Dangerous Neighborhoods: U.S.-Japan Naval Cooperation
Image Credit: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Dangerous Neighborhoods: U.S.-Japan Naval Cooperation


U.S.-Japan naval cooperation has long been recognized as the critical core of the U.S.-Japan security relationship; the navies’ success in rebuffing the Soviet naval threat in the 1980s is legendary. The successful cooperation between the U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) even helped to buoy the broader alliance relationship, which was suffering at the time from trade-related and other economic challenges. The key elements that were so important to the naval relationship—strategic clarity, definitive roles and missions, and operational engagement—emanated from a strong and committed security alliance.

As preparations are finalized for U.S. President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to Japan, a reminder of what made these two navies so successful during a strategically challenging period of history can provide useful lessons. Today, the two navies once again find themselves on the front lines in the Asia-Pacific region as maritime challenges increase. Yet the U.S.-Japan security alliance is facing its own set of challenges as Washington and Tokyo come to terms with what the new environment means for them and their interests. Some analysts are calling into question the U.S. commitment to the alliance relationship. Others say that Japan is moving towards greater independence from the alliance and that it is hedging its bets to ensure that it has the ability to defend itself.

This reality is not lost on the two navies. Navies first and foremost do their countries’ bidding in support of national interests. The JMSDF, in particular, has stepped up its strategic reflection and analysis, particularly concerning the role it should play in the rapidly changing global environment and the corresponding capabilities and functions it should be developing. One such analysis that stands out over the past year is an article written by four senior JMSDF officers and published in the JMSDF Staff College Review. As part of their assessment of the current and future security environment, the authors state that the U.S. presence in the region will change in accordance with its “off-shore balancing strategy” and as such, Japan needs to be prepared to take over some of the roles and burdens previously assumed by the United States. This assumption is based on the authors’ understanding that U.S. budgetary constraints and other potential conflicts in the world will affect the U.S. ability to maintain its presence in the region.

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“Offshore balancing” has become a popular topic of online defense blogs, particularly those critical of current U.S. foreign and security policies, and it has also been promoted by some prominent thinkers. However, it is not the U.S. strategy and any reference to this concept of retrenchment should raise at least a “yellow flag” for the U.S. Navy and for the United States more broadly. The JMSDF feels the need to plan for a time when the U.S. Navy may not be here in the numbers they are today. For a navy, that makes sense because it needs to be prepared. But the assumption has troubling implications for the U.S.-Japan Alliance because it questions the foundation of the U.S. commitment, which rests on a consistent and credible level of U.S. forward deployed forces. How has a key U.S. ally developed such a misunderstanding, and what can be done to dissuade the JMSDF and the Japanese government that this assumption is incorrect?

The JMSDF has made great strides over the last decade, in partnership with the U.S. Navy, and has grown into a highly capable and respected naval force. Its transformation began in the months soon after September 11, 2001, when JMSDF ships deployed to the Indian Ocean and provided fuel and support to the U.S. Navy and eventually to other navies taking part in anti-terrorism operations in and around Afghanistan. Its participation in humanitarian and disaster relief operations and regional stability operations, such as the ongoing anti-piracy mission with destroyers and P-3C maritime patrol aircraft off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden, has been exemplary. The JMSDF has recognized the importance of having a well-defined operational concept and is not waiting for that concept to come from the United States or from the U.S. Navy.

The combined stresses of events in the global and domestic arenas are taking a toll on the U.S.-Japan Alliance and the naval relationship. Japan is devoting more and more of its forces—Coast Guard and JMSDF—to keeping an eye on the Senkaku Islands and beyond, and the U.S. Navy is doing its best to keep its distance from the immediate region, although in early December it moved P-8A ASW/surveillance aircraft to the region to improve its overall ASW and surface surveillance activities—replacements for the aging P-3C aircraft. Conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere have consumed U.S. military attention over the last decade and still require attention, albeit not to the extent they once did. This, combined with continued budget cuts and sometimes opposing (and often confusing) statements from different parts of the U.S. government concerning the effect of budget cuts on the Asia-Pacific rebalance, has allies doubting the U.S. long-term commitment to the region.

The Need for Strategic Clarity

Navies need strategic clarity so that they can further refine their respective roles and missions and create operationally viable exercises and training that support the alliance’s strategic objectives. The JMSDF should be applauded for moving forward in identifying potential roles and missions and an operational concept based on its assessment of the strategic environment it may encounter in the future. In addition, the Japanese government released its first ever national security strategy in December of this year. An increased focus on strategic planning and analysis, combined with strengthened defense capabilities, typically enhances an alliance relationship, especially when all parties come to the table with similar preparation.

