The Japan-US Security Upgrade

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The Japan-US Security Upgrade

Insights from Naoko Aoki.

The Japan-US Security Upgrade

President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio hold a joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden, Apr. 10, 2024.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Oliver Contreras

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Naoko Aoki – associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation– is the 410th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” 

Identify the key outcomes of the recent Biden-Kishida meeting in Washington. 

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited the United States last week with the aim of strengthening his country’s alliance with the United States and elevating the bilateral partnership to one that plays a greater global role. I think there were several notable outcomes in this regard.

The first is the broad array of strategic initiatives that Kishida and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed on that will help deepen bilateral ties. A factsheet that was released after the summit meeting listed over 60 initiatives, not including individual commercial deals. This includes, for example, the upgrading of the command-and-control architecture of the U.S. military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which will modernize a decades-old arrangement and help enhance alliance credibility. The list also includes new measures to increase cooperation between the defense industrial bases of the two countries, which are very timely given the need for both countries to increase production capacities of critical defense items. It also included economic and technological cooperation, including an artificial intelligence partnership involving Japanese and American universities and companies.

The second is the first trilateral summit with the Philippines that helped highlight how the United States and Japan can work with others in the region to promote stability. (Of course, from Manila’s point of view, this would be how the United States and the Philippines, which are treaty allies as well, can work with others in the region.) The measures agreed on during the summit showed that there are ways to bolster defense and economic resilience among “like-minded” countries at a time when China is acting aggressively in the region.

The third and final point is Kishida’s address to Congress, which I think helped convey the message that Japan is prepared to play a bigger role globally, together with the United States. I think it is meaningful that he was able to do that directly to members of Congress as well as the American people.

Analyze the factors behind the upgrade of the Japan-U.S. security partnership. 

During Kishida’s visit, the United States and Japan announced that they will bilaterally upgrade their command and control architecture to achieve greater interoperability between the U.S. military and the Japanese SDF. This will help modernize the command-and-control architecture that has remained unchanged since the 1960s, despite the dramatic transformation of the security landscape.

The change is necessary because currently, the U.S. Forces Japan are mainly concerned with administrative tasks concerning bases and personnel in the country. For operational issues, the different U.S. services must communicate with INDOPACOM, which is thousands of miles away and in a different time zone.

There are two main reasons why now is a good time to make changes. The first is because the SDF is working on its own structural reforms. The SDF plans to establish a permanent joint operations command by March 2025 that will direct all joint operations by the different branches of the Japanese forces. The second is because Japan is investing in counterstrike capabilities. The potential use of longer-range strike weapons makes better coordination with the United States more important – not just to identify targets, for example by using U.S. technology, but also to manage escalation during such crises.

It is important to remember, however, that given the political and legal constraints on the SDF, the chain of command needs to remain separate. There is no plan to make the new structure look like today’s U.S.-South Korea Combined Forces Command (CFC), where a U.S. commander would have operational control over designated South Korean military units during wartime.

What is the strategic calculus of Tokyo’s decision? 

Japan’s three pillars of defense policy are to strengthen its own defense capabilities, bolster the Japan-U.S. alliance and to increase collaboration with “like-minded” countries. From late 2022, Japan has taken several major steps to boost its own defense, such as increasing its defense budget and investing in counterstrike capabilities. These measures put Japan in a position to seek closer collaboration and interoperability with the United States. Kishida’s visit mainly strengthened the bilateral pillar of the defense policy, but also achieved some goals for the third one, regarding cooperation with other countries, due mainly to the trilateral meeting with the Philippines.

Examine perceptions of the Japanese public toward closer Japan-U.S. security cooperation. 

I don’t think the Japanese public has a problem with the country seeking closer cooperation with the United States. But there are possible future problems regarding Japan’s defense-related efforts. One is the question of whether Japan can follow through with all its commitments, including the increase in the defense budget. This is because the sources of the funding are still a bit unclear. Tax increases are unpopular, but they may be needed over the longer term.

Assess reactions from Beijing, Seoul, and Pyongyang to the Japan-U.S. security upgrade.

China has already criticized both the Japan-U.S. summit as well as the Japan-Philippines-U.S. summit. I think it is important to remember that it is China’s aggressive behavior that brought the three countries closer together. While it is unlikely that China will immediately halt all its aggressive activities in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, the stronger message from the three countries should affect its calculations about what it can get away with in those areas.

The series of events in Washington last week comes at a time when the United States, Japan, and South Korea are strengthening their defense cooperation. I think the multi-layered approach of U.S. and its allies would benefit South Korea as well.

North Korea usually reacts more directly and strongly to developments that involve the South Korea-U.S. alliance. I think it will be watching closely to any increases in cooperation among the United States, Japan, and South Korea.