As a resurgent Japan arms itself against the simultaneous military threats posed by China, North Korea, and Russia, Washington perhaps needs to seek commitments from Tokyo on allowing US forces to use Japan as a staging ground in case China invades Taiwan. Chinese belligerence in Taiwan’s airspace and waters seems to indicate offensive designs of the former strongly. The Japanese commitment to the US is an area of scrutiny for the Centre for a New American Security and RAND Corporation in their reports, with much to offer.
Stability across the Taiwan Strait amidst increasing Chinese belligerence and the growing significance of the Japan-US alliance were the two issues high on the agenda of discussions between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Japan’s new Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa when they met for the first time on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on 18 September.
Kamikawa, a former Justice Minister appointed as Foreign Minister by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a Cabinet reshuffle on 13 September, reportedly sought ‘candid discussions’ about the challenges faced by the two nations.
“We do have a tremendous amount of work to do together,” Blinken responded, adding that the “partnership between Japan and the United States has never been stronger” and “more consequential.”
The meeting came weeks after the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) and the RAND Corporation, two influential American think tanks, released reports which seek a review of the Japan-US relationship to align with the most radical transformation of Tokyo’s national security and defence policies since the end of World War II.
While the 33-page CNAS report, titled ‘Strengthening the Shield: Japan’s Defense Transformation and the US-Japan Alliance’ focuses exclusively on the bilateral relationship, the RAND Corporation report
‘Inflection Point: How to Reverse the Erosion of U.S. and Allied Military Power and Influence’ looks at the relationship as part of a broader revamp of U.S. national security strategy and defence posture.
The CNAS report notes that Japan is “fundamentally reinforcing” its national security and defence policies to cope with its increasingly severe security environment, particularly the simultaneous military threats posed by China, North Korea, and Russia.
These changes are outlined in the three major strategic documents – the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Defense Buildup Program released in December 2022 by the Fumio Kishida-led government.
After detailing the threats posed by China, North Korea and Russia, the CNAS report says, “Closer security cooperation among Beijing, Pyongyang, and Moscow is also driving Tokyo’s threat perceptions. While they are not natural treaty allies, China, North Korea, and Russia are increasingly cooperative in ways that undermine Japan’s security”.
Beyond Japanese territory, the CNAS report says that Tokyo has clarified that any Chinese attempt to take Taiwan by force would also have important implications for Japan’s security. However, ” officials and experts debate the specific ways and degree to which any given contingency would affect Japan and what the response should be.’
Apart from China’s growing belligerence in the South China Sea sparking fears that it could “interfere with the trade and energy flows on which Japan relies, …Tokyo is concerned about a future regional order – and potentially even a global order – where Beijing dominates. Japan has been on the front lines of PRC assertiveness in the current century and views a China-led order as particularly dangerous for its security,” says CNAS.
At the same time, “like many U.S. allies, Japan harbours quiet concerns about the trajectory of American foreign policy,” the CNAS report says Tokyo will be keenly analysing the U.S. Presidential election of 2024 to “understand how candidates view U.S. defence commitments to both treaty allies and close partners such as Ukraine.” Also, “like Putin in Europe, an authoritarian leader in the Indo-Pacific could also use nuclear threats to try to deter U.S. intervention in support of its treaty commitments,” it notes.
U.S. policymakers should “Prepare to update the alliance while recognising that Japan’s new defence policies will require significant time, resources, and political will to implement,” and there might also be a need to revise roles and missions within the alliance where needed, it says.
“Traditionally, the United States was viewed as the alliance’s “sword” and Japan was the “shield,” meaning that the U.S. role was more active and offensive while Japan’s was more passive and defensive. ‘Tokyo’s acquisition of counterstrike weapons will require carefully factoring them into alliance defence planning, particularly considering that any new Japanese strike capability will depend on U.S. enabling support,” it says.
While Japan’s bid to upgrade its military power could be seen as hedging against the prospect of U.S. abandonment, ‘however remote,’ the report argues that “those same Japanese actions will help to address long-standing U.S. concerns about burden-sharing and demonstrate that Tokyo is ready to take on a larger role, not only for its defence but for the defence of an existing regional order – an order that is vital to America’s grand strategy for ensuring its security.”
Japan’s National Security Strategy also calls for building a “multi-layered network among its ally and like-minded countries” in Indo-Pacific, Europe, and NATO. Regionally, these include Australia, the Philippines, South Korea and India.
“India and Japan have centred their growing defence partnership on maritime cooperation, given their mutual security interest in addressing China’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean region,” says the report. “Their concerns were magnified when a Chinese surveillance vessel docked in a Sri Lankan port in August 2022. China’s ability to park a ship with advanced technology and satellite capabilities in India’s strategic backyard at a time when Sri Lanka was spiralling from an economic crisis was a wake-up call for New Delhi,” it says.
