US-Japan alliance has been an anchor of the US security role in Asia


An ineluctable inference leaping out from the 12 November telephonic conversation between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and US President-elect Joe Biden is that relations between Washington and Tokyo are set to get better. In his talk with Prime Minister Suga, Biden underscored his deep commitment to the defence of Japan and its territorial sovereignty. Biden said that Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation would apply to Japan-administered Senkaku Islands (China claims and calls them the Diaoyu Islands). Besides, Suga and Biden agreed to work together on global issues such as climate change and the novel coronavirus pandemic. They also agreed to enhance cooperation to maintain stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Knowledgeable sources say Biden’s commitment to the US-Japan treaty is in continuity with post-World War US strategic tradition. The treaty demands the US to defend the territories under Japan’s administration in the event of an armed attack. Successive US administrations, Republican or Democratic, have been committed to it. During the Cold War years, there was a near consensus across the American strategic spectrum to view it as an indispensable bulwark against communism on the then Soviet Union’s eastern flank. In the recent years, the US-Japan Treaty seems to have become very important to meet the threats both Washington and Tokyo perceive in the growing armament of China and North Korea.

According to a US Congressional study, the US-Japan alliance has been an anchor of the US security role in Asia. About 54,000 US troops are stationed in Japan and have the exclusive use of 85 facilities. In exchange for the use of these bases, the United States guarantees Japan’s security. Since the early 2000s, the United States and Japan have improved the alliance’s operational capability as a combined force. Japan today fields many of its advanced military assets to complement US forces in missions like anti-submarine operations.

Premier Suga may visit Washington around late January or February and discuss with Biden the Host Nation Support agreement that requires Japan to share the cost of hosting American troops. The Trump administration had been pressuring Tokyo into paying more than what they were already contributing. A Biden administration is unlikely to be too demanding on Japan on this matter. It may bear in mind that the Japanese government currently provides nearly $2 billion per year to offset the cost of stationing US forces in Japan. Besides, it purchases millions of dollars of US defence equipment annually.

Biden looks committed to restoring multilateralism, mending ties with key NATO allies such as Germany, and defending human rights. His administration may pursue a more strategic approach, working with allies to confront China on trade and technology issues. This may keep it focused on building ties further with Tokyo to ensure the rule based international order and the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Biden’s preference for a coalition to counter China is well known. It may be recalled that the Obama-Biden administration was the first to focus on Asia-Pacific in order to build a coalition to counter Chinese inroads to the region. In an article for Foreign Affairs in April this year, Biden talked of the need to have a united front of US allies and partners to counter China.

Abhijitha Singh, an alumnus of the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, is specializing in Japanese studies.