By Nicholas Szechenyi —
Today Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis are hosting Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera of Japan for a bilateral Security Consultative Committee (SCC) or “2+2” meeting to coordinate the agenda for bilateral security cooperation. This is the first SCC under the Trump administration and the first since April 2015, when the two governments approved new guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation to address an array of complex security challenges in Asia. While the SCC is generally considered an important vehicle for agenda setting, this meeting is particularly timely in facilitating a coordinated response to North Korean provocations and demonstrating the vitality of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Q1: How will the two governments respond to the North Korean threat?
A1: The two governments will certainly coordinate strategies in response to North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches and the threat to test-fire additional missiles in the direction of Guam, which would overfly Japanese territory. The United States is committed to defend Japan under the 1960 bilateral security treaty and will likely reiterate that obligation in a joint statement with reference to the full range of U.S. capabilities, including the nuclear deterrent. In addition to reaffirming U.S. declaratory policy, the SCC will likely also address bilateral cooperation on ballistic missile defense as a means of deterrence. Kono and Onodera reportedly will inform their counterparts of Japan’s intention to formally study the Aegis Ashore system as a potential supplement to its Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) and Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors, signaling additional investments to enhance its ballistic missile defense capabilities. (Japan and the United States also are jointly developing the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor, which would supplement the SM-3 as part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System.) The SCC also affords an opportunity to ensure that the Alliance Coordination Mechanism (ACM), introduced at the last SCC in April 2015, is functioning smoothly to enhance policy and operational coordination from peacetime to contingencies. Moving beyond bilateral cooperation, the two governments can also be expected to coordinate efforts at encouraging China, Russia, and other countries to enforce the latest package of economic sanctions passed by the UN Security Council and apply pressure on the North Korean regime. The SCC, while focused ostensibly on bilateral defense cooperation, can also send an important signal about using a range of policy tools in response to the North Korean threat, including alliance initiatives to strengthen deterrence and defense capabilities, as well as diplomacy to generate an international consensus on issues such as economic pressure and nonproliferation.
Q2: What else might the two governments discuss?
A2: The SCC could also address concerns about Chinese coercion in maritime Asia. Reflecting recent statements issued on the margins of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Manila, the two governments could call for the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea in accordance with international law and oppose any unilateral efforts to change the status quo by force. With respect to the East China Sea, the U.S. government could also reiterate that the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall under Article V of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, which obligates the United States to defend Japan and all territories under its administrative control. The SCC presumably will also address bilateral defense cooperation beyond ballistic missile defense based on new guidelines issued at the last SCC. These guidelines build on defense policy reforms in Japan that expand the range of functional cooperation and allow for more joint training and exercises to enhance interoperability between the two militaries. The new guidelines also identify the need to enhance bilateral cooperation in new domains such as space and cyber, and the SCC could highlight initiatives in these areas accordingly. One can expect dialogue on the realignment plan for U.S. forces in Japan, specifically a sustained commitment to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa to a less populated location on the island, despite delays in implementation. And the SCC could also emphasize the importance of networking the U.S.-Japan alliance with like-minded countries, as evidenced by recent trilateral dialogues with South Korea and Australia. In short, the SCC plays a critical role in addressing urgent policy challenges and framing the agenda for alliance cooperation going forward.
Q3: Can this help build momentum for U.S.-Japan relations?
A3: The SCC provides an opportunity to reinforce the security pillar of the alliance by reviewing a broad range of existing initiatives and identifying new avenues for furthering alliance capabilities, which is an urgent priority in a rapidly evolving regional security environment. Kono and Onodera were just installed in a cabinet reshuffle and will take the lead in carrying the alliance agenda forward. This meeting also sets the stage for subsequent engagements in the region that will likely coincide with multilateral forums in Southeast Asia this fall. The two governments have also established a bilateral framework to address economic issues, and dialogue on both fronts will proceed with an eye toward a potential visit to Japan by President Trump this fall.
Q4: And are there strategic underpinnings?
A4: The U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy. Given Japan’s position on the front lines of security challenges in Asia, the SCC carries significant strategic weight for Tokyo in terms of reaffirming the strength of the alliance as the foundation of Japan’s security. The SCC can also showcase Japan’s efforts to further enhance its own defense capabilities and contributions to the alliance — an important element of deterrence — and thus demonstrate the centrality of alliance relationships to U.S. strategy in Asia. A vibrant U.S.-Japan alliance can help alleviate concerns about U.S. forward presence in Asia as the Trump administration develops its own strategy to manage and hopefully shape regional dynamics.
Nicholas Szechenyi serves as senior fellow and deputy director of the Japan Chair at CSIS.