The Biden Administration and Japan's Security Strategy

Hideshi Tokuchi
Senior Fellow, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

1. Introduction

The United States has long played a leading role in international security, but it has not played the role of the world's policeman. The United States often declares that it will cease to be the world's policeman. 1 Needless to say, a "policeman" in the ordinary sense of the word does not exist in a modern international society of coexisting sovereign states. Speaking as Robert Scalapino does, the United States has been more of a "firefighter." 2

The image of Trump's America was that of a fireman past his prime going around lighting fires here and there. But the United States is not a country resigned to lag behind other countries; it will not continue to decline unless it neglects necessary investment for the future. It will become conscious again of its role as a firefighter.

Whether or not Joe Biden's victory is a sign of US resilience has yet to be seen. Whether or not the declaration in his inaugural address --- "We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again"; "We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security." 3 --- will come true will be a significant question for Japan --- a US ally and a beneficiary of the rules-based international order.

2. Formulation of Japan's "National Security Strategy (NSS)" and After

This paper will discuss the implications of the Biden administration's national security strategy for Japan. First, let us review the contents of Japan's security strategy as outlined in the "National Security Strategy (NSS)" 4 formulated in 2013.

This document focuses on the unprecedented changes in the balance of power among nations due to the rise of emerging powers such as China and India, the progress of globalization, and the rapid development of technological innovation. For Japan to play a more active role as a major player in the international community, the NSS articulates a "proactive contribution to peace based on international cooperation," and identifies as strategic approaches: (1) strengthening and expanding Japan's capabilities and role, (2) strengthening the Japan-US alliance, and (3) promoting diplomatic and security cooperation with partners.

The National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), 5 which took effect simultaneously with the NSS, was revised five years later in 2018, 6 but the NSS has not undergone revision. 7 However, the world has undergone significant changes in the past five years. With the advent of the Trump administration, the lack of US leadership and the reduction of its credibility and predictability became pronounced. The Trump administration's National Security Strategy advocated the maintenance of peace by power 8 and the strengthening of existing alliances and partnerships. 9 But the actual conduct of the United States was contrary to this, and the inconsistency between its words and deeds led to growing distrust of the country. The Trump administration concluded that the US policy of engagement with China was a failure. Thus, the United States intensified its confrontational stance with China.

On the other hand, China is projecting its growing presence in the international community and is rapidly and opaquely building up its military power. In the South China Sea, one of the hotspots in East Asia, China has, since 2014, fast advanced large-scale land reclamation in seven features of the Spratly Islands. Rejecting the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, it does not cease to make its control of the waters a fait accompli.

North Korea conducted three nuclear tests in 2016 and 2017 and declared the "completion of the national nuclear-armed forces" in 2017. In 2018, Kim Jong-un pledged his commitment to "denuclearization" at the North-South Korea Summit and the US-North Korea Summit. But North Korea's nuclear development is still underway and continues to pose a primary threat to the international community, along with the country's growing ballistic missile capabilities. In January 2021, Kim Jong-un declared the development of "ultra-modern tactical nuclear weapons" and solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and then pursued its control of the Crimean Peninsula. In the meantime, the implementation of the Minsk agreement has not progressed as planned.

And at present, in contrast to non-traditional security challenges such as piracy and large-scale natural disasters that resulted In the promotion of cooperation among states, pandemics are intensifying competition and confrontation among great powers. East Asia, where Japan is situated, is the main battleground of such competition and confrontation. Meanwhile, as globalization is further progressing, Japan's security is also facing the challenges posed by globalization.

The 2018 NDPG offers a perception that the security environment surrounding Japan is "becoming increasingly severe and uncertain at a much faster pace" than envisaged in 2013 when the NSS took effect. 10 The NDPG describes the current security environment as "a reality that we have never faced" 11 and indicates a recognition that we are obliged to make fundamental changes to our defense capabilities without being bound by conventional thinking. 12

Nevertheless, the NSS was not revised. The Japanese government recognized that: "The current NSS points out that unprecedented changes in the balance of power in the international society and rapid progress in technological innovation have a significant and complex impact on the security environment in the global and Asia-Pacific regions. The current security environment and national security challenges require continued assessment regarding their medium- and long-term directions but are considered as a whole to be within the scope of the basic perceptions set forth by this strategy." 13

However, the United States in 2013 is the United States before the Trump administration came into power. 14 Besides, the main area of concern of this document is the "Asia-Pacific region," including Japan, and the significance and role of the Japan-US alliance are discussed mainly in the context of the "Asia-Pacific region." The concept of "Indo-Pacific" had not yet appeared. Later, after the Japanese Prime Minister's speech at TICAD IV in August 2016, Japan raised the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" vision. It is a multi-faceted initiative; one of its three pillars is "efforts for peace and stability," which has undeniable security implications. 15 In the 2018 NDPG, "Asia-Pacific" was replaced by "Indo-Pacific," and the significance and role of the Japan-US alliance were also discussed in the context of the "Indo-Pacific." 16 Furthermore, the "vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific" was referred as a guideline to be taken into account in security cooperation with other countries. 17

