National Commentaries

“Challenges for the Biden Administration: Hot Spots in the Indo-Pacific”

Reviving the US –Japan alliance


The year 2021 is likely to be frustrating for the US-Japan alliance.1 The return of a process-oriented, alliance-centered decision-maker to the White House has relieved alliance managers and supporters in both Washington and Tokyo. The more pointless irritants in the bilateral relationship will be removed. Business as usual can resume as national security bureaucrats in both countries will be able to do their jobs without fear of disruption or reversal by a random tweet or an off-the-cuff comment. Business as usual will be comforting but it will not be enough. Given an evolving regional security environment and a renewed focus in the new administration on bridging the ever-widening views at home about national power, purpose, and priorities, the United States and Japan should be working to modernize their alliance in new and important ways. Unfortunately, Japan is unlikely to be able to grasp that opportunity. The challenge for the United States is to work within those constraints while pushing Japan to go as far as possible.

There is much to do. The changes and emerging challenges in the East Asian security environment are well known. North Korea has been modernizing its military capabilities, both conventional and nuclear, and poses an ever more potent threat to regional security and stability.  China is a multidimensional challenger to that status quo. Having overtaken the United States as the key economic partner for most Asian countries, it now threatens the military balance of power as well and seems determined to become the preeminent power in East Asia, a goal that seems to be ever more within reach. Hot spots could arise in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait—all of deep concern to Japan. If the US does too little, Japan will be frustrated. If it seeks more from Japan, the US may well be disappointed.

Meanwhile, the United States is distracted and divided. High on the Biden administration’s national security agenda is rebuilding credibility in the eyes of its security partners – officials and publics alike – and adjusting its alliances to meet new and evolving challenges. Those tasks are most pressing for the US-Japan alliance, often described, as in the January phone call between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, as “the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific.”2

While moving or modernizing an alliance is like turning an aircraft carrier, there are reasons, in the abstract, to have more hope than usual that it is possible to do so with Japan at this time. In the last decade, Japan’s national security infrastructure has undergone significant change, which allows Tokyo to make more substantive contributions to the bilateral alliance and regional security. Leadership prioritized a higher regional security profile for Japan, which has meant that bureaucracies have been reformed and more resources have been allocated to defense. For all his faults, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo deserves considerable credit for these accomplishments.

But Abe is gone, forced to resign last summer because of the return of health problems. Suga is a capable administrator, but he lacks foreign-policy experience and has not articulated a compelling vision—for domestic or foreign policy—of his own. Indeed, Suga was selected as party leader (and thus prime minister) precisely because he was the candidate who seemed best able to continue the policies of his predecessor, allowing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to avoid potentially divisive debates over the direction of the country.

Since taking office in September, the new government has stumbled repeatedly. Suga’s stratospheric public approval ratings have been squandered by a poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic, renewed attention to Abe’s political scandals (once thought put to rest), and the prime minister’s inability to connect with ordinary citizens.3 The absence of a top-level vision that is thoughtful and inspiring, coupled with that erosion of public trust and confidence, will make it difficult for the US-Japan alliance to evolve in ways that should be possible—and are very much needed, especially when the prospect of maritime tensions in the Western Pacific is growing.

What then should the United States do to move this partnership forward? Alliance managers and supporters should attack the problem from several perspectives. Some of the action items are easy and can be accomplished relatively quickly. Others, however, are long-term projects whose outcomes cannot be predicted—but any hope of success will depend on sustained effort that must begin now.

Initial steps are easy. The United States and Japan should wrap up their host nation support talks quickly. “Support” is a fungible concept when roles, missions, and responsibilities are being reallocated. If a primary objective is to modernize the alliance, then any agreement reached today will soon be overtaken by events. Since these negotiations absorb considerable bandwidth and often are a source of tension, any interim agreement should be a multiyear deal to allow alliance managers to focus on bigger issues and return to this question after more substantive debates have been resolved.

