The US-Japan Defence Cooperation Guidelines are best thought of as an occasional re-branding exercise for the US-Japan alliance in response to changing strategic conditions. Following a review, a revised version of the Guidelines was announced on 27 April.

The 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, on which the alliance is based, is an oddity in that mutuality was originally defined as a one-way defence guarantee from the US in return for basing rights in Japan. This mattered less during the Cold War, when the US focus was on defending Japan from the Soviet Union, although Washington consistently wanted Tokyo to contribute more to its own defence.

The first 1978 Guidelines reflected this focus, while attempting to set a clearer definition of roles and missions within the alliance. Following the Soviet demise, the revised version announced in 1997 aimed to shift the alliance's centre of gravity from the defence of Japan, under Article V of the security treaty, to the broader remit of Article VI, referencing 'international peace and security in the Far East'. However, the major limitation on alliance cooperation remained Tokyo's 'ban' on exercising collective self-defence, keeping Japanese extra-territorial support for US forces to the bare minimum.

The recent revision takes the regionalisation of the US-Japan alliance a step further, by strangely asserting that situations affecting Japan's peace and security 'cannot be defined geographically'. The alliance has now been re-branded as global in scope, and encompassing space and cyber domains. On one level, this is simply catching up with the reality that the US and Japan already cooperate across diverse regions and a wide spectrum of functional security activities.

Nonetheless, the newly revised Guidelines also hark back urgently to the defence of Japan.

This reflects heightened US and Japanese concern about China's military buildup and maritime assertiveness, and an emboldened, nuclear-capable North Korea. Japanese threat perceptions are compounded by uncertainties about how the alliance can effectively deter and respond to 'gray zone' provocations that blur the threshold of an armed attack.

A Joint Statement issued by US and Japanese foreign and defence ministers that accompanied the release of the Guidelines therefore employs language aimed at reassuring Japan that the 'ironclad' US security guarantee under Article V extends to the Senkaku Islands, recalling President Obama's explicit pledge in Tokyo last April. Enhancing deterrence is a parallel theme of the revised Guidelines 'through the full range of capabilities, including US nuclear forces'.

China and North Korea are not explicitly named, but they clearly shape many of the functional areas identified for enhanced US-Japan cooperation under the Guidelines, including air and missile defence, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, maritime security, air and sea interdiction and partner capacity-building. Disclaimers about geography aside, Southeast Asia and the South China Sea are also increasingly likely to fall within the operational ambit of the Guidelines as its regional focus fleshes out.

The release of the new Guidelines was delayed to factor in a raft of policy initiatives and legislative changes overseen by the Abe Government, including the introduction of a new National Security Strategy and, most importantly, the decision last year to begin exercising the right of collective self-defence. Some changes still require parliamentary approval and do not eliminate Japan's constitutionally derived constraints on defence cooperation. But collectively they raise the bar far above what was possible back in 1997, or even 2007 during Abe's first stint as premier.

The new Guidelines stress the importance of 'seamless' bilateral cooperation through the creation of new standing alliance coordination and planning mechanisms. This may help to compensate for the lack of an overall joint command structure, which remains a weakness of the alliance. The revised Guidelines further encourage a whole-of-government approach and leveraging private sector assets. This applies most obviously to cyber, but runs wider to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, logistic support and a survey of civilian air and sea ports in Japan for their prospective use by US and Japanese forces.

For all that, while the Guidelines provide a steering framework for the alliance, they are not binding and their implementation remains critically dependent on political commitment in Japan. For as long as Abe remains in power, perhaps until 2018, the momentum in alliance cooperation will be maintained. However, the same ambiguity about Japan's alliance commitments and constitutional parameters currently being used by the Abe Government to bend Japan closer to the US could, under different leadership, be re-interpreted more narrowly or obstructively. 

What are the implications for Australia?

Australia was twice mentioned in the Joint Statement, singled out as a 'key partner' for trilateral security cooperation, in particular for capacity-building activities in Southeast Asia. Australian, Japanese and US officials already hold an annual trilateral dialogue, the Security and Defence Cooperation Forum, to boost collaboration in disaster relief, peacekeeping and maritime capacity building. Trilateral cooperation is likely to intensify under the impetus of the new Guidelines.

Australia is also implicitly in the frame in regard to the general objective of enhancing cooperation with regional and other partners, and new wording that could see Japan's Self Defence Forces (SDF) deployed in case of armed attack on 'a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan'. While many will read this as a place-marker for South Korea, it more accurately describes the current flourishing of Australia-Japan security ties under the Abe-Abbott embrace, a reference point that did not exist back in 1997.

Additionally, Japan's embrace of collective self defence and strengthened US-Japan alliance cooperation in UN-sanctioned peacekeeping operations should smooth some of the wrinkles that have circumscribed the SDF's ability to support and protect fellow peacekeepers. In Iraq a decade ago, the ADF had to work around these stringent constraints when deployed alongside the Japanese contingent. The revised Guidelines appear to foresee more flexible arrangements that will widen the options for Japanese, US and Australian personnel to operate together more equally, not only in distant peace-support operations but prospectively in disaster relief missions, evacuations and stabilisation operations much closer to Australia, including in Timor Leste and the South Pacific.

Photo courtesy of The White House.