Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan arrives in Washington, D.C. this month at a time of historic change for his country. He will become the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of Congress. Coming in this 70th anniversary year since the end of Word War II, his visit will prompt many to marvel at how Japan emerged from the rubble of war to become a peace-loving democracy, one of the richest nations in the world, and America's most stalwart ally.
The importance of arguably our most important current alliance is now growing more apparent, as the East Asia economic boom has produced unprecedented growth, coupled with new regional tensions, and as an unpredictable dictatorship in North Korea hastens to build a nuclear arsenal and lobs test missiles into the seas toward its neighbors.
Japan has long been the key to America's security interests in Asia, providing bases for U.S. forces and warships and in turn having the assurance that the United States would come to Japan's defense if needed. Both nations are now seeking to modernize this important alliance to meet the new common challenges.
In a highly significant action just before Abe meets with President Obama, officials from the two countries plan to unveil a major overhaul of their defense cooperation guidelines, the first such update in nearly two decades.
The two governments set a goal of "seamless" coordination, in which Japan's Self-Defense Forces would have a larger role, including the authority to come to the aid of U.S. ships and aircraft if they were attacked in international waters. The two governments are also seeking close collaboration on ballistic missile defense, cyber security, and humanitarian disaster relief.
Greater integration of the U.S.-Japan defenses, under discussion for many months, will take time to implement. Even after the new guidelines are announced, some of the changes will require the Diet (Japan's legislature) to enact enabling legislation to reinterpret some of the limits placed on Japan's defense forces by Japan's pacifist constitution.
But it's hard to overstate the importance of making this historical turn, making Japan a more active and potentially equal partner with U.S. forces.
Collaboration of the Japanese and U.S. anti-ballistic missile defenses will add more eyes and more advanced technology to the tracking of any threat from North Korea.
Close U.S.-Japan cooperation will help offset expansionist efforts by China in maritime areas that are vital for world trade routes. In the South China Sea, China is dredging huge amounts of sand to build artificial islands that include waters and reefs claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.
A little more than a year ago, China proclaimed an air defense zone over islands in the East China Sea that have long been administered by Japan. The United States and Japan jointly ignored China's unilateral claim over the chain, called the Senkaku islands, and continued to send planes over the airspace without seeking China's outrageous demand for advance permission. President Obama then affirmed the U.S treaty obligation to defend the islands. The Senkaku dispute has quietly slipped into the background.
The U.S.-Japan partnership is a powerful one, which represents the largest and third largest economies in the world. Led by Prime Minister Abe, Japan has assumed a larger global role closely tied to the United States, including aiding the victims of Islamic extremists in the Middle East, sending relief to disaster areas in the Philippines, and joining the fight against Ebola in Africa.
Now Japan is moving toward taking greater responsibility for defending itself and preserving the security of its region. Prime Minister Abe has crisscrossed the Indo-Pacific in an energized campaign to improve ties with India, Australia and other nations. He has taken a prominent leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by seeking to turn the alliance into a united front to counter China's maritime aggressions.
Japan's commitment to upholding the rule of international law and democratic values is welcomed by many of its neighbors and especially by the United States at a time when so much attention is focused on violence in the Middle East. Close coordination between U.S. and Japanese defense forces is a hopeful sign for maintaining peace and stability in the Pacific Rim.
The implementation and international acceptance of Japan's modernized defense cooperation guidelines will both enhance Asia regional security and move allied and U.S.-friendly nations to work even more closely in support of mutual trust and economic vitality.