3. The Direction of the Biden Administration's Security Strategy

Unlike the Trump administration, the Biden administration will formulate a security policy that emphasizes cooperation with allies. However, now that trust in the United States has declined, it is uncertain whether US allies will follow it even if it emphasizes alliances, holding to the same principles as in the past. 18 Although the Biden administration is setting a different direction from the Trump administration, it will continue to maintain a hard-line stance against China for the time being. In a January 2020 Foreign Affairs magazine article, 19 Biden argued for the necessity of being tough on China and, as the most effective way to counter China, he called for the shaping of a united front with allies and partners to address China's injustices and human rights abuses. 20 Similar remarks appear in his statement issued in the wake of the December 28 meeting with the national security transition teams. 21

In any case, the Biden administration's policy priority seems to be on climate change and pandemics, judging from the order in which policy issues are discussed. 22 Although not mentioned in the December 28 statement, in which Biden emphasizes the importance of alliance relations, he states in his Foreign Affairs article that the United States will cooperate with the Chinese government on such issues where their interests are aligned with each other as on climate change, non-proliferation, and global health security, to name a few. 23 The position of cooperating with China on security issues where interests are aligned was once part of the constructive engagement policy of the Obama administration and not denied altogether by the Trump administration 24 Biden's position, however, is different from his predecessors' in that it is similar to that of Kurt Campbell and Sullivan, who advocated competition and cooperation with China to coexist with it on terms favorable to the United States. 25 Campbell and Sullivan aim for a path between containment and a grand bargain, arguing that the US policy goal is to establish favorable terms of coexistence with China in four key domains --- military, economic, political, and global governance. 26

Also, Campbell and Sullivan argue that unlike the military competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the US-China crisis will be limited to the Indo-Pacific region and that "the United States must accept that military primacy will be difficult to restore." 27 They also suggest a reexamination of US military investment and presence in the region to guarantee deterrence in the region. 28

It is the argument of Kathleen Hicks and others that echoes that of Campbell and Sullivan. On the premise that US global primacy has declined and is unlikely to be restored, they argue that cooperation with partner nations is essential to the United States and that the use of military force should be secured primarily for deterring China and Russia and for providing reassurance to allies and partners. The authors place the Indo-Pacific as the region of the greatest attention, followed by Europe, and call for a reduction in existing military commitments outside Asia. They also recommend securing the competitiveness of the defense industrial base to maintain US technological superiority over geopolitical competitors, reducing legacy platforms to prioritize the development of advanced capabilities, and limiting defense equipment and technology cooperation to a limited number of allies to enhance their self-defense capabilities. 29 Based on the recognition that US superiority is not as strong as it used to be, Hicks also anticipates that the United States should strengthen the potential of allies against China and Russia, while US allies should take primary responsibility for their defense. At the same time, she considers it necessary for the United States to maintain troop deployments, especially in Asia and Europe, to give credibility to US commitments to allies and threats against enemies. Furthermore, Hicks recommends that the US military should put its budgetary focus on the enhancement of readiness rather than on its size. 30

The general direction of future US security policy, especially defense policy, can be outlined as follows: (1) emphasize the Indo-Pacific region, (2) maintain a competitive relationship with China, while promoting cooperation with China over some issues, including the strengthening of crisis management, (3) pursue technological superiority rather than quantitative superiority in military power, and (4) invest in relationships with allies and partners, while pursuing US national interests through coordination with them, and (5) increase the efficiency of US military resources with growing expectations for US allies to defend themselves.

4. The Future of Japan's Security Strategy

It is not clear whether the Biden administration, faced with many major domestic challenges, will be able to repair relations with allies that have witnessed the vulnerability and "ulterior motives" of the United States over the past four years, and will be able to exercise leadership in restoring the rules-based international order. It is also uncertain if it ultimately fails and ends in mere words.

As long as Japan does not have the option of defending itself on its own, 31 it is unlikely that the axis of Japan's security policy --- the Japan-US alliance --- would change unless it wanted to join forces with China to counter the United States. However, the US-Japan alliance is a relationship of mutual cooperation, which requires constant adjustment. The Trump era was one of the major adjustment phases; we are now also entering a new adjustment phase.

Japan has chosen the Japan-US alliance cooperation as one of the means to ensure its security. It is not the United States that will defend Japan. Japan must defend itself. Japan must be aware of this fact more than ever before. The shift from "America First" to "Emphasis on Alliances" will not mean that the United States will become more generous. If Japan considers the Japan-US alliance to be a mainstay of its security, it is only natural for Japan to invest in it regardless of US moves. It is Japan's sense of ownership that is being questioned.

With the above in mind, I would like to discuss points to which we should pay attention regarding some topics related to the Japan-US alliance, especially in relation to the behavior of the Biden administration.