Another quick step is the selection of an ambassador to Japan. This person should be one of the Biden administration’s first ambassadorial nominees. This would demonstrate the priority attached to Japan—and a stark counterpoint to the troubling vacancy in Tokyo. The last ambassador left in July 2019, and while the country has been ably represented by the chargé d’affaires, 18 months without an ambassador is both an embarrassment and an ominous signal. The nominee should know the country and the region well, have Biden’s confidence and his ear, and be prepared to lean forward publicly and in meetings with counterparts in Tokyo to make the case for Japan to do more in the region and the world.

A third initial step is identifying prominent individuals in the US national security bureaucracy with backgrounds on and experience in Japan. While it is still early days in the Biden administration, it is notable that the individuals appointed to positions have experience dealing with China and the Korean Peninsula; few have a Japan-focused background. Yet some, such as Kurt Campbell, have longstanding roles in coordinating with Tokyo, which limits concern about any surprises.

When the Japan team is in place, the two governments should get down to business. A priority is a Security and Consultative Committee meeting (the “2+2” meeting of foreign and defense ministers/secretaries), at which the principals should commit to a 360° review of the alliance to prepare for new challenges and new realities. This meeting would be a “forcing event” that obliges the two bureaucracies to coordinate to make the meeting a success. That process will be influenced by—and will influence—the national security strategy (NSS) that each government is working on: Every US administration is obliged to release such a document and Japan announced last year that it was reviewing and planning to update its own NSS. (Japan issued its first NSS in 2013 and has not adjusted it since.) While each strategy is a national document, the process of its articulation will afford opportunities to inform alliance discussions as well. 

Another important review will be underway elsewhere in the Pentagon: the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The last NPR was completed in 2018, and there is anticipation that the new administration will take nuclear policy in a new direction. Any substantive shift in US nuclear policy will unnerve the Japanese; concerns are already being whispered in Tokyo about the individuals chosen for key nuclear portfolios in the new administration.4 While the Biden team has offered reassurance by stating that Article 5 of the Mutual Security Treaty applies to the Senkakus5—territory administered by Japan but claimed by China and the most likely source of a direct conflict between the two countries – this is an ongoing conversation and one that should be seen as an opportunity, rather than a burden. A robust dialogue on nuclear policy is one of the prerequisites for effective cooperation on deterrence, the cornerstone of alliance modernization efforts, which should proceed on two tracks, one short- and medium-term, the other long-term. This division is not as intuitive as it might seem, as becomes apparent below.

In the short term, the two governments should work together on the nitty-gritty of regional security. This is not glamorous work. Rather than high-visibility platforms and glitzy (and expensive) high-tech weapon systems, the two allies should focus on preparing the theater for conflict. Within Japan, bases can be hardened and forces dispersed. Throughout the region, infrastructure—ports, airports, storage facilities, communications networks—must be built, supplies acquired and distributed, and other logistical concerns addressed.6 For guidance, they can use the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI),7 passed late last year as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, and “Regain the Advantage,” the plan outlined last year by the Indo-PACOM combatant commander that identified his priorities to enable more effective war fighting and deterrence.8 There is substantial overlap between the two, and a bilateral effort to realize those plans would promote cooperation and represent the integrated planning to which the allies should aspire.

As these talks proceed, the two governments should alter their tone in two ways. First, the US and Japan and South Korea must revive trilateralism. The downturn in relations between Seoul and Tokyo has made this difficult, but those governments have for too long allowed domestic politics to take priority over the national interest. The defense of the Korean Peninsula is only possible if Japan plays its role. Effective deterrence of North Korea is only possible if the three countries work together. For too long, however, the United States has talked about trilateral cooperation as if it were a luxury, a supplement to the work of the two alliances. That is not true. Trilateral cooperation is a necessity and must be treated as such.

