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Golden Opportunity to Enhance Security of the Senkaku Islands/East China Sea



RIMPAC is a U.S. Navy-organized series of biennial exercises with foreign navies in the Pacific area begun in 1971 as an economically efficient way to maximize training opportunities.  Although Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force now participates regularly, it was for a number of years prevented from doing owing to charges by some in the Japanese Diet, civilian government bureaucracy and mass media that Japanese participation in RIMPAC would be a form of collective self-defense.


To allow for eventual Japanese inclusion, very carefully crafted talking points were worked out by the MSDF and US Navy to emphasize that Japanese ships and aircraft were not coming under the command of US or other foreign participants but were merely training against no particular enemy in the vicinity of other naval forces. Such cautious scripting was accommodated by the U.S. Navy in order to enhance training opportunities with the MSDF even though the caution was considered excessively rigid by U.S. authorities.


However, immediately following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, three Japan – U.S. Joint Coordination Centers were set up in the Japan Ministry of Defense in Tokyo, at US Forces Japan Headquarters at Yokota Air Base and at the Headquarters of the GSDF North Eastern Army in Sendai.  These three offices functioned operationally as combined command centers to coordinate rescue efforts, certainly a Japanese national interest.  But no critics stepped forward in the Diet or in the media to call this a violation of Japan’s prohibition of exercising the right of collective self-defense which of course was not the case just as RIMPAC never was or is today.



Then in 2014 the Abe Cabinet stepped forward and explicitly modified Japan’s self-imposed but strategically lacking 1972 total ban on Japan’s exercise of collective self-defense under certain conditions directly involving the security of Japan.  That decision was taken as a justifiable response to an increasingly hostile security environment including China’s military buildup in the East and South China Seas directly threatening Japanese sealanes in the Southwest Pacific and Japanese territory in the Senkaku Islands.  This strategically-meaningful, giant step forward was followed by revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines calling for an Alliance Coordination Mechanism [ACM]; however, at least publicly, not much concrete, meaningful progress has yet been made towards the ACM goal.


At long last, according to reports in the Japanese press in early January of this year, the Japan Ministry of Defense intends to plan a integrated joint [GSDF, MSDF, ASDF] plan to defend the Senkaku Islands in coordination with U.S. Forces in Japan.  Coordination among the three Japanese SDF has been lacking [the MSDF and US Navy work exceptionally close together in comparison to any joint actions of two or three of the SDF branches] even after the end of the Cold War and the shift of one primary threat to Japan from a Soviet attack on Hokkaido to Chinese activity threatening the Nansei Shoto.  Thus a Ministry of Defense plan for an integrated SDF defense plan to deter Chinese adventurism seems appropriate if not long overdue.


The quality of equipment in the JSDF is excellent and will be getting better; the recent and ongoing acquisitions of MV22 Ospreys and AAV7 amphibious assault vehicles in the GSDF, P1 maritime patrol aircraft in the MSDF and F-35s Lighting II aircraft in the ASDF are only a few examples.  But what the JSDF especially needs is joint stationing and training for meaningfully effective joint operations.  Given the current threat environment, establishing and equipping a capable GSDF/MSDF/ASDF Task Force in Okinawa, co-located with the US Marine Corps’ III Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group in Okinawa seems like a golden opportunity to enhance Japan’s contribution to enhanced deterrence against a Chinese threat to Japan’s sovereign territory.


A co-located Japanese JTF- US Marine Expeditionary Force in the northern anchor of the First Island Chain could highly complicate any Chinese planning of military aggression, the essence of deterrence.  Given the 2014 Cabinet decision and the revised Defense Guidelines, two recent Japanese achievements – unthinkable just a few years ago -  there is a golden opportunity to move forward which hopefully Japan will not miss given that it should be able to be approved politically and implemented operationally.



In their Joint Statement of February 10th in Washington, D.C. Prime Minister Abe and President Trump stated that “The United States and Japan will deepen cooperation to safeguard the peace and stability of the East China Sea.”  Not only could creating an integrated Japanese plan for defense of the Senkaku Islands in coordination with the US cause significant worry to cautious Chinese civilian leaders but could help convince the US Trump Administration that Japan is indeed increasingly carrying a more meaningful share of the burden of Pacific security.



JAMES E. AUER is the President and Director of the Auer U.S.-Japan Center [AUSJC] and Emeritus Professor of Vanderbilt University. The AUSJC hosts Japanese researchers annually at its offices on the Vanderbilt campus, conducts the annual U.S.-Japan (Defense/Dual Use) Technology Forum for American and Japanese businessmen in Nashville and, since 2004, an annual U.S.-Japan Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) Forum in Washington, D.C.

He served in the U.S. Navy from 1963 to 1983 in a number of positions including visiting student at the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Staff College (equivalent of the U.S. Navy War College) in Tokyo and serving as executive and commanding officer of guided missile ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. From April 1979 until September 1988, he served as Special Assistant for Japan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

He holds an A.B. degree from Marquette University and a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. In December 2008 he received the Japanese Government’s “Order of Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon.” In December 2015 he was named as the first foreign recipient of the annual “Sound Opinion Grand Prize” by the Fujisankei Communications Group.



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