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Politics & Security

Mr. Suga goes to Washington

If Japan does not develop its own defenses into a serious force able to operate with the Americans (and the QUAD), U.S. promises – and even its actions – may not be enough to defend the Senkakus, and beyond.

Grant Newsham

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Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will be meeting President Biden on April 16.  

His stated objectives: discuss China, North Korea, Taiwan, climate change, and the corona virus, and strengthen the US-Japan relationship. But Suga, like his recent predecessors, really has just one main objective in Washington: to keep the United States on the hook to defend Japan.

No matter that Suga and the Japanese government have already gotten this promise three times from President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Austin. 

He wants to hear it again. Sort of like some gal asking, “do you love me?” every five minutes. If she’s asking, she ain’t sure.

Now, one sort of understands why Suga keeps asking.  

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) intends to settle old scores and put Japan in its place ー this has been obvious for years. Meanwhile, pressure from Chinese naval, coast guard, and maritime militia around Japan’s Senkaku Islands has become increasingly hard for the Japan Coast Guard and Self Defense Force to contain.

Even worse, the PRC recently passed a law authorizing the China Coast Guard to shoot at ships trespassing in Chinese waters. And since the Senkakus and surrounding seas are – to Beijing’s mind – Chinese territory…well…Tokyo should get the message.

Beijing was, however, kind enough to say that it will restrain itself, for the time being.

Without American support or the possibility of it, China would likely have already moved to occupy the Senkakus and dare the Japanese to do something about it.

So one understands the urgency (even if unstated) Japan feels to ensure Washington will defend Japan.   

Setting the Scene

Suga’s visit will of course be cordial, and both sides will declare the U.S.-Japan alliance “based on shared mutual values,” has “never been stronger,” “underpins regional security,” and both sides are “in lock step.”

However, Chinese military and economic strength, and self-confidence (even if overweening) have reached a point that Washington’s declarations of commitment may have less deterrent effect than in years past.

The Suga-Biden talks may yield an impressive string of platitudes and promises to cooperate on climate change and COVID-19, and to keep consulting on threats to regional security. These, however, are low-hanging fruit.

What Japan wants more than anything is a promise of U.S. firepower – though it doesn’t seem to realize that improving its own military capabilities would enhance what U.S. forces have to offer.

So in an ideal world – which this one isn’t – a meeting between the Japanese Prime Minister and the U.S. President would produce tangible measures to strengthen capabilities needed to deter the PRC – and if necessary defeat the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Here’s what those objectives might look like:

The two leaders agree that Japanese and American forces will improve capabilities to conduct a joint/combined defense of Japan. And they describe the concrete measures to be taken, including: What? When? How? 

They agree that Japan will do what is necessary to remedy the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) shortcomings: inadequate funding, recruiting shortfalls, and lack of joint capability. And the JSDF will  become a force that is able to fight a war. And once again: What? When? How?

References to Taiwan will go beyond “mutual concern” or even “deep concern” over the situation in the Taiwan Strait, and instead offer concrete support to Taipei. Such as: the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) joins the recently concluded U.S.-Taiwan Coast Guard Working Group and dispatches JCG liaison officers to Taiwan.

And Japan enacts its own version of the United States’ Taiwan Relations Act. And for all of these: What? When? How?

The QUAD of course gets a mention. And more than just promises to hold a lot of future meetings – which Tokyo has traditionally considered a substitute for developing its own solid military capabilities. There are any number of possibilities.

For example, establish a standing joint U.S.-Japan operational headquarters in Japan – with extra seats for the Australians and Indians, for starters. Or perhaps agree to invite an Australian air force squadron to set up in Japan, say at Misawa Air Base or Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station. And don’t forget: When? Where? How?

Chinese Coast Guard and militia ships aggressively pushing Japan in the Senkaku Islands

Defense of Senkaku

Is any of this likely to happen when Suga and Biden meet?  No. 

But one still holds out hope that something useful and specific might happen in Washington.  

And that is: the U.S. assures Japan (and publicly states) that the Senkaku Islands are Japanese territory. Washington used to think so, but in 1972 it went “non-committal” on the sovereignty issue – as a favor to the PRC. The Chinese didn’t respond as hoped.  Instead, American vagueness encouraged the Chinese to move in on the Senkakus.  

It’s long overdue for the Americans to reaffirm that the Senkakus (and surrounding waters) belong to Japan. And that Washington will regard Chinese attempts to seize it – even by “gray zone” tactics – the same as if the PLA tried to seize Hawaii.

U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force joint exercises.

Appreciation of the U.S. Presence

If by some miracle this should happen, Suga ought to then announce the following:  

“When I get back to Tokyo I’m going to send my best man out to Yokota Air Base to talk to the Commander, U.S. Forces Japan.  Here’s what he will say:”  

I hear you Americans have to leave Japan to train properly so you are able to defend Japan. That doesn’t sound right. We shouldn’t make things so hard for our only ally. Tell me what you need and Prime Minister Suga will take care of it. And take care of it immediately.

If you watch enough high level visits such as this week’s Suga-Biden meeting, one has low expectations. But things have reached a point in the Asia-Pacific that both sides – especially Japan – need to do more than they ever have – and to do it fast.

Suga’s biggest worry ought not to be that the Americans won’t defend Japan. They will. But if Japan does not develop its own defenses into a serious force able to operate with the Americans (and the QUAD), U.S. promises – and even its actions – may not be enough.

Times have changed. Objectives must as well.

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Author: Grant Newsham

Find other articles by the author at this link on JAPAN Forward.

Grant Newsham is a retired United States Marine Officer and a former U.S. diplomat with many years’ experience in Japan. He was the first US Marine liaison officer to the Japan Ground Self Defense force and was instrumental in promoting the JSDF’s initial moves towards an amphibious capability.