US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) arm bumps with Japan's Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi (2nd R) as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd L) and Japan's Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (R) look on after their joint press conference following the 2+2 meeting at the Iikura Guest House in Tokyo on March 16, 2021. Photo: by Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool/AFP

On March 15-16, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo. This was the first overseas visit by the two officials, highlighting the importance of the US-Japan relationship.

North Korea, Taiwan, climate change and Covid-19 were discussed, but the big topic was China. The Americans and Japanese declared that China is a regional (if not global) threat – and, most importantly for Tokyo, that the US commitment to defend Japan is solid and covers the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China 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 lock step.”

And just to be sure:

  • “The US commitment is undiminished,” and
  • “The alliance has never been stronger.”

Make no mistake, the US-Japan relationship and the 60-year-old Japan-US Mutual Security Treaty are as important as billed.

And most Asian nations are quietly grateful for the US-Japan alliance – though these days it’s more for counter-balancing China than for keeping Japan in check.

Koji Yamazaki (L) Japanese Chief of Staff, Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces and Lieutenant General Kevin B. Schneider, Commander of US Forces in Japan and Fifth Air Force, give a fist bump on board a Japanese helicopter carrier off the Shikoku region, October 26, 2020. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP.

Remove the US-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, Xinjiang.

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 US 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.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R) leave after their joint press conference with Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (2nd L) and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi (R) after their 2+2 meeting at Iikura Guest House in Tokyo on March 16. Photo: AFP / Kazuhiro Nogi / Pool / Anadolu Agency

What might real 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.

The right things? Military personnel first, second, and third in order to bolster morale and attract recruits. The Japan Self Defense Forces miss recruitment targets by 25% annually and have 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 between and among themselves. 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 US 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 US and Japanese forces have been training together for decades and deepening alliance capabilities is oft-mentioned but without enough to show for it.

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

All 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 Senkakus where the Japanese coast guard, navy, and air force are stretched thin by Chinese ships and aircraft and on the verge of being overwhelmed. 

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

Do the following:

  • Ensure that Japanese and US forces routinely and visibly patrol, train, and exercise in the immediate vicinity of the Senkaku Islands. They currently do not.
  • Have US and Japanese forces use existing air and naval firing ranges in the Senkakus.  These have not been used since the late 1970’s.
  • Deploy Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) ships to the Nansei Shoto (Ryukyu chain of islands, which includes Okinawa), and base at Ishigaki Island – as requested by the local sgovernment.
  • Have US and Japanese aircraft jointly respond to People’s Liberation Army Air Force aerial intrusions.
  • Establish a Japanese and US forces headquarters – a Ryukyus Joint Task Force – 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 Nobuo 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 US 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 US forces. Ten years overdue, no doubt, but still significant if these opportunities are acted upon.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi delivers a speech during a press conference at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on September 16, 2020. Photo: AFP/Charly Triballeau

Might it provoke the Chinese? Yes. Everything provokes the Chinese communists. Japanese (and American) forbearance for decades in Japan’s southern territory has deterred nobody. 

Japan and the Americans either must take some risks or the Chinese will swamp them. And 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?

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years of experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive and US Marine Corps officer.