Among other things, “the (Japan-India) relationship has expanded to include an annual exercise called “Dharma Guardian,” ‘which involves intense joint training and knowledge sharing on the use of defence technologies,” and following the second 2+2 dialogue between their foreign and defence ministers in September 2022, they announced a new joint fighter exercise and efforts to cooperate more closely on cybersecurity and critical and emerging technologies and the operationalisation of an agreement for reciprocal provision of goods and services between their two militaries. “The first bilateral jet fighter training exercise was held in January 2023, with Indian Air Force Sukhoi-30 fighters flying to Japan for the first time.”
The CNAS report, which touches upon almost all aspects of the dramatic changes in Japan’s strategic policy and the implications for the U.S. and the region, concludes on a hopeful note. “Ultimately, Japan’s defence transformation offers an opportunity for Washington to work closely with Tokyo to strengthen the alliance and prepare it to meet the treacherous geopolitical landscape it faces in the years ahead.”
The much longer (240-page) RAND report looks at Japan through a broader prism of how to restructure America’s defence in a dynamic, rapidly changing global security environment which could ‘leave the nation vulnerable to unpleasant surprises.
Based on the premise that “for Americans and for the other two billion or so people who live in the world’s democratically governed nations, there is no acceptable substitute for deep engagement by the United States in global affairs,” it argues that “there is now a growing consensus among Western policymakers and strategists that “business as usual” concerning national security strategy and defence posture is no longer sufficient.”.
Noting that North Korea’s nuclear sabre-rattling, “… Russia’s use of overt military aggression; and, of the greatest consequence, China’s economic take-off and concomitant military modernisation, have led to the deterioration of the military balance in regions of strategic importance,” it says that “it has become increasingly clear that the U.S. defence strategy and posture have become insolvent”. In other words, just using overwhelming force is not enough.
It then goes on to recommend a new doctrine called ‘Defense Without Dominance’, which essentially calls for far greater coordination and cooperation with its allies. “Significant changes to the U.S. defence program and the forces of key allies and partners will be needed to ensure that those forces can, in combination, respond promptly to threats of an invasion, establish robust means for finding and targeting the enemy invasion force, rapidly damage and contain that force, and conduct sustained follow-on operations,” it says.
Part of a trilogy that includes “two companion publications, one evaluating past and current U.S. defence strategies more broadly and one that addresses factors bearing on the modernisation of the United States’ strategic nuclear forces,” this report focuses on bolstering deterrence of aggression by China and Russia. And therefore, “we limited our assessment of allied and partner capabilities to those of the nations’ best positioned to contribute forces to a combined defence against one of these two adversaries: specifically, Taiwan, Japan, and selected North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and partners,” it says in a footnote.
While the section on Japan is essentially a more detailed version of the CNAS report, it points out that “the U.S.-Japan security treaty does not obligate Japan to participate in U.S.-led military operations other than those in defence of Japan”.
In the event of a war over Taiwan, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) would likely focus on providing a “shield” to protect the “spear” of U.S. forces operating in theatre, it says. However, “with Japan’s recent move to acquire counterstrike capabilities, there is a debate occurring about whether this shield and spear relationship should change. As of now, the traditional relationship still stands”.
While ‘Japan fields modern land, sea, and air forces and is building new competencies in the military space and cyber domains…, its ability to sustain high-tempo operations is limited by underinvestment in munitions, base resiliency infrastructure, and other assets,’ it says.
It therefore recommends that U.S. planners and their counterparts in Japan’s SDF should focus on:
- Base resiliency. Despite substantial investments by Japan in missile defences, the bases used by both U.S. and Japanese forces are vulnerable to even modest-sized salvos of ballistic and cruise missiles. More can be done to increase the resiliency of these bases by deploying passive protection measures, such as fuel bladders and expeditionary aircraft shelters, at both U.S. and Japanese bases and by ensuring that existing short-range air defences at those bases are robust. Another promising option could be to develop and field runway-independent unmanned aerial systems, thereby reducing dependence on fixed facilities.
- Munitions. Both allies should increase and maintain robust stockpiles of precision-guided munitions and other assets, such as fuel and spare parts, that would be needed to sustain high-intensity operations over a prolonged conflict.
- Intra-Theatre Mobility. Japan’s Air SDF should consider increasing the size of its military airlift and sealift fleets to support the rapid movement of personnel, supplies, and munitions in wartime.
- Operational Planning. Perhaps most importantly, U.S. and Japanese policymakers should seek to clarify what Japan would be willing to do in times of war and, especially, under what conditions Tokyo would permit U.S. forces operating from bases in Japan to conduct combat operations directly from Japanese soil in defence of Taiwan. Using agreed-upon allied roles and missions, the allies should create a joint plan for military operations for a Taiwan contingency and explore options for more training based on this plan to improve wartime interoperability.
It then admits that Japan’s reaction to a Chinese attack on Taiwan and the extent of facilities it would offer the US forces at the time would mostly be a political decision. Hence, it would help to have at least some agreement to allow both sides to plan accordingly.
Whether Tokyo is comfortable with allowing US forces to use Japan as a staging area or launchpad in case of a Chinese attack on Taiwan remains to be seen.
External linksThe CNAS Report: https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/strengthening-the-shield
The RAND Corp Report: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA2555-1.html