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70 Years Later – The Future of the U.S.-Japan Strategic Alliance | Commentary

By Reps. Eliot L. Engel and  Joaquin Castro On Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will address a joint meeting of Congress — a first for a Japanese prime minister and a remarkable symbol of the strength of the relationship between the United States and Japan. Abe will speak to Congress from the very same place President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood and asked Congress to declare war against Imperial Japan. This year marks 70 years since the end of World War II, and the prime minister’s speech is a testament to the U.S.-Japan relationship’s transformation since that time.  

But this visit cannot just be about symbolism. The president has stated that the United States’ relationship with Japan is a cornerstone of peace and security in the region and a central part of the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. In light of Abe’s effort to reform Japan’s Self Defense Force, policymakers and legislators in Washington and Tokyo should work together to reshape the U.S.-Japan security alliance to meet the needs of the 21st century.  

The current agreement that guides U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation dates from 1997 and is focused narrowly on Northeast Asia and other “situations in areas surrounding Japan.” Since that time, the strategic environment in Asia has evolved, and so have our common strategic objectives. It makes sense to update the guidelines, and expect these revisions to be announced during the prime minister’s visit—the result of a process which has been officially underway for several years. Our militaries still need to cooperate to guarantee Japan’s security, but we should also partner to maintain peace and security across the Asia-Pacific region.  

The United States and Japan must pursue these steps if we intend the U.S.-Japan partnership to make an impact on Asia’s developing regional security architecture. We need to work together in so-called “grey zone” contingencies in the East and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean. We need to collaborate in intelligence work, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations. We need to look ahead to emerging challenges and opportunities like space and cyber space.  

Especially important, the United States and Japan need to focus on multilateral and minilateral cooperation and capacity-building, especially with the Association of South East Asian Nation (ASEAN) countries. Institutions like ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting (ADMM+) play an important role in Asia’s security architecture, but their consensus-oriented nature often hinders creative and decisive solutions. “Minilateral cooperation,” usually among three or four countries, presents a promising alternative that Washington and Tokyo should pursue more actively. Minilaterals leverage the smallest possible number of like-minded members to achieve the greatest possible policy impact.  

For example, the U.S.-Japan-Australia Trilateral Security Dialogue (TSD) is making a real difference when it comes to humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and maritime capacity building, and it has the potential to accomplish much more. Elsewhere in the region, we see the possibility of expanding cooperation among the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Such collaboration could lay a new cornerstone for regional security. Finally, growing U.S.-Japan-India cooperation is allowing our countries to deal with shared concerns from maritime security to energy security to climate change.  

Additionally, U.S.-Japan security cooperation has implications beyond Asia. Japan’s partnership in the international response to Ebola, its commitment to support coalition efforts to counter Islamic extremism in the Middle East, as well as its desire to play a greater role in peacekeeping in South Sudan are just a few areas where a Japan with a more robust security posture is a good thing for the United States, for the region, and for the world.  

For the last 70 years, Japan has been a model for the world. However, for Japan to fully realize its potential as a regional leader in the twenty-first century it must work closely with its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific and resolve its historical tensions with South Korea. Proactively fostering collaborative and productive relationships with its neighbors by addressing unresolved issues will enable Japan to assume the sort of robust security role in Asia that the region needs, that the U.S.-Japan Alliance is seeking to build, and that our allies and partners in the region will welcome.  

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., is the ranking member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, is co-chair of the U.S.-Japan Caucus in the House and a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and House Armed Services Committee.

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