It seems like a 2 + 2 meeting, between both countries’ state and defense ministers, which had originally been arranged to convene in January, is indefinitely postponed — and that the alliance is suffering from serious drift at the political level.
As such, I have to disagree respectfully with AEI research associate Chris Griffin, who wrote here about deepening military ties between the US and Japan. I’m not disagreeing with the picture he paints of cooperation between the US military and the JSDF, and the way that cooperation is changing in the face of the changing East Asian threat environment.
What’s missing, however, is sustained political leadership to guide the process. Sooner or later — and sooner is best — the two governments are going to have to discuss alliance decision making, the global reach of the alliance (if any), crisis response, and joint planning; meanwhile, Japan has yet to overcome the prohibition on collective self-defense, which remains a firm barrier to a true alliance.
With official Washington focused on Iraq to the exclusion of everything else, and with the Abe Cabinet mired in a host of domestic disputes, it seems that the political and bureaucratic leadership that was critical to pushing the process of reforming the alliance forward at critical junctures since the end of the cold war is totally absent. The alliance appears to be in a trough similar to that of 1998-2000, when the Clinton administration was distracted by impeachment and focused on the Middle East and Japan’s governments were obsessed with the worsening financial crisis — meaning that despite outlining new guidelines for alliance cooperation in 1997, little was done to build on that agreement.
The alliance emerged from that nadir with the start of the Bush administration, but with East Asia changing rapidly, can the US and Japan really wait until January 2009 to rejuvenate political cooperation? Perhaps the new Armitage Report that is supposedly in the works will be able to outline the way forward.