The USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz Strike Groups transit in the Western Pacific with ships from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force on November 12, 2017. Photo: AFP/US Navy/Anthony Rivera
The USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz Strike Groups transit in the Western Pacific with ships from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force in 2017. Photo: Anthony Rivera/US Navy/AFP

Recent weeks have seen China engaging in various illegal maritime incursions and other aggressive behavior toward VietnamJapan and other Indo-Pacific states. These unsettling series of actions by Chinese naval, coast guard and maritime militia vessels are a deliberate attempt to test the resolve of the US, Japan and the broader region at a time when governments are distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Indo-Pacific region mustn’t wait for a convenient time to respond to Beijing’s unlawful assertions of territorial sovereignty. While the challenges posed by Covid-19 have occupied every leader’s waking hours and will require prolonged government support of economies the world over, US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must use this crisis as an opportunity to reinvest in the military capabilities and weapons systems necessary for deterring China.

As the pandemic deals a severe blow to the American and Japanese financial systems, both leaders will need to continue engaging in massive public spending to keep their economies afloat in 2020. The latest examples are the Phase 4 coronavirus relief stimulus package that was finalized in Washington and the stimulus package that was passed in Tokyo last week.

The current spending is just the latest in a series of government stimulus measures that Trump and Abe will need to put in place to prevent depressions in their countries. Part of this must include a multi-year commitment by both leaders to rearm in key areas where the US and Japan are currently deficient in deterring Chinese aggression.

Understandably, some will criticize robust defense spending during a pandemic as unnecessary, even immoral. Yet the financial and economic strains that the pandemic has wrought on the American and Japanese societies will require public spending to preserve jobs and create new employment opportunities. This military spending will be vital for investing in the areas needed to defend against a China that is increasingly determined to push the United States out of the Western Pacific and threaten Japan’s territorial integrity.

While Washington and Tokyo have high levels of public debt – a debt-to-GDP ratio of 106% in the US and 200% in Japan – both countries have the ability to engage in levels of government stimulus measures that will allow for the upgrading of their defenses. Unfortunately, this is not an option with other Pacific partners of Washington and Tokyo who lack the means to finance badly needed modernizations of their armed forces.

Timing is good for Trump and Abe, who are helped by current low interest rates, allowing for the spending to take place on manageable terms.  

Regarding immediate needs by the Pentagon, the US Navy lacks a sufficient number of vessels to address new areas of vulnerability resulting from China’s naval expansionmissile program advances and militarization of the South China Sea. The US Navy’s current goal of growing to 355 ships is coming along at too slow of a pace given the changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region, and it is likely that this number will be insufficient to meet upcoming challenges.

To address these urgent needs, the coming phases of coronavirus relief stimulus spending must include money for the US Navy to increase shipbuilding of sufficient numbers and quality to continue to allow for the United States to operate beyond the second island chain in the Pacific and to address regional coercion by China. An increased number of undersea warfare assets (submarines, etc) as well as frigates, unmanned vessels and ships with enhanced stealth technologies are all in need.

Sufficient money must also be appropriated to fill Washington’s current missile gap with Beijing. In recent years, China has built the world’s largest arsenal of short- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles designed to destroy aircraft carriers as well as US bases in Japan and Guam.

This needs to be met by military spending in both Phase 4 and Phase 5 coronavirus relief stimulus packages to develop fresh concepts and adopt a revised US force posture. A more dispersed US footprint of military installations in the region is needed to lessen the impact of Chinese missile attacks on the current handful of large US bases in the Pacific.

As part of this, funds will need to be allocated for the deployment of long-range land-based US missile systems throughout the Indo-Pacific region to raise the costs of Chinese aggression significantly and thereby deter Beijing from using its missile arsenal against American and allied forces. 

Furthermore, Washington must reinvest in the US Air Force’s aging bombers and deploy them with greater frequency in the Indo-Pacific region. The current fleet contains too many aircraft that are overworked and in need of maintenance. Resources need to be devoted to servicing, increasing and modernizing these bombers to maintain the deterrence and safety that US air superiority provides to partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

Additional needed areas of funding support involve radar and hypersonic weapons systems; intelligence-sharing centers with partners in Southeast Asia and Oceania; more frequent deployments of increased numbers of forces; joint exercises with allies; and measures to fortify existing US facilities in Japan, South Korea and Guam.   

President Trump and the US Congress need to provide the confidence and certainty that these defense initiatives will be both job protectors and job creators for years to come. This ought to be done by making an exception to the burdensome yearly defense-appropriations process and to fund these programs several years out. Such arrangements would demonstrate to American workers, markets and allies that Washington’s commitment to invest in these needed capabilities and quality paying jobs is ironclad. 

Concerning needed military spending by Japan, the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are in need of greater capabilities to project military power in the Indo-Pacific region despite the fact that Japan has increased defense spending annually since 2013, with its current yearly total at approximately US$50 billion.

While already one of the largest purchasers of the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter, Japan would benefit from additional aircraft for operating from aircraft carriers such as the short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) B variants.

Along these lines, the JSDF’s range of operations can be extended significantly by the production of more destroyers like the Izumo that can be configured to serve as aircraft carriers.

Increased funds for ballistic conventional missile defense and space-based missile defense would also help protect against North Korean and Chinese missile coercion as would land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense batteries and naval vertical launch systems for ships.

Also, resources for capabilities focusing on space warfare and defending against cyber and electromagnetic attacks would help Tokyo guard against Beijing’s activities in these domains.

Last, while controversial among Japanese policymakers and the Japanese public, Tokyo ought to work with Washington on basing intermediate and long-range missile systems on Japanese soil to provide needed deterrence against Beijing and Pyongyang. 

Investments in these areas will build upon Japan’s defenses in this new decade, helping to close key gaps in capabilities and bolster Tokyo’s strategic posture vis-a-vis Beijing, Pyongyang and to a lesser extent, Moscow.

Despite the fervent hopes of many, we cannot know at this point if China’s conduct will change going forward. Amid this uncertainty, Washington and Tokyo need to act in good faith toward Beijing to seek areas of cooperation while leaving the door open to discuss ongoing areas of policy disagreement. This must be accompanied by a sustained commitment to devote the resources necessary for bolstering US and Japanese deterrence.

The current wave of public spending by both governments to fight Covid-19 is an opportunity to kickstart a series of needed investments in collective security amid China’s use of force and intimidation to push its territorial ambitions in Asia’s waters.