Shadow Government

Is Japan’s Grand Security Strategy the Key to Preserving U.S. Power in Asia?

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.

MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

President Obama Had a Terrible Holiday Weekend. But Does He Know It?

I had a bad Labor Day holiday, but my troubles don't matter much. President Obama's was decidedly worse, and unfortunately his matter a lot. The crucial thing, though, is that I know I had a bad couple of days. It is not clear to me that President Obama realizes that he did, and that should trouble all of us.

First, my tale of minor woes. I was in Washington for the Annual American Political Science Association meeting. Several thousand political science professors in the same hotel may sound like a lot of fun (or maybe it doesn't) but it usually is not as eventful as it was this year.

Around 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, we were all rousted out of bed because of a fire at the hotel. Reports are still pretty sketchy, but local firefighters and police told us that there was an arsonist who set several fires and was loose in the building over the course of the next six-plus hours. I had to be escorted to my room by the police to retrieve my bags to make my flight. In the end, fortunately, no one was hurt. (Some wounded pride aside, that is. It is hard to retain one's dignity walking around in pajamas and nightgowns, and, alas, the image of some of my more distinguished colleagues in their bedclothes will haunt me for some time.)

Rounding out the weekend, I received a death threat after I presented at a panel on the National Security Agency. My remarks were not all that provocative (I will post them in a later piece), but they drove at least one troubled soul to send me a vicious email that the authorities found particularly disturbing.

So it was not my best couple days.

Still, it was a better holiday weekend than the president's. The centerpiece was his "we have no strategy" press conference, for which he has been roundly criticized. It feels unsporting to pile on now to the primary line of critique: yes, the president gets points for being honest about the strategic disarray within the administration, but those points do not compensate for his failure to develop a coherent strategy for dealing with a threat that has been evident for many months.

In the midst of this, I have seen surprisingly little commentary on how the president's gaffe reveals the dysfunction within the president's vaunted communications' team. It was a mistake to send the president out to speak in between major meetings (he spoke after one meeting and before another that was scheduled for later in the evening), because even if the president did have a coherent strategy, the time to announce it is after the meeting where they decide it, not before. There have been other own-goals like this in recent months -- the decision to hype the prisoner swap that secured Bergdahl's release was also a major self-inflicted wound -- and while the WH spinners dismiss this as petty inside-the-beltway carping, what the own-goals have in common is that they mystify seasoned experts on both sides of the aisle. You do not have to be a partisan critic to see that the administration's messaging efforts have made several bad situations worse. (Another possible common element is that they may reveal a staff to be dog-tired or have lost the ability to tell the boss hard truths.)

The president's remarks amounted to a rebuke of his interagency team and it is a rebuke that at last some on the team do not appreciate. If the president wanted his team to tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric, he could have told them that in private. Usually, a president reserves a public rebuke for when someone is about to be fired.

But that does not seem to be in the cards. In fact, over the weekend, as the White House swung into damage control, the dominant talking point was that there was nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, the president's team bragged about the president's great calmness under fire, as if what we have been observing is a virtuoso performance of the sort that would inspire Rudyard Kipling to wax poetic.

It is telling that the White House sent out the campaign spinners and not the foreign policy experts to sell this particular line. There are few serious experts with real experience in government willing to defend the President's recent handling of foreign policy, and his own team -- both the former members and, more strikingly, the current principals -- have been clearly signaling that they are as dismayed by what is unfolding as are those of us watching from afar.

Which raises the obvious question. Does President Obama know that he and his team are struggling? Or does he believe the spin he sent the team out to offer this weekend? Some people much closer to the president than I am assure me that the president knows he has not done well, but others, particularly reporters who talk extensively with senior White House staff say they are not so sure.

The thought that the president really believes that the criticisms coming from all corners can just be dismissed as partisan sniping makes my bad couple days feel even worse.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images