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U.S.-Japan Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region

By Jeffrey W. Hornung
RAND Corporation and Adjunct Professor, Asian Studies Program, Georgetown University
April 07, 2023
Both the United States and Japan are Indo-Pacific powers: Japan, an archipelagic resident power, and the United States, a continental power with regional territories. Beyond geographical presence, both have been involved in regional issues for decades. This has included multilateral institution building, trade, official development assistance, security cooperation, and a host of cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Despite this commonality, the separate regional engagement strategies of both countries have not always been aligned. In the past decade, that has changed, as today there is arguably a growing alignment in American and Japanese engagement strategies in the Indo-Pacific. This convergence, in turn, presents several opportunities for the two allies to cooperate which, if successful, could benefit not just their national interests, but the broader stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region.

What they seek

Using very similar language in each country’s national security strategies, both the United States and Japan have stated their interest in the Indo-Pacific is ensuring it remains free, open, connected, prosperous, and secure. As two of the richest countries in the world with sizeable military, technological, and diplomatic influence at their disposal, both are well placed to contribute to these ends. Based on these strengths, the two countries can therefore work together to achieve their shared interest in a free and open region. There are three areas in particular that could benefit from their cooperation.
An LNG tanker ship in front of a refinery

Regional Economic Engagement

First and foremost, as two of the world’s largest economies, their interest in ensuring the region’s prosperity is a major area of common interest. For decades both countries have invested in and traded with regional economies helping to ensure historical economic growth and development.

To ensure those benefits remain for regional actors, the two countries could cooperate to strengthen resiliency among regional economies and secure supply chains to ensure they remain diverse and predictable. With an eye to the growing high-tech economies, both countries could also work together on the rules that govern the digital economy to ensure that cross-border data flow and access to the internet remains open and accessible to all.

Perhaps the one area where Japan and the United States need to work out potential friction between themselves first, before cooperating in the broader region, is the nature of the future trading architecture. Japan picked up the pieces of the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral free trade agreement after the United States backed out, and today leads its successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership which works to ensure a more seamless flow of goods, services and investment. The United States continues to be the outlier by not participating. Should the United States rejoin, it would send a strong signal of its commitment to trade liberalization and a rules-based trading system and allow the United States and Japan to push for a freer trade regime in a much more coordinated manner.

Regional Multilateralism

A second area the allies could cooperate on is ensuring that like-minded partners are pooling their efforts to better integrate their efforts toward common goals. Since stability in Southeast Asia depends on the success of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), both countries can continue to empower ASEAN as a body even while some of its members continue to struggle with domestic instability.

In a similar vein, Japan’s decades-long involvement in the Pacific Islands has been further strengthened by a renewed interest by the United States in expanding its diplomatic presence and investments. Together, their efforts could help build resiliency among these island nations.

Finally, Japan’s efforts to reinvigorate the Quad, and the United States’ initiatives to help deliver on its commitments, makes this gathering of maritime democracies a shining example of how small groupings of like-minded states can work together for the betterment of the region. Further cooperating on this therefore appears to be another fertile area for the two to work together. So does the growing networking by Japan with other U.S. allies, such as Australia and the Philippines, and growing connections between Japan and key U.S. allies in Europe like the United Kingdom and France.

Security Cooperation

Finally, both countries have stated in their respective national security strategies an interest in ensuring a free and open region, including stability across the Taiwan Strait. Toward this, both countries can continue to promote international law to ensure that the region’s waters and skies are governed and used according to the laws and norms. They could advocate for, and help invest in, critical and emerging technologies to ensure that no country can hold other countries hostage by technology.

Importantly, as an alliance, there is a security dimension that both countries could pursue to help support regional peace, security, and stability. Toward that end, the allies could continue their bilateral efforts to modernize and enhance their capabilities to defend shared interests and deter aggression from regional security challenges. They could also continue to deepen their cooperation and enhance interoperability with like-minded allies and partners in both their separate bilateral engagements as well as a growing variety of trilateral groupings. Finally, as the challenges facing the region extend into new domains, the United States and Japan could seek opportunities to innovate and co-develop new technologies and capabilities to meet growing challenges in the space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains.


The challenges to the region are numerous. This includes an increasingly provocative China, an always bellicose North Korea, threats to sustainable development, worsening climate change, vulnerable supply chains, the ever-present threat of natural disasters, and continuing global health issues. If not addressed, any one of these could act to destabilize the region. Given the stated interests by the United States and Japan in their respective national security strategies to maintain a stable and secure Indo-Pacific region, the opportunity exists for the allies to cooperate for the betterment of the region.
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