Japan – U.S. Foreign Policy Meetings – Another Smashing Success?

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On March 15 – 16th, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo.  This was the first overseas visit for these two officials – highlighting the importance of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

North Korea, Taiwan, climate change, and Covid-19 were discussed, but the big topic was the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  The Americans and Japanese declared that China is a regional (if not global) threat.  And most importantly for Tokyo, that the U.S. commitment to defend Japan is solid, and covers the Japanese administered Senkaku Islands that the PRC is trying to pry away from Japan.

Both sides declared the visit a success. But that’s always the case with these visits.  Can anyone recall one that wasn’t a “success?” The language is always familiar: “most important bilateral relationship,” “cornerstone of peace and stability in Asia,” “shared mutual values,”  “in lockstep,” and other bromides. And, just to be sure: “the U.S. commitment is undiminished,” and “the alliance has never been stronger.” 

Make no mistake, the U.S. – Japan relationship – and the 60-year-old Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty is as important as billed. Most Asian nations are quietly grateful for the U.S. – Japan alliance.  Though these days it’s more for counter-balancing China than for keeping Japan in check.

Remove the U.S. – Japan alliance and in short order, the People’s Republic of China will remake the map – and the political order – in the Asia Pacific.  The Americans will be pushed back – and eventually out of Asia.  Taiwan’s days will be numbered.  And Beijing will soon be settling scores with the Japanese.   

Even if the so-called 2+2 meeting was predictable in most respects, and the official post-meeting statement and follow-on press conference said all the right things, there was something a little different this time:

This was the first time the PRC was called out so pointedly.  Beijing was criticized for its “coercive,” “destabilizing,” and “unlawful” behavior all over the map:  Senkakus, East China Sea, South China Sea, Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjaing.

Such wording was no small thing for Japan. China is nearby and Japan has deep economic ties with the PRC.  And, there is a large pro-China constituency within Japan’s ruling political and business classes.

Japan is clearly frightened. Perhaps to provide additional assurance, the Japanese and the Americans agreed to meet again before year’s end. It’s a safe bet that meeting too will be a success.

But here’s a problem:  Words aren’t the same as actions.  And these top-level meetings typically produce more of the former than the latter.  Let’s see if the U.S. and Japanese alliance managers can break from tradition and add some real substance to the 2+2 meeting’s rote restatement of vows and eternal commitment.

What might this substance look like?

First, a lot more Japanese defense spending – 10% more a year for the next five years – and spend it on the right things.

Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF) personnel first, second, and third in order to bolster morale and attract recruits (the JSDF misses recruitment targets by 25% annually and has for years).  Make service a respected profession.

Only once personnel issues are adequately addressed, start thinking about buying hardware.

Next, improve JSDF operational capabilities so the Japanese air force, navy, and army can conduct operations “jointly.”  Astonishingly, they have very little capability for this and are not geared to fight an actual war – small or large – despite the Japanese navy’s considerable niche capabilities.

And then improve JSDF capabilities for operating with U.S. forces.  After 60 years they should be much better at this.

Both sides at the 2+2 meeting promised to deepen cooperation, improve military capabilities, and conduct “more complex bilateral training.”  This is useful, but U.S. and Japanese forces have been training together for decades, and deepening alliance capabilities is oft-mentioned – though without enough to show for it.

So is any of this likely to happen?  Promote these ideas for a couple of decades and cynicism comes easy.  Sometimes it seems there is a Japan Standard Time that translates as “we’ll get to it later” time. 

That said, here are some things that can be done immediately with available resources – and without costing Tokyo or Washington anything much.

Focus on the Senkaku where the Japanese coast guard, navy, and air force are stretched thin by Chinese ships and aircraft – and on the verge of being overwhelmed.  Do the following:

  • Ensure that Japanese and U.S. forces routinely and visibly patrol, train, and exercise in the immediate vicinity of the Senkaku Islands.  They currently do not.
  • Have U.S. and Japanese forces use existing air and naval firing ranges in the Senkakus.  These have not been used since the late 1970’s.
  • Have U.S. and Japanese aircraft jointly respond to People’s Liberation Army Air Force aerial intrusions.
  • Establish a Japanese and U.S. forces headquarters, “Joint Task Force – Nansei Shoto,” to defend Japan’s southern islands together.  

Based on past performance, one wouldn’t expect any of this to happen anytime soon.

But Japanese Defense Minister Kishi made intriguing comments at a press conference several days after the 2+2 talks with the Americans.  Responding to reporters’ questions, Kishi suggested that Japanese and U.S. forces might do joint exercises around the Senkakus.  And a senior Japanese official reaffirmed separately that aerial and naval firing ranges in the Senkakus remain available for use by U.S. forces.   

Ten years overdue, no doubt, but still significant if these opportunities are acted upon.  Might it provoke the Chinese?  Yes.  Everything provokes the Chinese communists. Decades of Japanese (and American) forbearance in Japan’s southern territory has deterred nobody. 

Japan and the Americans must either take some risks or the Chinese will “swamp” them.  At that point, you either hand over the Senkakus or else fight for them.  Neither option is a good one.  

The Japan-United States 2+2 said all the right things – once again.  But it will take more than that to deter the PRC.

Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – both excellent debaters – should well understand this after the verbal hiding China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, gave them in Anchorage the other day.

Beijing seems ready to match actions to words – is the same true for Washington and Tokyo?

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