In the United States, however, battles are still ongoing concerning military strategy and the concepts of operation that should feed into the development of a U.S. military strategy. Allies have not yet been fully apprised of these developments. Further, while the U.S. Department of Defense issued Strategic Guidance in 2012, the U.S. government has yet to develop a comprehensive strategy that incorporates its “rebalance to Asia” proclamation. The U.S. Congress is playing an interesting role in calling attention to this shortcoming, with hearings held this past fall and winter by the House Armed Services Committee. A “two-level game” has been developing in which domestic and other national concerns have hamstrung the United States to some extent when it comes to international affairs and alliance relationships. The naval relationship has been affected as well.

Lessons from Alliance History

Japan and the United States encountered similar domestic and national challenges in the mid- 1970s, in the lead-up to the first Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation, completed in 1978. Trade wars were raging between Japan and the United States and, on the security front, there was no consensus on the nature of security challenges and threats. Arriving at a strategic consensus did not necessarily come easily. Yet, once settled, the years that followed were some of the best for the security relationship. Lessons from this successful period of alliance history can be useful today as Japan and the United States consider a much more complex international environment.

First, differences in threat perceptions and security perspectives and priorities—and ultimately, national interests—need to be addressed. For navies, this is critical because threat perception differences have operational consequences. While no alliance wants lock-step allegiance, core interests must be a discussion priority. Japan’s “neighborhood” is much more dangerous than most Americans fully comprehend, and its national decisions are based on threat perceptions that come from living in this neighborhood. Developing a common vision of how to deal with the China challenge should be part of these discussions. Second, the level of strategic engagement between Japan and the United States at the national level and between the respective services must increase. Developing viable concepts of operation that feed into a broader regional strategy is essential for the alliance and for the navies that are on the front lines of potential future challenges. Discussions are underway to revise the 1997 Defense Cooperation Guidelines, but concurrent strategy discussions should also be taking place. Japan can play a leadership role in this regard, as it did in the mid-1970s in the lead-up to the first Guidelines for Defense Cooperation, by encouraging strategic engagement at many different levels.

Finally, “visuals” matter. The United States may be wary of entangling itself in Japan’s (and Asia’s) territorial disputes, but it becomes ever more important that very visible training and exercises occur in the broader region to demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-Japan security commitment. At a time when both the JMSDF and the U.S. Navy find themselves busier than ever with new security concerns and national taskings, the navies need to pursue creative ways to increase their direct bilateral engagement. Japan’s 2013 Defense White Paper, the October 2013 U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee statement, and other key U.S and Japanese policy documents have all recommended the expansion of effective bilateral, trilateral and multilateral training. Taking advantage of opportunities when the two navies are operating in close proximity to each other should also be pursued, such as in the Gulf of Aden, as well as increased use of training facilities outside of Japan, such as those at Guam and the Marianas Islands. Operation Dawn Blitz, the joint amphibious exercise held off the coast of California in June 2013, is a good example of visible, high-impact training.

Dangerous Neighborhoods……

The U.S.-Japan naval relationship, as part of the broader security relationship, has contributed to regional stability for several decades. Northeast Asia is a dangerous neighborhood and maritime-related crises have the potential of causing serious escalatory damage. The U.S.-Japan alliance relationship is at risk of serious damage as well without a common vision, grounded in a sound strategy, of how to deal with the security challenges that may arise in the region. As soon as possible, the United States (and its Army, Navy and Air Force) needs to provide concrete reassurance to Japan, as it did decades earlier under similar circumstances, that it has no intention of pursuing a retrenchment strategy. This concrete reassurance should entail 1) honest and forthright discussions at senior levels of the Japan and U.S. governments concerning differences in threat perceptions and security priorities, 2) increased strategic engagement at all levels with the goal of developing a common strategic vision for the region and a focus on what the respective defense forces can bring to the table, and 3) a formidable demonstration of the U.S. and Japan security partnership through an increased number of relevant and visible training and exercises throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

The U.S. Navy has an important role to play in reassuring Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force that this relationship is more important than ever and that the U.S. Navy is a long-term committed partner. The JMSDF’s expertise and experience, honed over the last decade, makes it a formidable partner for the future. But a back-to-basics approach in naval relations will have long-term pay-offs for the two navies and for the alliance relationship as well.

Dr. Elizabeth Guran has nearly 30 years of professional experience in national security and international affairs with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and recently completed a fellowship at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Japan.

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