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Allies in Flux: The U.S.-Japan Alliance and Security Challenges in the Indo-Pacific

Updated: May 9

Indo-Pacific Analyst

Summary: The U.S.-Japan alliance faces a host of challenges, old and new, in the Indo-Pacific region, and uncertainty looms over the two nations' foreign policies.

For a case study par excellence in the ever-shifting dynamics of international relations, one would be hard-pressed to find a more interesting example than the relationship between the United States of America and Japan. In the wake of the Second World War, the two countries have witnessed a plethora of crises and reconfigurations in their bilateral ties, as the global Cold War and the post-Cold War landscape presented new realities to both Washington and Tokyo. Once considered the lynchpin of American grand strategy in East Asia and the sizeable Indo-Pacific region, Japan has remained a steadfast ally of Uncle Sam, even as the latter shifted away from Asia during the presidency of Donald Trump. Yet, in a classic case of history repeating itself, it seems the alliance partners are in for a turbulent year as challenger powers to the geopolitical status quo—chiefly Russia, China, and North Korea—have become more assertive on the world stage. With the Indo-Pacific becoming a focal point of many other Powers’ foreign policies, the two partners will need a more robust strategy to reinforce their stance in the region.


This necessity was made all the more apparent on April 11th 2024, when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida became the second Japanese leader to speak before a joint session of the U.S. Congress—the first being his predecessor, Shinzo Abe. As part of an official state visit, some observers noted Kishida's rhetoric breaking the Japanese tradition of softly reiterating the historical transformation of US-Japan relations from enemies to allies following the Second World War. Instead, Kishida delivered a broad brush survey of the current geopolitical landscape and firmly asserted Japan's support as 'the United States' closest ally.' These were not hollow words, as Kishida's government pledged in 2022 to increase defence spending to 2% of GDP, an unprecedented move in a nation often regarded as largely pacifist in military terms—a long-lasting legacy from the post-war constitution and domestic politics. During the same state visit, Kishida and his American counterpart, Joe Biden, announced joint cooperation on over 70 new security initiatives and armaments production - a clear sign of both nations' commitment to upholding their respective ends of the alliance.


Another remarkable observation from Kishida's speech was its explicit identification of rival powers and threats to the alliance. In particular, he highlighted China's aggression on matters such as the South China Sea disputes and the question of Taiwan as 'an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge,' an unsurprising assessment given Japan's own tensions with the rising global superpower. Although not mentioned by the Prime Minister, his administration also reconfigured Japan's posture towards Beijing, with a stronger stance should China pursue a militant course over Taiwan and the South China Sea. Carrying on from his predecessor's policy of defensive preparations, Kishida presided over the construction of new military facilities on its southwestern islands—Yonaguni, Miyako, and Ishigaki—and conducted joint exercises with U.S. troops in the region.


North Korea also factored into Kishida's survey of threats to the international rules-based order, understandably, since most of its missile tests often end in the Sea of Japan. Unlike Pyongyang's regime, Tokyo depends on U.S. support for missile development and remains a steadfast follower of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Here, there is little room for manoeuvre available to either alliance partner since dialogue with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, has yielded little in the way of meaningful results. Despite recent efforts to coordinate with South Korea on the peninsula's security, Japan remains hobbled by its historical treatment of the country and its domestic unwillingness to fully apologise for crimes against its population during the colonial period.


Out of the three threats, however, it was the Russian Federation to which Kishida devoted the most time. Here, he ominously declared that the 'Ukraine of today may be [the] East Asia of tomorrow,' reflecting on the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War and the difficulties the invasion posed to the international community since February 2022. In this vein, Japan has stepped up its actions and notably breached regional barriers to align itself with the U.S. and NATO countries providing aid to Ukraine. Whilst mostly in the form of humanitarian aid and logistical support, Japan's commitment of $12 billion has nonetheless proved its resolve to support the U.S.—especially in light of the latter's own difficulties in passing military aid packages through a divided domestic legislature.


