SEOUL – There can be few finer examples of the positive potential of change than the Japan-US relationship. In a generation, the Pacific powers morphed from mortal enemies into staunch allies.

Unlike Washington’s alliance with other close partners such as London and Seoul, its partnership with Tokyo remains untested in battle. But though the US never called on Japan to fight in Korea, Vietnam or the Middle East, two factors are making it more critical for US security than ever before.

First and foremost is the surging economic rise of China and its increasingly assertive global political stance under President Xi Jinping. Today’s China represents a dual economic and strategic challenge for America in a way that today’s militarily powerful but economically feeble Russia does not. 

Second, is the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear-armed state with ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental US.

NATO is in place to counter an expansive Russia in Europe, US wars in the Middle East are winding down and the global war on terror is being fought at low intensity. Given this, Washington’s strategic priorities are pivoting toward East Asia, where no over-arching security alliance exists.

This makes Japan critical – and the centrality of Japan to US foreign policy under the Biden administration is crystal clear.

The first overseas visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was to Tokyo. The first foreign leader to be greeted by President Joe Biden in Washington is Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, a meeting due on Friday, Washington time.

Analysts consulted by Asia Times consider Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force, an armor/artillery-centric arm, largely stuck in its Cold War role: Preparing to defeat a Russian invasion of Hokkaido. This means Japan’s strategic role is weighted toward aerial, maritime and missile defense.

The major question hanging over the Japan-US alliance is how far it can effectively be upgraded and expanded. That question breaks down into three sub-questions.

In terms of role: Can Japan take on a greater share of responsibility? In terms of expansion: Can new partnerships be encompassed? And in terms of geography: Can it shift from littoral Japan to the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and Oceania?

The answers to these questions are far from clear.

In terms of responsibility, Tokyo must face commercial realities in terms of its relationship with China, and budgetary constraints in terms of defense spending.

In terms of expansion, it is improving defense partnerships with democratic partners as far afield as London, Brussels, Canberra, Manila and New Delhi. However, to the intense frustration of Washington, its most important regional relationship – with Seoul – is toxic.

And in terms of ranging farther and wider it faces manpower and hardware constraints in the SDF and political as well as constitutional shackles.

Even so, when it comes to countering China, there are multiple pressure points that Japan and Washington can feasibly push. These include upgrading operational plans for the defense of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, contingency planning for nearby Taiwan, and a role expansion over more distant horizons.

A trilateral exercise between the U.S. Navy, the Royal Australian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Philippine Sea on July 21, 2020. Photo: US Navy

Suga talks the talk

Just as his security and foreign policy chiefs did in their meeting with their US counterparts last month, Suga is deploying all the right language.

“An open and free rules-based order, maritime security and connectivity are indispensable for regional and global prosperity. Japan will strategically advance initiatives that protect the free and open Indo-Pacific through collaboration with like-minded countries,” Suga said in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on April 14.

That echoes his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who called five years ago for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” – a catchphrase latched on to by the United States. China has pushed back against what it sees – almost certainly correctly – as a move to trammel its freedom of action and influence penetration region-wide.  

In this vein, Japan is an enthusiastic member of the Quad, the informal but not-fully-tasked US-led alliance of regional democracies that also comprises Australia and India, which Biden, unlike his unilateralist predecessor, looks set to promote.

On several issues – such as North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens; the denuclearization of North Korea; commitments to a free and open Indo Pacific; and the “low-hanging fruit” of climate change – the US and Japan are already on the same page, said Ken Jimbo, a specialist in global security and Japan-US ties at  Keio University.

Yet while there is widespread distrust in the Japanese public and body politic of the newly assertive China of Xi, there are multiple factors limiting Suga’s freedom of action. And some Americans fear that Suga, like other Japanese leaders, is more talk than walk.

“I think there is too much focus on Japan doing more militarily, there is a lot of that talk in Washington,” said Dan Sneider, a lecturer in international policy at Stanford University.  “But among people I know who understand Japan well, they know they have political and constitutional constraints, and budgetary and manpower limitations.”

Another limitation is Japan Inc’s deeply embedded commerce with China.

A combined photo of US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who are to meet in Washington, Photo: Mandel Ngan and Yuichi Yamazaki / AFP

Weaponizing export bans

While the Trump administration took a largely unilateral approach toward its technological squeeze on China, offering minimal consulting to allies, the Biden administration is leaning toward multilateralism.

