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Editorial: Reassurances on security alliance

A hallmark of the Trump administration has been the tension between the U.S. president’s personal views on the value of his country’s alliances and the way that the U.S. government has engaged those allies. With few exceptions, the traditional view — that those partnerships are integral to U.S. security and the protection of its national interests — has prevailed. The conventional wisdom was on display last week in Washington when Japan and the United States held the Security Consultative Committee (SCC or “two-plus-two”) meeting, the regular get-together of the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers. Their affirmation of the value of the alliance and their articulation of a shared vision for the region are a reminder that the Japan-U.S. partnership remains central to regional security and an invaluable tool at a time of complex and increasingly challenging changes in the international security environment.


The statement from last week’s meeting attended by Foreign Minister Taro Kono, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan noted the allies’ agreement that “geopolitical competition and coercive attempts to undermine international rules, norms, and institutions present challenges to the Alliance and to the shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” They affirmed their commitment to “a free and open Indo-Pacific” — the organizing framework for both countries’ thinking about regional affairs — in which “all nations are sovereign, strong, and prosperous.”


Central to realization of that vision is a strong alliance. It is “the cornerstone of peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region,” remains “iron-clad” and will “continue to play an indispensable role in upholding a rules-based international order and promoting the shared values of the American and Japanese people.” But a strong alliance is, as the joint statement also acknowledged, only a starting point. There is the need for continuing evolution in the security partnership. One critical step is increasing connections among U.S. allies and partners in the region, thickening the weave to create a security network that better exploits the abilities of those countries at a time of increasingly straitened budgets.


One of the most important areas for future attention among alliance planners concerns technology. Nations are competing across a variety of domains and space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum are assuming increasing significance for national security. Nations must be able to secure each of those domains to ensure not only their ability to prevail in conflict, but to function effectively in peacetime. In the SCC joint statement, these were rightly identified as “priority areas.”


In an important development, the four officials agreed for the first time that “a cyberattack could, in certain circumstances, constitute an armed attack for the purposes of Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.” This goes to the very heart of the security alliance as Article 5 stipulates that an armed attack on Japan or the U.S. troops based in Japan would warrant a common response by the two nations. That response is not automatic, however: a decision on whether a cyberattack constituted an armed attack would be made on “a case-by-case basis and through close consultations.” The commitment on cyberattacks was part of the U.S. pledge, reaffirmed last week, to defend Japan “through the full range of U.S. military capabilities, including conventional and nuclear.”


The statement also reiterated the two countries’ commitment to achieve North Korea’s full denuclearization, to United Nations sanctions to secure that objective, and to the release of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea. They expressed “serious concern about, and strong opposition to” unilateral coercive measures to alter the status quo in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and again repeated that Article 5 of the Mutual Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.


Importantly, the SCC “recognized the crucial role of the U.S.-Japan Security arrangements in facilitating the greater presence of U.S. forces in the region.” That is a very significant statement at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump complains about unfair burden sharing among the U.S. and its allies. It is too easy to say that forward-deployed U.S. troops merely provide defense for allies: In fact, they are advancing U.S. interests as well, not only by protecting those allies but by being present in the region and closer to regional contingencies.


This is an incalculable benefit to the U.S. and one that is easily overlooked when superficial assessments of alliance contributions are made. While the SCC statement is correct to note that the two countries must “constantly re-evaluate their roles, missions and capabilities,” it is also vital to accurately and comprehensively understand how the two countries actually work together. The SCC did an accurate accounting and its reaffirmation of the Japan-U.S. security partnership is a much needed and much welcomed statement.

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