US and Japanese troops during a joint military exercise. Photo: Facebook

The Japanese always worry when a new American president comes along regardless if they are Republican or Democrat.

The questions are usually: “Does he like Japan?” “Does he like China more than us – and will he ignore us?” “Will he be a Japan basher or a Japan passer?”

For many years, the big concern was: “Will he try to force peace-loving Japan to join in America’s wars?”

But in recent times that question has become: “Will he join in Japan’s wars?” Or more specifically, “Will America defend Japan’s southern Senkaku Islands?” – which China claims as well.

That was the main subtext of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s phone chat with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden the other day.

When Biden declared that the Senkaku Islands were indeed covered by the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, he was simply restating what President Donald Trump said, in 2017, and President Barack Obama, in 2014.

So Tokyo might think it is “mission accomplished” and they didn’t even have to buy an expensive golf driver as a present and have the prime minister play a few rounds of golf with the US president.  (Suga reportedly isn’t much of a golfer.)

But here’s something else to remember.

The US-Japan defense treaty, known as the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between Japan and the United States of America, particularly Article 5, does not actually require the US to fight on Japan’s behalf even if Tokyo thinks it has an explicit promise in this regard.

Here is what Article 5 actually says:

ARTICLE V. Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.

Japanese Special Defense Force personnel marched in a parade in Asaka, Japan, in a file photo. Image: AFP Forum via EPA

The reader notes that this does not specifically require the US Navy’s 7th Fleet to sail forth from Yokosuka Naval Base and vanquish Japan’s foes.

Indeed, a US State Department lawyer looking for an out from US obligations under Article 5 might argue:

“We acted according to our constitutional provisions and processes (in other words we thought about it and talked it over among ourselves) and have decided that it is not worth going to war with nuclear-armed China over the Senkaku Islands (aka ‘some rocks’).  We’re still best of friends, of course, but you and China will need to work something out.”

Could this happen? One never knows what a US administration will do when faced with the prospects of nuclear war. But if this is Washington’s response when the time comes to back up the Japan Self Defense Force “down south,” expect Tokyo to terminate the US-Japan alliance within the day.

And this scenario – challenging for any US administration – is not far fetched. The Chinese have repeatedly said the Senkaku Islands and surrounding waters are Chinese territory, and they are not just mouthing off.

Over the last decade, Chinese naval and aerial incursions into Japanese territory near the Senkakus have steadily increased, with more ships and more aircraft appearing more often and sticking around longer and longer.

The Chinese fishing fleet has several times flooded the zone, sending a message to the Japan Coast Guard that whenever Beijing wants, it can send more than you can handle. Japanese fishermen have been harassed and driven from traditional fishing grounds.

The Senkaku Islands are hotly contested by China and Japan. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Chinese would, of course, prefer to just wear down the Japanese and take the Senkakus by osmosis. But they will take sterner measures if needed.

China’s newest coast guard ships are effectively large, well-armed warships.  And a new law authorizes the Chinese Coast Guard to use force to prevent lawbreaking in Chinese territorial waters and airspace. 

Since Beijing considers the Senkakus to be Chinese territory, how can anyone object to Chinese ships opening fire against trespassers?  And the Chinese Navy is always just over the horizon.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (aka the Japanese navy) said not long ago – albeit privately — that it was feeling “overwhelmed.” The Japanese air force is also feeling the strain.

Keep in mind that intensifying Chinese pressure on the Senkakus continued mostly unabated even after Presidents Obama and Trump declared the defense treaty applied to the Senkaku Islands.

As one Japanese defense analyst puts it: “Although Biden said the US-Japan defense treaty applies to the disputed Senkaku Islands, it is almost meaningless.  Although many US officials repeatedly notified the same US official stance to the government of Japan, China’s aggressive stance against the Senkakus has become increasingly strong.”

Moreover, although they won’t say so publicly, more than a few Japanese officials fear that Biden will be “weak on China” – as was President Obama, in their minds.

So one grasps why assurances of US military support are so important to Prime Minister Suga and the Japanese government.  Even Japan’s usually anti-military, anti-US Asahi Shinbun newspaper agrees on this point.

But how much is Japan willing to improve its own capabilities and make itself a more useful ally?

That’s a problem for the new US administration to deal with.  You see, the Japanese prefer to do things at their own speed, and thus are hoping the next administration does not push them to do or spend more than they are comfortable with doing. 

And if there are gaps in Japan’s defense coverage, Japanese officials assume the Americans will backstop them as they always have. Or at least that’s the hope.

The Japanese defense analyst noted: “Suga’s only defense strategy is to eagerly, or pathologically, rely on the US government and military and the Suga administration itself has no intention to increase defense budgets and take some measures to defend [the] Senkakus by Japan herself.”

Yoshihide Suga speaks at a press conference at the prime minister’s office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo on September 1, 2020. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP Forum

Trump’s demands for more money for US forces stationed in Japan unnecessarily riled the Japanese, even if they had the cash.

But the bigger need is always for Japan to improve its combat capabilities.

Compared with some of America’s NATO allies, the Japanese are practically a military powerhouse. But in actual fact, the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) has serious shortcomings in terms of underfunding, a hodgepodge of hardware and equipment, missed recruitment targets and near-zero joint operational capability.

Moreover, the JSDF’s progress over the last decade – even if considerable by Japanese standards – has not been nearly enough to match the Chinese military’s rapid build-up.

A Biden administration will have some serious work to do bringing Japan along to become a more capable partner. This will take time, and there isn’t enough of that.

Unfortunately, the Chinese are likely to provide a test – sooner rather than later – to determine just how serious was Biden’s promise to Prime Minister Suga.

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy. This article originally appeared November 13 on the center’s website.