Japan–USA: Dynamic, Bilateral Defence Cooperation

17 May 2012, 14:34

He currently works as Tokyo correspondent for Asia Times Online and IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. He also served as TV commentator for Nikkei CNBC (news television channel broadcast in Japan) from March 2009 to March 2012. He graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and the School of International and Public Affairs as a dual master's degree student.

U.W.: Mr. Takahashi, in your latest article "US, Japan: Not quite 20-20 vision" you write, that "United States President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pledged to boost their security alliance to maintain peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region – a move intended to counter China's military buildup and North Korea's erratic belligerence. After their 60-minute summit, the two leaders issued a joint statement titled A Shared Vision for the Future". What does this agreement mean for Japan?

For Japan, the agreement means further military integration with the US, which started in the late 1990s.

When you look back over the history of US-Japan relations, the bilateral alliance once drifted in the early 1990's in the wake of the end of the Cold War era without a new common policy goal.

But since the late 1990s, the alliance has undergone significant changes to enhance bilateral defence and security cooperation. Particularly in 1996, US President Bill Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto issued the "US-Japan Joint Declaration on Security." This declaration reconfirmed for the first time that a stronger US-Japan security alliance helps ensure peace and security not only in Japan and the Far East, but also in the Asia-Pacific region. The 1960 Japan-US Security Treaty is just aimed at contributing to the security of Japan and the Far East, so the 1996 joint declaration expanded the range of Japan’s defence virtually.

Behind the move have been North Korea’s unstoppable nuclear and missile development programmes, which became evident in the early 1990s. To cope with the North Korean threat, the US and Japan, for example, have jointly developed Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems up to the present.

Although on April 30 US President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stressed developing a shared vision for the future, there still appear to be some differences in their positions.

While the US still cares about the so-called asymmetric threats like terrorism, unconventional guerrilla warfare, cyber-attacks and laser attacks from a long-term strategic standpoint in its global defence posture, Japan is tactically trying to solve individual problems such as the burden of US military bases carried mostly by the people in Okinawa without its own national strategy.

U.W.: The new concept of "bilateral dynamic defence cooperation" was introduced for the first time. How will this affect the level of cooperation between Japan and America?

The new concept of "bilateral dynamic defence cooperation" includes timely and effective joint training, joint surveillance and reconnaissance activities, as well as joint and shared use of facilities for US forces and the Japanese Self-Defence Forces (JSDF).

Specifically, the two governments affirmed to consider co-developing training areas in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, such as Tinian and Pagan islands, for US forces and the JSDF. Both governments plan to identify specific areas of cooperation by the end of this year.

This new defence cooperation will bring the bilateral alliance to a higher level of integration, paving the way for the SDF to intensify activities abroad, in addition to its UN PKO activities such as in Haiti and South Sudan.

However, the JSDF working routinely with US forces in other parts of the Asia-Pacific region could lead to the use of forces outside Japan, which the nation's pacifist constitution strictly prohibits.

Despite such concerns, there has been no national debate in the Diet (parliament) on dynamic defence cooperation, and no effort by the Noda administration to build a people's consensus. The “bilateral dynamic defence cooperation” is likely to chip away at the principle of the postwar "Peace Constitution" without sparking a national debate on it.

A recent move to integrate the Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF)'s main command with the US Yokota Air Base in late March, which is home to the US Forces Japan (USFJ) headquarters and the US 5th Air Force, also represents enhanced bilateral military cooperation. The move is part of a 2006 agreement on the realignment of USFJ.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) has also already relocated its command centre to Yokosuka Naval Base: also home to the US Navy's 7th Fleet. The Japan Ground Self-Defence Force (JGSDF)'s Central Readiness Force, which is currently based at Camp Asaka in Saitama Prefecture, is also scheduled to move to Camp Zama, the home of US Army Japan, in March 2013. These moves are highly likely to further strengthen the two nations' defence collaboration against North Korea and China.

U.W.: Was Washington's request for Tokyo to increase its security role made partly because the United States will be forced to cut its defence spending in the face of worsening federal deficits?

Yes, that’s the number one reason. Faced with mounting fiscal difficulties, the US has to reduce the US military presence in Japan, particularly in Okinawa, whether it likes it or not.