The US and Japan – respectively, the globe’s number one and number three economies – could feasibly work to trammel the rising number two, China, in the technological space. Nascent initiatives to this effect are already being suggested by the US side via the Quad format.

 “On technology issues, they want to set up this working group on supply chain,” said Sneider. “The idea is, ‘Let’s cooperate in restricting the flow of technology to the Chinese.’”

Key products being reviewed by the Biden administration for export controls are semiconductors, batteries, medical supplies and rare earths, said Jimbo. He expects dual-use defense-related technologies to be added to the list, and for US pressure “asking Suga to be on board.”

Currently, the strategic implications of semiconductor supply are to the fore.

“It has recently been reported that TSMC chips are ending up in the defense industry in China which seems utterly nonsensical and bizarre,” said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based independent security consultant referring to leading global non-memory chip supplier Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company.

“Taiwan talks about its ‘silicon shield’ – the importance of its chip industry to global supply chain as a sort of deterrence to China.”

Given the importance of Taiwan’s relations to both the US and Japan, leverage exists. “The US and Japan can focus on putting strictures on those supply chains and ensuring that Japan is not facilitating this problem,” Neil said.

Whereas the Trump administration focused on the “clean network policy” – i.e. persuading allies not to utilize Huawei equipment in 5G networks – Neil expects the Biden administration to focus on mitigation measures and closer scrutiny of supply chains. 

But is Japan on message?

It’s a tough ask. China takes up more than 20% of Japanese trade and it is unclear whether Japan – like China and South Korea, a manufacturing rather than a services economy – would put real muscle behind any initiatives that complicate value chains.

“There are over 14,000 Japanese companies in mainland China, the majority make huge profits, and it is very hard to decouple supply value chains out of China,” said Jimbo, who noted that subsidies offered by the Shinzo Abe government for Japanese firms to exit China got little take up. “I think it is very hard to persuade our business community to withdraw.”

Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party is a broad church that encompasses not only hard rightists, but also those who want a better relationship with China. This suggests Japan may raise its voice rather than put its money where its mouth is.

Japan “has been very circumspect on human rights abuses and the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators because it is happy to preach values but won’t risk anything to support them,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies  at Temple University in Japan. “Japan Inc opposes a more robust response on values because it has too much at stake and thinks Japan has little leverage.”

All this explains why Japan is “not rushing to decouple,” said Sneider.

With Suga reined in by Japan Inc, other countries at the sharp end of China’s rise may like to see stronger action from Japan and the US.

“Between the two countries, aspects of redrawing supply chain manufacturing could be discussed since these two countries inadvertently contributed to China’s manufacturing rise,” said Shekhar Sinha, a founding partner of Indian think tank Deepstrat.

Getting expeditionary…or not?

Under Abe, Japan began to construct the kind of expeditionary assets it had not possessed since its 1940s pan-Pacific rampage.

Tokyo stood up a marine brigade and is currently converting two so-called helicopter destroyers – actually, small aircraft carriers – into F35 platforms. Japan’s destroyer/frigate force is widely seen as one of the most powerful on the seas, and Tokyo is acquiring a huge fleet of F35s.

While Washington would like to see Tokyo deploying these kinds of assets beyond littoral Japan, political and constitutional barriers exist.

Article 9 of the Japanese constitute states that “…the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Moreover, “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

The existence of the SDF gives the lie to the latter line, but while the public tolerated the build-up of offensive capabilities on Abe’s watch, there is little support for military adventurism. That is visible in the low support for the Collective Self Defense (CSD) legislation passed in the Diet in 2015, which some saw as bypassing Article 9.

“Public support for the 2015 CSD legislation remains weak,” said Jeff Kingston, who heads Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan. “Abe couldn’t even dispatch a warship to coalition Persian Gulf patrols, and was unable to find any town willing to host Aegis Ashore. Article 9 remains resilient.”

Constitutional reform was a centerpiece of Abe’s platform, but despite being Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, he failed to execute. Ironically, given US hopes for a wider-ranging Japanese military, its constitution has American authors.

“The US might want to see a more developed debate about Article 9 and Japan being heavily focused toward non-offensive capabilities,” said Neill. “But maybe the Americans hamstrung themselves. The constitution is a legacy of the wartime suppression of Japan’s capabilities.”

Sailors work on board the JS Amagiri (DD-154), an Asagiri-class destroyer in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, as it arrives at port in Manila on February 2, 2018. 
The Amagiri, with its crew of over 200 personnel, arrived at port in Manila as part for a two-day goodwill visit. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS
Sailors on the JS Amagiri, an Asagiri-class destroyer in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP

Still, Japan is not entirely hobbled.

