WASHINGTON and TOKYO — A new agreement between the US and Japan sets up the island nation to take a larger role in the politics of the Pacific while opening new opportunities for military research and development.

The updated guidelines for the US-Japan military relationship reflect the changes in the Pacific that have occurred since the last version in 1997.

They also reflect the changes that began last year when the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began the process of moving toward collective self-defense and away from a posture that allowed homeland defense only.

That process is accelerated by the new guidelines agreed to last week at the 2+2 meetings of US Secretary of State John Kerry, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani.

Speaking after the event, Kishida summed up the new guidelines: "Japan, in close cooperation with the United States, will continue to contribute even more proactively to ensuring peace, stability and prosperity of not only Japan but the Asia-Pacific region and the international community."

That proactive approach is a major shift for Japan, and one that could set the nation up as a hub for countries in the region concerned about the growing power of China.

Nicholas Szechenyi, deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the new guidelines reflect the fact that China's expansionist signals mean other nations in the Asia-Pacific region can no longer just go it alone.

"Japan has focused on bilateral defense relationships and is pursuing those, but also wants to add this trilateral element, Szechenyi said. "It's all interwoven, but you have the core of US-Japan and then the idea is to create common strategic objectives with other partners in the region and have a web of partnerships that support regional stability."

Narushige Michishita, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, agreed, noting the new defense agreement is strategically important because both allies need to prevent a leadership and power vacuum from developing in southeast Asia.

Michishita emphasized that Japan's military capabilities are quite limited compared to the massive logistics and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities required to deter aggression against Japan's sprawling archipelago. Japan's relative weakness is the historic price of relying on a highly restrictive, defense-only policy, he said.

"When talking about increased cooperation with the US, we have to remember that the SDF [Self Defense Forces] is unlikely to be very forthcoming, if only because its capabilities are very limited," Michishita said. "When you think about the diversity of potential threats, for example from North Korea, and then about defending our island chain, the SDF is very busy just taking care of our own needs.

"Japan regards capacity-building as a strategic tool to help our friends, such as Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia. Our new Defense Cooperation Charter approved this April allows us to provide ODA [official development assistance] to foreign armed forces, although for non-combat use, starting with things like patrol boats. This will extend to ISR equipment, radar, communications systems, intelligence aircraft and early warning," he said.

Michishita said Japan planned to deepen and broaden ties with southeastern nations to provide new surveillance networks to boost security regionally.

"These will start providing the necessary intelligence for Vietnam and the Philippines to better defend themselves or deter China from pressuring or taking this or that island," Michishita said.

R&D Opportunities

One area for building cooperation, both regionally and specifically with the US, is increased R&D co-development.

Buried inside the guidelines is a small, but potentially important note directing the two countries to "cooperate in joint research, development, production, and test and evaluation of equipment and in mutual provision of components of common equipment and services."

That same subhead also says the two nations will "explore opportunities for cooperation with partners on defense equipment and technology."

Under previous arrangements, the US and Japan could not work jointly to develop and produce new technology if Japanese technology was then resold to other nations. Until recently, Japan had strict limitations on selling arms to any other nation, and although the blanket ban on weapons exports except to the US was lifted a few years ago, it remains strict. These restrictions have been major reasons why Japanese systems tend to cost significantly more than their international counterparts, which in turn has limited how much money the nation can spend on them.

With that export ban lifted as a result of last year's policy decision, Japan can participate in the sort of global R&D from which it had been barred.

Opening up the ability to co-develop could help drive those costs down, Szechenyi said.

"Japan has had a difficult history with indigenous defense procurement. It's usually high cost and very inefficient," Szechenyi explained. "So if Japan can work its way into an international network in terms of technological development, that could certainly lead to the joint development of new assets that could cover this broader range of activities."

One example of how the rules have changed can be seen on the F-35 joint strike fighter, a program defined by the presence of multiple partner nations that produce parts of the plane used around the globe.

"There is certainly potential for Japan to become a deeper partner on big projects such as the F-35," Szechenyi said. He noted that Japan is slated to be a regional heavy airframe and heavy engine depot maintainer, something that could expand the nation's role with the stealthy jet.

Japan will likely be interested in cooperating with a wide range of technology platforms, and is taking steps to reform its procurement process to do that. For example, the MoD is forming a Defense Procurement Agency that will push Japan's defense industry to actively collaborate with US and European contractors on joint R&D and co-development projects.

Just what R&D programs Japan would look to join will "emerge over time," Szechenyi said. But he emphasized that while amphibious programs would probably be popular, anything dealing with ISR would be a priority.

And while future R&D may be more open for Japan, Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, warns not to expect any NATO-style development programs, with multiple partners, in the near future.

"You're looking at more bilateral weapon development not multilateral development like you see in Europe," he said. "Maybe what emerges is greater possibilities of US-Japan co-development."

ISR Focus

The analysts all agreed that Japan will look to expand its ISR capabilities as it moves to take more of a leadership role in the Pacific. However, that may be easier said than done.

Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, said the problems Japan is facing with integrating its space policy into a broader national security architecture reflects the sectionalism, lack of leadership and focus on technologies but not integration that also bedevils Japan's overall lack of a coordinated approach to ISR assets.

"Japan's limited ISR capabilities reflect the broader problems of the JSDF — particularly the failure to integrate the various capabilities into a coherent whole, capable of efficient joint operations," Newsham said. "Japan has some good ISR hardware, but has a long way to go before it makes proper use of what it has."

ISR capabilities also extend into the space and cyber realms, a large enough point of emphasis that the guidelines have a whole section dedicated to "Space and Cyber Cooperation."

Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Air Force Space Command, said his team has started to build "a very good relationship" with its Japanese counterparts.

"We're looking at partnerships there," he said. "We're looking to pursue technology in the research lab that we may be able to partner with the Japanese capabilities. We're looking at digital payload technologies in our labs that might be applicable to them. So we have a very good relationship with Japan and it's just beginning to build."

He also indicated that he would welcome Japan's participation in the Joint Space Operations Center, a US-led space situational awareness nerve center that includes UK, Australian and Canadian operators.

In terms of cyber, the document lays out a posture of mutual security in the case of a cyber attack. It contains echoes of the recently released Pentagon cyber strategy that makes clear the US will use all its options to respond against a cyber attack.

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

More In Defense News