Second, the US and Japan should no longer talk about extended deterrence. That concept fit the Cold War, a superpower standoff whose two principals possessed military capabilities that far exceeded those of their allies, but it does not reflect current realities. Great powers today compete across a number of domains, only one of which is military—and the most consequential may be those of economics and technology. This should change the way we think about alliances and deterrence. A more expansive competition allows US allies to contribute more, and the resulting division of labor should be conceptualized in new and more creative ways. Ultimately, the US and its allies should be deterring together. Moreover, the notion that the US “extends” a deterrent to its allies is harmful to the relationship. Not only does it obscure the real competition—which is not between two large powers but one that aligns the US and its allies against an adversary—but it denies allies agency while encouraging dependency and a two-tiered relationship. To be clear, however, the US extended nuclear deterrent remains relevant and vitally important.

While cynics might dismiss this as mere wordsmithing, this conceptual shift has profound implications for alliance management over the long term. In a multidimensional competition, allies should contribute where they can do their best and the most. For Japan, the military is the answer to neither although there are some areas—maritime domain awareness or antisubmarine capabilities—where Japan can and should contribute. Instead, Japan, the world’s third largest economy and a technology powerhouse, has much to add in the two arenas of economics and technology. Information technology and export controls are among the challenges to be faced.  

Of course, Japan should lead in the defense of its homeland, with the US providing support, including its nuclear deterrent along with other capabilities that Japan does not have. Japan should also be ready to deploy its capabilities to monitor and assist in a contingency near Japan. But the use of Japan’s hard power should be limited. Power projection is not needed and at a time of ever-tightening resources (financial and human) is a waste. Moreover, the public is skeptical of a higher military profile. Abe modernized Japan’s defense infrastructure and capabilities, and promoted changes that allowed it to do more in regional security affairs.9 Given the low base, that work was both overdue and not too contentious (although some moves did prompt public unease and pushback). But structural pressures will continue to constrain Japan’s capacity and prevent it from doing significantly more. A narrowly defined defense policy of senshu boei, exclusively defensive defense, also appeals to the Japanese public.10

In the new great power competition, Japan should be leaning forward where it is most willing and able to do so. It should be leading the race to connect the region, whether building infrastructure, developing smart cities, or adopting trade and technology standards. Japan should be at the forefront of regional development efforts, offering not just money but also personnel and the insight they have gained from their own experience. Tokyo should be a diplomatic leader—as it has been—promoting regional economic schemes and initiatives. All these efforts are crucial components of the new competition for regional leadership and vital contributions to regional peace, security, and prosperity.    

Japanese foreign policy experts worry that the Biden administration will give China the wrong signals. They are extremely attentive to US actions and are focused on US military credibility and commitment. Chinese pressure on the Senkakus and Taiwan is mounting. Should the US try to reassure Japan to the satisfaction of the chorus of alarmists, the question arises what is Japan prepared to do in the face of such intensifying challenges. Weakness of the Suga government, which will deprive it of the political capital necessary to modernize its alliance with Washington and to address these hot spots, is a recipe for stasis at a time of geopolitical churn. Nothing could be more damaging to the interests of the US or Japan.

1. Brad Glosserman, “2021: A year of immense frustration in and with Japan, Pacific Forum PacNet #4, Jan. 26, 2021,

2. “Readout of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Call with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan,” January 27, 2021,

3. “Suga approval rating remains low at 43%; Nikkei poll,” Nikkei Asia Review, January 31, 2021,

4. Private conversations in January 2021 with experts and officials.

5. This is not a new position but reassurances are sought from every new US administration.

6. Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, “How America Can Shore Up Asian Order,” Foreign Affairs, Jan. 12, 2021,

7. Randy Schriver and Eric Sayers, “The case for a Pacific Deterrence Initiative,” War on the Rocks, March 10, 2020

8. Aaron Mehta, “Inside Indo-Pacific Command’s $20 billion wish list to deter China – and why Congress may approve it,” Defense News, April 2, 2020,

9. Adam Liff, “Japan’s Defense Policy: Abe the Evolutionary,” The Washington Quarterly, 38:2 (2015), pp. 79-99.

10. Corey Wallace, “The Future of Japan’s Defense Is More Complicated than it Looks,” The Tokyo Review, September 14, 2020,

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