The number two reason is China’s growing military might. How to deal with a rising China is the US and Japan's biggest common interest. China's growing naval power and its enhanced strike capabilities are reshaping the security dynamic in the region. This has caused the US to shift its security pivot toward the Asia-Pacific by expanding its military footprint in Australia, the Philippines and Singapore. With the Pentagon well aware of China's "anti-access/area denial" strategy and its focus on the so-called AirSea battle concept, it aims to move US Marines currently stationed on Japan's Okinawa Island to other areas out of China's missile strike range.

In addition, the new military strategy of "offshore balancing" is becoming widespread in Washington, which would reduce US troops in Japan and lead Japan to counter China. Offshore balancing is convenient to the US in that it could avoid direct confrontation with China, and also it can drive a wedge between Beijing and Tokyo in order for them not to unite in East Asia, excluding the US. The US has been against the establishment of an East Asian Community, or an economic and political bloc equivalent to the European Union, which was proposed by a former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

U.W.: Does the new plan help the allies work around the central but still-unresolved dispute over moving the Futenma air base from a crowded part of Okinawa to a new site?

The new agreement already drew ire from Okinawans for a couple of reasons. In the first place, the US and Japan decided to stick to the existing plan to relocate the controversial US Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma to Henoko, Nago, in northern Okinawa by constructing a new sea-based replacement facility off Camp Schwab.

Secondly, the Japanese government has pledged to pay refurbishment costs for the MCAS Futenma on Okinawa until that sea-based replacement facility is constructed on the north of the island. The local government has demanded the immediate closure of the Futenma site, which is situated in a built-up area, instead of performing maintenance and repairs on it. Okinawans are worried that maintenance and repair work on MCAS Futenma will mean its continued use and they fear the air station will become a permanent fixture.

MCAS Futenma base is currently located in the heart of the densely populated Ginowan City creating a dangerous situation. In recent years, in August 2004, a US Marine Corps CH-53D transport helicopter crashed into Okinawa International University’s school building without any casualties. (Thanks to summer vacation, most students were off-campus.)

In addition, the US is reportedly planning to deploy the MV-22 Osprey vertical take-off and landing transport aircraft to the MCAS Futenma in July. Okinawans cite concerns about safety and noise pollution from the aircraft; during its development the Osprey suffered a series of accidents. Also, in April a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey crashed in Morocco, raising safety concerns about the aircraft again.

U.W.: The U.S. alliance with Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, is at the heart of Obama’s expanded engagement in Asia — is this diplomatic thrust motivated in part by a desire to counter the growing economic and military clout of strategic rival China?

Yes, China is changing this region’s security dynamic rapidly. Militarily, the US still wants to maintain a presence in Japan to the extent allowed by local citizens, just like it is sticking to the Henoko relocation plan. Especially, it will maintain key US troops and bases in Japan at all costs, including the US Navy's 7th Fleet at Yokosuka Naval Base and the US Kadena Air Base. Meanwhile, it is likely to employ the offshore balancing strategy, by gradually letting Japan, South Korea, Australia and other nations manage their own problems against China without direct US involvement. Fiscal constraints will certainly force the US to do so.

U.W.: Is the U.S.-Japan alliance the cornerstone of peace, security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region?

I think so. But the problem is both governments are facing a massive budget deficit and it is becoming hard to sustain the current level of security alliance. This is why both governments are stepping up joint efforts to move their troops effectively.

For Japan, which is in the poorest financial shape among developed countries – its government debt has reaching 230% of gross domestic product – the ever-increasing burden of the realignment of US forces is becoming a big problem in Tokyo. The disastrous March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accidents have also imposed an enormous financial burden on Japan.

On April 30, the two governments said the total cost of relocating marines and their dependents from Okinawa to Guam would be lowered to US$8.6 billion from the original $10.27 billion. However, the cost to Japan has risen from a maximum of $2.8 billion to $3.1 billion, compensating for inflation.

The Japanese share of costs includes building expenses for land, housing, schools and other facilities in Guam as well as the costs of developing the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, such as Tinian Island, where, as an historical irony, two B-29s took off to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

If those facilities were to be created inside its own territory, Japanese people would be content to incur such huge costs. But now, as if Tokyo had become an automated teller machine for the US, the facilities are being built outside of Japan.

Thanks in part to Japan's money, Guam will have its largest military presence since the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s when US Air Force B-52s made daily bombing runs from bases on the island.

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