(1) The "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" Vision

The Trump administration promoted the "free and open Indo-Pacific" strategy and tried to adjust it with similar initiatives pursued by other countries in the region. The 2020 Democratic Party Platform uses the term "Asia Pacific" to describe the party's policy toward the region to the effect that the United States will work with allies and partners to promote shared prosperity, security, and values, while being tough on China. But there is no mention of the "free and open Indo-Pacific" in the document. 32 After his election victory, Biden has consistently used the term "a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific" in his talks with heads of state and government. 33 Biden may have been simply avoiding using the same terminology as the previous administration. We should not read too much from it, but it has been pointed out that this may be an attempt to shift from a values- and principles-oriented approach to a more pragmatic direction to gain broad support from Southeast Asian countries. 34

If, as Bilahari Kausikan has stated, the document titled "US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific," which was declassified on January 5, has "an enduring and nonpartisan quality" and "contains nothing that any experienced foreign policy practitioner like Kurt Campbell should fundamentally disagree with", 35 then Biden's "secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific" may be little more than a name change. If this is the case, Japan will continue to promote the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" vision based on its existing policy and cooperation with the Biden administration. Japan, which has not necessarily internalize Western values, being more pragmatic, may find it easier to advance cooperation based on the concept that does not emphasize Western values. Also, if Biden's "secure and open Indo-Pacific" becomes more acceptable to Southeast Asian countries, it will be convenient for Japan, which "strongly supports" "the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific" and wants to cooperate with ASEAN "for further prosperity of a free and open Indo-Pacific." 36 If the essence of the US initiative remains unchanged, there may not be a noticeable change either in the ASEAN side's response --- which, at least, will not be a negative for ASEAN-Japan cooperation.

Yet, if the Biden administration's "Indo-Pacific" emphasizes "security" and its aspect of security strategy, Japan's "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" initiative may have to emphasize its aspect of security policy more than before.

The "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" vision is not seen in Japan's NSS, and the 2018 NDPG only states that Japan's security cooperation with other countries should be "based on the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific." 37 How to position this concept in the NSS may become a future issue. 38

(2) Defense of the Senkaku Islands

The Senkaku Islands, over which China is waging a gray-zone warfare, occupy a vital position in the face of China's maritime expansion. Meanwhile, the defense of the islands is significant also for the Japan-US alliance. It may be possible to understand that this recognition is implied, for example, by the so-called Armitage Nye Report of December 2020. 39

The Japanese official readout of the Suga-Biden telephone talk following the presidential election stated that "President-elect Biden expressed his commitment that Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands," 40 while there is no mention of such commitment in the US announcement. 41 Some media coverage points out the difference between the two announcements. 42 But it is feared that such media coverage may help disseminate in the United States an image of Japan eager to confirm US commitment to the Senkaku Islands but indifferent to Taiwan. Now that interest in Taiwan is growing in Washington, there is always the possibility that Japan's response to a Taiwan contingency (including the question related to combat operations from US bases in Japan) will be questioned, regardless of the probability of a Taiwan contingency. 43

(3) North Korea's nuclear and missile development

The North Korea issue is one that Trump confused, too. The Biden administration's efforts to address this issue will be worth attention. In a January 22 press briefing, a White House spokesperson said that the White House would conduct a thorough review of its policy toward North Korea in close coordination with South Korea, Japan, and other allies, and consider current pressures against North Korea as well as future diplomatic possibilities. 44 But Biden's Foreign Affairs magazine article includes only a brief passage on the North Korea issue. 45 And it is preceded by a sentence, "On nonproliferation and nuclear security, the United States cannot be a credible voice while it is abandoning the deals it negotiated." The future direction of US response, including the priority of the North Korea issue, is not visible.

If assuming that the denuclearization of North Korea will be difficult to achieve in the short term, a freeze proposal like those set forth by Sue Mi Terry 46 and Victor Cha 47 is being considered in the Biden administration, Japan will be placed in a delicate position, as those authors admit. As the credibility of the United States declines, this is more likely to raise concerns than to be appreciated as a pragmatic approach.

This North Korea denuclearization issue also poses the question of burden-sharing between the United States and Japan. Terry urges, "Instead of continuing excessive demands that will rupture our alliances, the U.S. should encourage more realistic, incremental increases in their (Japan and South Korea's) burden-sharing contributions." 48

With a negative outlook on the denuclearization of North Korea, Richard Lawless proposes, as a credible way for Japan to strengthen US deterrence capabilities, the deployment in Japan of the next-generation INF systems currently under development or the INF systems deployed aboard jointly crewed ballistic missile submarines. 49 The new INF systems expected to be put to practical use within a few years will require bilateral coordination regarding not only deployment but also targeting and other operational aspects. Enhancement of communications between the two countries on issues related to arms control will also be essential.

5. Conclusion

Although it is too early for us to tell when the Biden administration will announce its "National Security Strategy," 50 its direction will be visible sooner or later. What is required of Japan is to show wisdom to act with the United States to strengthen the rules-based international order, not to "bargain" the price set by the United States to see how it will respond. First of all, Japan must work out its strategy.

The 10-year period envisaged by the 2013 NSS will be over in due course. But since the world has already undergone large-scale changes, including the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the US government changed twice during the period, it would not be a bad idea for Japan to make a swift, flexible review of the NSS.

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