Washington-based security analysts not surprisingly interpret almost everything through a parochial lens, seeing how it affects America and domestic interests. Such an approach sometimes can miss the bigger picture. I would argue that such is the case with the new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, which are nearing completion and were the subject of much of U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s first visit to Tokyo this week.

The revised guidelines, Carter said in a press conference, will “transform” the alliance, allowing Tokyo and Washington to “cooperate seamlessly” across the globe. Last modified in 1997, the guidelines will be overhauled to include cyber and space issues, as well as the possibility of Japan participating in collective self-defense. This last is a major departure for Tokyo, which has been restrained by a self-imposed ban on cooperative defense activities for decades.

The revised guidelines will indeed help make the U.S.-Japan alliance more responsive and flexible, though the devil will be in the implementation of the details. But as much as Carter’s trip was designed to highlight the new era of cooperation between the United States and Japan, and to reinforce the message of President Obama’s pivot, I would argue that the revised guidelines say more about Japan than they do about the United States.

In fact, while Asia watchers in America are prone to view the U.S.-Japan alliance through a D.C.-centric lens, in this case the alliance modernization is actually just a small part of Japan’s much broader security revolution. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it may not be going too far to say that U.S.-Japan cooperation is being used to serve larger Japanese purposes. Thus, instead of seeing the permission of collective self-defense in terms of the alliance, the revised alliance guidelines should be seen as supporting Japan’s expanded range of security activities.

For the past two years, Prime Minister Abe has enhanced Japan’s relationship with a host of nations, including India, Australia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. He has scrapped the ban on exporting arms, and has provided maritime patrol boats to Hanoi and Manila, while agreeing to develop submarine technology with Canberra, and possibly sell submarines to New Delhi.

Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, the commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which is based in Japan, has encouraged Japan to engage in collective self-defense with countries other than America. This perfectly fits Abe’s plans, and is a realistic interpretation of where the Japanese leader hopes to bring his nation.

The obvious driver for all this activity is China, whose nonstop military modernization over the past two decades has eroded Japan’s once undeniable military edge, and even called into question the credibility of the alliance. Now, concerned about maintaining its control over its far-flung southwestern islands, and facing a China that has ballistic missiles that can range all of its territory, Tokyo is finally dramatically changing the way it thinks about and pursues security.

While Japan’s ability to grow the size of its armed forces is limited, and it will never match China in quantitative terms, it is instead recasting the whole range of its security relationships to take advantage of widespread regional concern over China’s trajectory. This, of course, dovetails with Washington’s goals of maintaining U.S. military predominance in Asia, but Abe’s goals are far more of a “pivot” than are Washington’s.

None of this is to deny the utility of the revised alliance guidelines, nor its role in U.S. security planning in Asia. Yet viewing it from a different perspective shows how Washington is not necessarily driving the trends that will reshape Asia over the coming decades.

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