While Suga and Abe talk about a free and open Indo-Pacific, maritime SDF assets have undertaken training cruises in the South China Sea and Indian Oceans. In recent years, in addition to exercising with their US allies, the SDF has also conducted drills with Australian, British, Indian and Philippine units.

With India’s strategic Nicobar Islands guarding the exit to the Strait of Malacca, MSDF forces have also joined India’s Exercise Malabar, as well as international anti-piracy patrols off Somalia. MSDF units, on their homeward course from these commitments, have exercised with Southeast Asian units and made port calls.

What they have not done is conduct the high-risk freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) executed by the US Navy in the South China Sea, for example, sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese bases on disputed reefs and islands.

This suggests that while Japanese forces have long arms and legs, they have a weak stomach.

“In terms of joining international cooperation and joint exercises, that is possible,” said Jimbo. “But whether Japan can join operations in a crisis – or in an actual war – that would certainly raise controversy in terms of applying the existing legal platform laid out in 2015.”

The SDF could feasibly provide logistic support for US forces in a crisis, Sneider added – but even that “would be done at the consent of the Diet.”

The low priority granted to defense is visible in manpower and budgetary weaknesses. The SDF consistently miss recruiting targets, Sneider notes, and defense spending, while significant – Japan is a G3 economy – is small in proportion: under 1% of GDP.

Synchronizing the Senkakus and Taiwan

While the US is committed to the defense of Japan, there is a grey area: The uninhabited, disputed islets the Japanese call the Senkakus, and the Chinese the Diaoyus. They are a high-risk zone of seaborne contention.

Calling the Senkakus “a particular checklist” item for Japan, Jimbo states that though US has made territorial defense commitments since 2010, detail is needed.

This should include “specific configurations of the Coast Guard and military cooperation between US and Japan,” he said, as well as the emplacement of “sophisticated escalation control management”  systems.  This systemization, in addition to political commitment, “would send a signal to Beijing.”

If the US commits, it could feasibly ask for a quid pro quo: Japanese commitment to Taiwan. 

“Look at a map: Japanese defense of its Southwestern islands inevitably involve them to some degree in Taiwan,” said Sneider. “And any US operation in the Taiwan Strait is going to have to be based, at least in part, part out of Japan.”

But while the US and Japan – via the Korea-based UN Command – have protocols and contingencies in place for a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, no such joint plan exists for Taiwan.

Given this, the US “will probably ask Japan for the timing, for when we can think of practical coordination,” said Jimbo. He noted that the March 2+2 defense-foreign ministers’ meet stressed US and Japanese commitment to maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait, but was vague on detail.

Meanwhile, low-profile security coordination is feasible.

For example: Taipei-Tokyo  communication and coordination in the air-gap between the northernmost Taiwanese islands and the southernmost Senkakus , where an aerial war of nerves is waged by both air forces against Chinese intrusion flights.

Noting that Taipei-Tokyo defense engagement is hypersensitive for Beijing, and so kept “low key and closely protected,” there is “lots to share,” said Neill. “Command and control, and data sharing, are areas where Taiwan and Japan could work together, as Japanese troops are stationed on the Ryukyu chain, so there is a military presence very close to Taiwan,” he noted.

“There could be more indirect communications,” added Jimbo. “The US and Taiwan have their own military to military communications, and Taiwanese messages are sometimes conveyed through the US.”

Indian Ocean, Oceania and missile defense

A major question is how far Japan’s MSDF is prepared to consistently range. 

Neill suggested that the US may encourage the MSDF to conduct FONOPs in the South China Sea, but “that’s going to be a tricky one for Japan.” As a second-best option, he said that demonstrations of interoperability and joint capabilities – such as carrier-borne F35s and Aegis destroyers, which both US and Japanese forces deploy – could be conducted in the sea.

He also suggested upgrading exercises, patrols and maritime awareness cruises with India around the Nicobars to bolster New Delhi which – being traditionally non-aligned – Neill called “the weak link” in the Quad.

Given Japan’s significant submarine and anti-submarine capabilities, he suggested a stronger presence in Oceania, where Chinese underwater assets have been engaged in hydrographic surveys. Not only has Japan played a historic role in Oceania, its presence would bolster the US around Guam – a gateway to the strategic “first island chain.”

It would also support Quad partner Australia, which is seeing its influence in the region being encroached upon by China.

