests, such as winning the war on terrorism, securing freedom of navigation and commerce — including sea lanes — and upholding human rights.

Return of geopolitics

The prototype of post-9/11 alliance cooperation has since been transformed on a significant scale. The “return of geopolitics” — as described by foreign affairs expert Walter R. Mead — with the rise of Chinese military power, North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, Russia’s active intervention overseas and the power struggle concerning Iran, has become the central security challenge.

Competitions over territories, sovereignty and maritime rights have intensified in both Asia and Europe, and gray-zone coercions — aggressive attempts to change the status quo through operations short of war — have become more serious. Hybrid warfare, in which the boundaries between military and nonmilitary activities are deliberately blurred, is conducted in such forms as operations by irregular forces, cyberattacks and influence operations including spreading disinformation.

Due to the return of geopolitics, the Japan-U.S. alliance needed to treat symmetrical threats as primary security concerns. In particular, China’s boosting of air and naval forces, the deployment of ballistic and cruise missiles and the modernizing of its nuclear capabilities are leading to an escalated strategic competition between China and the U.S.

The United States’ regional military advantage over China is no longer a given, and cannot be guaranteed in the future. China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) capabilities have expanded dramatically, especially in areas facing the Western Pacific, bringing about a huge increase in costs for the power projection of U.S. forces.

Inside the first island chain, an area that includes Taiwan and the South China Sea, China is becoming more confident in maintaining air superiority and naval superiority. Even in wider areas outside the first island chain, the U.S. faces China’s area denial capability backed by ballistic and cruise missiles.

The rise of China has therefore become a systemic challenge for American defense strategy and the Japan-U.S. alliance. The challenge requires transforming the U.S. strategy, force posture, way of fighting and budget allocation to squarely grapple with the strategic competition with China.

Past administrations in the U.S. worked to reconfigure the strategy with a “pivot to Asia,” but the rebalancing of resource allocation to Asia went largely incomplete. The administration of former President Donald Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban for a peaceful settlement and President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan have represented an end to the era of large-scale anti-terrorism intervention, and are shaping the U.S. to be ready for a true pivot to the Indo-Pacific region.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy released by the Trump administration clearly stated that “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” The U.S. Congress supports the Pacific Deterrence Initiative to boost finance for the vital military capability to deter China.

However, strategic competition with China should be constructed under the premise that American superiority in conventional operating domains cannot be taken for granted.

The Sept. 11, 2011, attacks on New York prompted the United States to embark on a 20-year war in Afghanistan, which yielded little in the way of results. | REUTERS
The Sept. 11, 2011, attacks on New York prompted the United States to embark on a 20-year war in Afghanistan, which yielded little in the way of results. | REUTERS

Washington is looking at defeating long-term strategic competitors by shaking the foundations of their power, making them waste their resources on inferior areas and defray the cost of their expansionist policies.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a speech in July that the cornerstone of U.S. defense is “integrated deterrence,” and the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been advancing a new so-called Joint Warfighting Concept based on multidomain operations that combine conventional arenas with space, cyberspace and electromagnetic domains.

They are seeking new ways of fighting wars, such as diversifying combat capabilities but concentrating striking forces in times of attacks, or letting modular forces conduct operations autonomously even when a part of a chain of command is destroyed.

By strengthening undersea warfare capabilities centered on submarines — an area in which the U.S. and its allies have a relative advantage — as well as capabilities in multidomains, the U.S. is pursuing a strategy of forcing China to bear heavier resource constraints.

Recent developments including the creation of AUKUS, a new Indo-Pacific security alliance between the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia that will enable Canberra to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, and the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee highlighting the importance of cooperation in domains such as space and cyberspace, should all be interpreted in the context of strategic competition.

Indo-Pacific shift

In the 2030s, competition among superpowers and a strategic competition involving China in the Indo-Pacific will become the major strategic concerns.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan should become a cornerstone to build a foundation for concentrating U.S. strategic resources in the Indo-Pacific.

The Japan-U.S. alliance, the “Quad” alliance — of Japan, the U.S., Australia and India — and AUKUS are the major strategic frameworks with which to strengthen efforts.

For the U.S. to successfully shift its focus to the Indo-Pacific region, it is important that it makes clear its strategy of getting engaged in the area and its stance of attaching importance to coordinating interests with its allies and like-minded countries.

Along with Australia and India, Japan and the United States have engaged with each other in meetings of the
Along with Australia and India, Japan and the United States have engaged with each other in meetings of the “Quad” grouping, which serves as a counter to China’s influence in Asia. | SARAHBETH MANEY / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Increasing distrust among European nations towards the uncoordinated U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, as well as France’s anger over AUKUS that severely damaged its defense cooperation with Australia, are typical examples of a lack of consultation.

The right strategic decision does not lead to desirable results if it is implemented poorly. The essence of success lies in the constant coordination of efforts between Washington and its allies and partners in the region.

In order to realize a shift to the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. must:

  • Make the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, to be announced soon, the foundation of cooperation with its allies and partner countries.
  • Clearly state why, how and where the U.S. pursues strategic competition with China, and how alliances and partnerships can jointly conduct competition.
  • Focus on strategic coordination with a range of regional allies, including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand.
  • Engage constantly with ASEAN and its members to enhance regional capability to deal with intra-regional risks and crises.
  • Engage in the region comprehensively — not from the sidelines but from within. In this context, the U.S. should return to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) to shape the global economic order.
  • Understand the nature of economic interdependence in the region inclusive of China, as well as the diversity and nuances of regional apprehension on democracy and human rights.

Allies’ roles

The U.S.’ allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region, including Japan, have their essential roles to play, too. They should:

  • Expand the domains of joint operations under the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning together with the U.S. military.
  • Heighten their autonomous domains to the maximum extent possible in their strategic competition with China through expanding defense spending.
  • Foster economic resilience to counter China’s weaponization of interdependence.
  • Explore ways to improve the situation in the areas of democracy and human rights, including what is happening in Myanmar, through efforts within the region.
  • Constantly coordinate with the U.S. while raising the presence of regional frameworks that don’t include the U.S., such as ASEAN plus Japan, the CPTPP and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), to create synergies between the frameworks and the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.

The strategic shift to the Indo-Pacific region can only be achieved through joint efforts by the U.S. and its allies. They must consult closely on their strategies, and the allies must expand their autonomous roles in the Indo-Pacific region.

Ken Jimbo is an executive director for Asia Pacific Initiative’s Japan-U.S. Military Statesmen Forum and a professor at Keio University. API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.

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