A quiet revolution is transforming Japanese diplomacy. As a new German Marshall Fund report lays out, for more than a decade Tokyo has worked to diversify its democratic partnerships beyond the anchor of the U.S.-Japan alliance, forging closer relations with like-minded governments in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere. Japan's ultimate success in this endeavor could determine whether the U.S. maintains its leadership in a region buffeted by dynamic power shifts.
Tokyo's strategic outreach has focused mainly on militarily capable democracies that also enjoy close relations with the United States. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained in 2013: "From now on the Japan-U.S. alliance must effect a network, broad enough to ensure safety and prosperity encompassing the two oceans [Pacific and Indian]. The ties between Japan and America's other allies and partners will become more important than ever before for Japan."
Japan's National Security Strategy for 2013 highlighted the convergence of interests and ideals that underlies the policy. "Japan will strengthen cooperative relations with countries with which it shares universal values and strategic interests," the document states, pointing to examples such as South Korea, Australia, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, and India.
Japan is developing broad and deep strategic ties with both Australia and India. Joint military exercises and so-called 2+2 meetings of foreign and defense ministers are explicitly modeled on U.S.-Japan alliance conventions.
The country has also become a leading provider of security assistance to some ASEAN countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia. For all the unfortunate tension in relations between Tokyo and Seoul over historical issues, the Japanese and South Korean armed forces continue to pursue quiet security cooperation. Beyond Asia, Japanese officials have an ambitious agenda to institutionalize military ties with NATO.
Recent policy shifts have facilitated Tokyo's strategy of democratic outreach. Constitutional reinterpretation has made it easier for Japan's armed forces to cooperate with foreign militaries. A new national security secrecy law enables closer intelligence cooperation with friendly powers.
The lifting of a ban on arms exports should enable joint defense production with nations such as India, as well as the provision of advanced submarines to Australia. Abe has declared defense assistance a new "pillar" of Japan's overseas development aid in countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which share Tokyo's wariness of Chinese power.
It is possible to imagine a more robust Asian architecture of cooperation and reassurance emerging from the growing web of countries tied to Japan and the U.S.-Japan alliance. This web would not contain China, but could shape the context of its rise in ways that deter conflict.
Such a network could encourage China to embrace regional norms of democratic cooperation and the resolution of international disputes through peaceful negotiation, rather than military intimidation or outright force. It could also help to integrate transitional countries, such as Myanmar and Vietnam, into a broader grouping to help sustain a pluralistic and rules-based regional order.
The future of the U.S.-Japan alliance, and of U.S. leadership in Asia, is closely bound up with Japan's outreach project. From an American perspective, Japan's new stance on regional and global security is welcome. The alliance rests on a stronger foundation when Tokyo, and not just Washington, enjoys close relations with a host of friendly regional powers.
Japan's democratic diplomacy remains a work in progress. To create a network of cooperation among democracies in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, and to reinforce a rules-based international order, Japan will need to build partnerships based on specific issues. Three stand out.
The first and most important is maritime security. Maintaining a free and open maritime system is an objective Japan shares with other democracies. While Japan's project of democratic outreach includes a maritime component, there is considerable scope for new initiatives. Japan could focus its security assistance on strengthening a region-wide system of maritime domain awareness. That would enable countries like Indonesia and the Philippines to better police their home waters. It would also create an integrated picture of threats to freedom of navigation, enabling joint responses.
The second area for expanded democratic partnerships is military preparedness. New types of military cooperation with like-minded and capable partners could enable Japan to prepare for potential contingencies, deter aggression, and maintain a favorable balance of power. Japan could work with the United States, Australia, and India to develop a joint plan for patrolling the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific sea lanes, for example.
The third area is human rights. As Tokyo looks to deepen linkages with other democratic capitals, promoting shared values should constitute a natural focal point of cooperation. This could include a more coordinated approach with other nations to support the development of free institutions in Myanmar, and greater support for programs to nurture good governance and promote individual rights run by the Bali Democracy Forum, an Indonesian-led regional club.
As Japan looks to diversify its democratic partnerships, the stakes are high. If Tokyo can leverage its bilateral diplomacy and the U.S.-Japan alliance to construct a network of democratic cooperation, the rules-based order in Asia will endure even as China's ascent continues.
The alternative is probably a dangerous conflation of raw military balancing and armed conflict over peripheral territories. That should appeal as little to Beijing and Tokyo as it does to Western capitals observing the 100th anniversary of another regional conflagration.
A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.
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