However, a wider role could strain MSDF manpower and machinery.

“I think FONOPs are a great idea but the place where FONOPs should be practiced is geographically a bit far,” said Jimbo. “We are more concerned about the East China Sea than the South China Sea.”

Regular voyages at distance, “may be too much in terms of capacity,” he said.

MSDF capacity is already pressured due to Tokyo’s decision last year to cancel the deployment of the Aegis Ashore anti-missile system. That stunned Washington, which sees Japan as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, forward deployed in its deeply echeloned cross-Pacific missile defense system.

After some speculation about a dubious “first strike” capability, the plan now is to expand Aegis Afloat, placing the land systems aboard destroyers – which requires technical conversions. There are also tactical drawbacks.

Aegis Ashore could monitor North Korea-based missile launches 24/7, Jimbo said, “but with sea-based operations, you have to rotate the ships, and that is hard for the sailors. Operationally speaking, Aegis Ashore is more stable.”

While the Aegis Ashore cancelation frustrated Washington, there is a plus: Japan remains a massive buyer of US gear, including the Aegis Afloat systems. “It’s a pretty cozy deal for the US,” said Neill.

Japanese MSDF warship the Kaga, is undergoing conversion to make her into an F35 capable aircraft carrier. Photo: AFP/Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu Agency

The flashpoint peninsula

While US global strategy is increasingly aimed at China, in the region, North Korea – which intelligence suggests is poised for more ballistic missile tests – remains hugely problematic. The Biden administration’s months-long policy review on North Korea is imminent, and it is likely that Japan has had input into that process.

For maximal efficacy in handling North Korea, a trilateral alliance encompassing Seoul is desirable. However, Seoul is understandably keener to engage Pyongyang than are Washington or Tokyo, and the Moon Jae-in administration has obviated trilateralism with a long list of actions.

Moon promised China that Korea would not join any such trilateral body, and on his watch, Korea unilaterally abrogated a 2015 bilateral deal on “comfort women,” while Korean courts seized Japanese assets as compensation for wartime forced laborer – even though that issue was settled and compensated in 1965.  

Moreover, the South Korean navy illuminated a Japanese aircraft with its target radar, and a Japanese warship was turned away from a Korean naval review for flying a “Rising Sun” ensign.

In 2018, Japan retaliated by removing most favored trade status from Korea, sparking a Korean backlash. And only after US pressure was applied did Korea desist from killing off an intelligence-sharing pact that constitutes the only real link between Seoul’s and Tokyo’s militaries.

More recently, Korean news has been bubbling with an academic brouhaha over comfort women, and an environmental brouhaha over Japan’s plan to dump irradiated water from its Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea. Moon has floated the idea of an international legal suit against Japan – something Chinese scholars have commented upon.

But Sneider notes that while the US is frustrated with Moon, it is also unhappy with Suga, He has refused to respond to recent signals from Moon, who has, since Abe’s resignation last year, offered peace overtures.

“I think acrimony between Japan and Korea over historical grievances and disputed territories are going to be a spanner in the works of any enhancement in cooperation,” said Neill. “That radar lock-on has demonstrated the limitations of the hub and spoke.”

Its repeatedly demonstrated inability to bring Seoul and Tokyo together is irksome to Washington, which consequently suffers from an unsynchronized early-warning system.

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

 “Korea has been much less vocal in espousing the Indo-Pacific moniker,” Neill continued. “Though Japan and Korea could cooperate in early-warning and ballistic-missile detection capabilities, in terms of operational capability, they are still stove-piped and compartmentalized.”

While the Japan-US strategic relationship looks likely to get a shot in the arm in the years ahead, as Biden prioritizes multilateralism and the alliances his predecessor rode roughshod over, Tokyo looks unready for high-risk, kinetic operations.

All this means that while Japan may be vocally supportive, it is commercially and strategically limited in the actions it can take to counter China.

“The US knows Japan is not inclined to step up on security or values, but there is frustration that Tokyo leaves the heavy lifting to others,” said Kingston. “Authoritarians in Asia know they have little to worry about Japan except for some ritualistic hand-wringing.”

And the failure of the Quad’s two biggest players to add real muscle to the alliance is galling to some.

“The Biden-Suga meet could result in the often-repeated phrases of ‘follow the rules-based order,’” said Sinha, who was formerly an Indian vice admiral with four decades of service. “India would have preferred to see them stating that the Quad would stand by each other when any country violates the territorial integrity of any Quad nation – but that is yet far.”