All these measures, however, can still be considered part of the 'tried and tested' arsenal of the alliance's hard power capabilities. Owing to the American base on Okinawa and its historical defence agreements, Japan remains the largest host country of American troops overseas, whilst the first deployment of Japan's military overseas since the end of the Second World War came during the American War on Terror in the Middle East. Economically, both powers have utilised their economic might in attempts to cultivate stronger ties in the Indo-Pacific, most notably through the Asian Development Bank (ABD) and bilateral development initiatives. The record here, however, is a mixed one. Owing to its domestic intransigence on free-trade initiatives, the U.S. has yet to join the Comprehensive and Progress Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which Japanese officials view with some concern since even China has expressed a clear interest in joining the bloc. Furthermore, the Group of Seven (G7), which both countries are members of, remains behind China in terms of economic support to Global South countries—primarily carried out through its Belt and Road Initiative.


If the alliance is to effectively face the growing challenges to the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, it is clear that the bilateral relationship needs to expand its scope to work with other regional powers on the matter. Here, at least, there has been some recent progress. During Kishida's visit, the U.S.-Japan alliance expanded its array of partner nations following a trilateral meeting with Filipino President Bongbong Marcos, with the three nations issuing a historic Joint Vision Statement. Kishida also highlighted Japan's intention to collaborate with other regional groups, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD). Reportedly, the U.S, Japan, and the Philippines have engaged in talks to carry out joint Freedom of Navigation Patrols (FONOPS) in the South China Sea later this year, an event which would send a clear message to China about the dangers of further confrontation in the dispute.


However, there remain some stumbling blocks for each alliance partner to overcome. Domestically, there are storm clouds on the horizon, especially in Washington. With American presidential elections looming in November, Kishida himself took the opportunity to highlight the need for the next U.S. administration to uphold its 'global burden' alongside its allies. In a veiled reference to Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, Kishida noted that he 'detect[ed] an undercurrent of self-doubt among some Americans about what your role in the world should be.' As Abe's foreign minister during Trump's turbulent presidency, Kishida's comment reflects the current uncertainty in many U.S.-aligned partners about the reliability of American support if the Republican candidate wins. Under Trump, America's foreign policy was erratic and oftentimes produced frustrating outcomes for its Indo-Pacific partners.


With Japan, there was little difference. In a country where any increase in defence spending generates political backlash, Trump's pressure for Tokyo to quadruple its expenditure for host-nation support—which stood at $1.9 billion in 2021—was met with opposition from Abe's cabinet. In addition, the U.S. base on Okinawa remains a sore point in the alliance, with constant opposition from locals who resent the extraterritoriality enjoyed by American servicemen on the island. In particular, recent revelations from the U.S. Marine Corps have revealed no fewer than 69 convictions of U.S. Marines in Okinawa for sexual crimes between 2015 and 2020. Whilst these tensions are unlikely to impact the bigger picture of military cooperation between the two countries, it will mean that any attempt to enlarge America's permanent armed presence in Japan—already bolstered in naval contingents by the U.S. Seventh Fleet stationed at Yokosuka—faces the possibility of opposition in domestic circles.


Beyond domestic challenges, there are also complications to the alliance's efforts to uphold the international order in the Indo-Pacific. Japan's historical actions in the region during the Second World War continue to produce feelings of suspicion and reservations, and the rise of strong nationalist leadership in countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia will pose a new dimension to the region's geopolitical puzzle. At an organisational level, ASEAN is hardly a spitting image of NATO, and Southeast Asian leaders have made it expressly clear that their longstanding policy of non-alignment with either superpower remains an active modus operandi. In addition, the rising status of India as a BRICS power also demands further attention, as it remains outside the interlocking networks of Indo-Pacific security and economic blocs, which the U.S.-Japan alliance often utilises as conduits to foster stronger ties.


In conclusion, the U.S.-Japan alliance faces a tumultuous year ahead, as challenges, old and new, threaten to subvert the rules-based international order that both countries have sought to uphold throughout their partnership. However, with careful handling and a clear course that both countries can cooperate on alongside other partners, the alliance seems destined to weather the shocks of 2024 and the next few years with renewed resolve.


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