Yesterday in Tokyo, Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel met with their Japanese counterparts in the annual "2+2″ meeting. Long overshadowed by the Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the 2+2 is actually a more important meeting, given that key alliance defense issues are discussed. The 2005 meeting was particularly notable for including a bold statement about the interest of the United States and Japan in stability in cross-Strait relations between China and Taiwan. Beijing's public displeasure with that stance led to the point being dropped the following year.
Nearly a decade later, the first 2+2 to take place in Japan ended with a commitment to upgrade the alliance in the face of China's decade-plus military growth and continued nuclear development of North Korea. The two sides agreed to place a second X-Band radar in Japan, to better track any North Korean missile launches. In addition, the US Air Force will be able to base a small number of Global Hawk reconnaissance drones in Japan. While ostensibly planned for keeping an eye on Pyongyang, the 9,000-mile range of the Global Hawks means they will be useful for monitoring contested area in the East and South China Seas, such as the Senkaku Islands, which have been at the center of a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo. In addition, the two sides agreed to cooperate more closely on cybersecurity and space activities, given China's repeated aggressive behavior on both fronts. The US side recommitted to placing two squadrons of MV-22 Osprey in Okinawa, and well as moving new P-8 Orion maritime patrol aircraft to beef up anti-submarine capabilities.
Taking advantage of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's modest increase in Japan's defense budget - and his desire to establish a permanent National Security Council, revise the ban on collective self-defense, and issue a national security strategy - the US and Japanese alliance managers have made some welcome moves to increase confidence in the ability of the alliance to meet the continuing challenge of China and North Korea. There is much more that could be done, of course, including the increase of US fighter squadrons based in Japan and a more rapid expansion of both Japan's Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces, but in a world of budget constraints and weak economic growth, yesterday's announcement may have been the best that could be hoped for. Building on these small steps will ensure, moreover, that Japan remains the key American ally in Asia, where forward-based US forces have the leading-edge technology and the infrastructure to maintain America's presence in Asia.