Energy as the Linchpin for the U.S.-Japan Alliance in the Pacific


General James L. Jones (USMC, Ret.)

General James L. Jones (USMC, Ret.)

In a conversation with the Forum on Energy, General James L. Jones, former Commandant of the United States Marine Corps and National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama, outlined the energy implications of the shifting strategic landscape and emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Japan nuclear energy relationship in ensuring peace and prosperity on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

General Jones began by outlining the benefits of the U.S.-Japan relationship and its centrality to global security. “The strategic alliance between the United States and Japan is among the world’s most vibrant and consequential. We share common values, vision and mutual responsibilities as regional and global leaders.” This alliance, he added, helps keep the United States and Japan safe by securing the Pacific region both politically and militarily. The U.S.-Japan alliance promotes economic prosperity by lowering barriers to trade and investment and ensuring freedom of navigation across the seas.

General Jones identified energy security as essential to promoting economic development and peaceful interactions, asserting that energy is and should remain a bipartisan issue in the United States. “While we are still trying to understand its strategic significance, energy is the basis of global prosperity.” As such, its implications cannot be ignored in either the economic or security sectors.

General Jones added, however, that the shifting security context is not the only piece of the puzzle. “The U.S. is in the throes of a transformation of historic proportions. Energy has played a key role in U.S. international policy. But this is changing.” General Jones identified new shale gas and tight oil technologies as important drivers influencing U.S. energy sector and changing the American energy market from one of scarcity to one of abundance. “We will become a net exporter of energy in the near future. This is a staggering change of fortunes in just a few years,” General Jones said.

This U.S. shift from a nation of energy imports to one of exports will have a significant effect on the strategic importance of the Middle East and of OPEC, General Jones said. The region will continue to be important but in the future it will have nowhere near the importance to the energy markets and the United States that it once possessed. Additionally, energy abundance has allowed the U.S. to increase employment, become more competitive, improve balance of payments, tackle the national debt, and grow.

General Jones commented that these changes have not been integrated into U.S. government planning and, since the 1970s, the United States has not had any sort of a viable energy policy. “There is a clear need for a strategic energy policy that explains to the world how we see energy and how we intend to exercise our responsibilities globally with regard to energy and climate.” Without this sort of plan, the General added, the geostrategic implications of a tension-filled race for resources will create a threat to peace, security, and a stable international order.

For instance, General Jones said, Russia does not hesitate to use energy in an offensive and threatening manner. However, the United States can use its energy resources in a positive manner to offset Russia’s ambition to restore its previous sphere of influence. In the Pacific region, the United States may also preempt Chinese action in the South China Sea by making an express commitment to ensure oil and gas supplies to our friends and allies in the region.

While shifts in oil and gas technology and the U.S. national security posture dominate the news media, General Jones emphasized the importance of nuclear energy to the energy mix in the United States, Japan and the community of nations. “We cannot become over dependent on any one particular energy source, even natural gas.” Therefore, nuclear energy is essential to maintaining a diversification of energy supplies and key to managing risk.

In the case of Japan, General Jones said, nuclear power is not an option, it’s a necessity. While the world must learn the lessons of Fukushima, we must also learn to invest in better engineering, better research and better safety protocols, not that we must cease investing in nuclear energy. According to General Jones, “for many years the U.S. and Japan have been at the forefront of the global nuclear industry. Should that industry continue to atrophy, we will lose jobs, influence and competitiveness… Countries around the world are building nuclear power plants. These trends will gain momentum regardless of shale gas. Abdicating leadership would be shortsighted and strategically dangerous.”

General Jones suggested that, for the United States, leadership means acting in the national nuclear interest and not bowing to regional concerns. He also recommended the United States pursue a closed nuclear fuel cycle, turnkey solutions to nuclear power construction and small modular reactors.

General Jones concluded by stating: “We can’t do this from the observation deck. Leading will take courage, collaboration and vision. These have been the hallmarks of U.S.-Japan relations for 60 years. They must carry us into the future.”