By: Zack Cooper and Eric Sayers
As originally appeared in War on the Rocks.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States and Japan focused on the threat from the Soviet Union, but with tensions increasing around Taiwan, Tokyo has turned to its south, adopting principles that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed for before his death.
This week’s events are the latest in this trend, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to Washington marks a significant change in the U.S.-Japan alliance. For the first time in decades, Tokyo and Washington are seriously preparing for the possibility of a major conflict in the near term. As Japan’s new National Security Strategy warns: “The possibility cannot be precluded that a serious situation may arise in the future in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in East Asia.” Yesterday, alliance leaders announced a set of defense posture changes, updated command relationships, and new training arrangements. In short, the U.S.-Japan alliance is shifting to a war footing.
It might seem obvious that Japan and the United States should be preparing to fight a war in the Indo-Pacific region. After all, the allies face mounting challenges from three nuclear-armed adversaries: China, Russia, and North Korea. Over the last decade, the United States and Japan have responded by slowly but deliberately reinforcing military capabilities to deter conflict. But President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and General Secretary Xi Jinping’s growing pressure on Taiwan have reminded leaders in Tokyo and Washington that even carefully crafted deterrence efforts can fail, and the consequences can be dire. A more robust set of responses in the face of new uncertainty has become necessary.
America’s Top Ally in Asia
Japan is in a unique position to deter regional conflict. Tokyo commands the world’s third-largest economy, has been gradually increasing defense spending in recent years, and took major steps to modernize its alliance with the United States under Abe’s leadership. Japan is also home to more U.S. troops than any other country in the world. And Japanese leaders have been stepping up their contributions on a wide range of issues, from penalizing Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and providing aid to Kyiv to cooperating on semiconductor supply chains and supporting the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
Experts have rightly noted that this is not a revolutionary rejection of pacifism but rather a more modest set of evolutionary changes in Japanese security policy. Indeed, major elements of Abe’s transformational agenda remained unaccomplished at the time of his assassination last year. But many of the limits introduced by Japan’s pacifist constitution and history are now being relaxed or adjusted. Japan’s increased defense spending and adoption of counterstrike capabilities are just two examples of the shift that is occurring under Kishida’s leadership.
Indeed, Japan’s preparation for conflict has heretofore lagged that of America’s other top allies. South Korea and the United States have a combined commandand experience responding together to frequent provocations from North Korea. Australia has fought alongside America in every major conflict in the last century. And the NATO allies are facing war on their doorstep; fought together in Afghanistan; and were active in the Balkans conflicts after the end of the Cold War. The U.S.-Japanese alliance, by comparison, has some catching up if it is to be fully prepared for a major contingency.
This week therefore marks the beginning of a major — and remarkably rapid — shift in Japan’s approach. Some of the details have already been announced by the Security Consultative Committee, the bilateral meeting of defense and foreign ministers/secretaries known colloquially as a 2+2 Meeting. These announcements show that three major transformations are underway simultaneously: 1) a defense spending surge in Tokyo, 2) reimagined command relationships, and 3) substantial posture and capability changes. Each is important on their own, but together they amount to a wholesale change in the U.S.-Japan alliance’s approach to deterrence and warfighting.
An Ambitious Agenda
First, Japan is increasing its defense spending and building the military stockpiles demanded by modern warfighting. For decades, Japanese defense spending has been stuck at or under 1 percent of its gross domestic product. Now Kishida is looking to nearly double defense spending to 2 percent over five years. If fully executed, this would bump Japan from the ninth-largest spender on defense to the third largest, after only the United States and China.
Of course, there are real challenges to increasing defense spending. The Japanese public will have to be convinced to pay more in taxes, and the details are still being debated in the Diet. Moreover, new capabilities cannot be acquired overnight. As the United States is learning in Ukraine, stockpiles can only be refilled slowly given the limited industrial capacity for many key weapons systems. New missiles, such as Tomahawks or an upgraded version of Japan’s indigenous Type 12 surface-to-ship missile, will take years to be delivered. This will therefore require close cooperation not only between governments but allied defense industries as well.
Second, the United States and Japan are both updating their command-and-control arrangements. Tokyo has announced that it will create a permanent joint headquarters in Japan to command the Japanese Self-Defense Forces during a crisis. If fully implemented, this would give Japan its own version of a combatant command and simplify its coordination with U.S. forces in a major contingency. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress has required establishment of a new joint force headquarters in the Indo-Pacific to do the same for American military forces.
These changes will, of course, take time. But once in place they will provide the U.S.-Japan alliance the beginnings of an architecture needed for wartime command and control. Unlike the NATO or the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, Washington and Tokyo have never had a truly combined command structure. This was evident during Operation Tomodachi in 2011, when the allies initially struggled to respond to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Establishing joint headquarters should be a first step, ultimately toward a joint and combined command that will be capable of allied wartime command and control, even in the most stressing scenarios.
Third, the allies are adjusting their military posture by shifting more capabilities to Japan’s Southwest Islands, a critical geographic region that stretches from mainland Japan south to just 100 miles off the coast of Taiwan. Throughout the Cold War, Japan focused more on the Soviet Union in the north, before turning primarily to North Korea in the east during the post-Cold War period. As a result, China in the south had not been a top priority until this past decade. Today, the prospects of a serious conflict over Taiwan are growing, forcing the allies to fundamentally shift their approach. With this in mind, the allies are announcing a major step: the creation of a U.S. Marine Littoral Regiment in Okinawa, which will be operational by 2025.
This unit will be capable of conducting sea denial operations since it includes both an infantry battalion and an anti-ship missile battery armed with the Marine Corps medium-range NMESIS launcher. Such a unit will likely operate from Okinawa but will also be present around Ishigaki, Yonaguni, and Miyako as well, providing new capabilities close to the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. Army will also play a role by relocating watercraft to enable a variety of operations in and around Japan. There is also the possibility of increased training and exercises of allied forces in Japan’s Southwest Islands. All these steps will send a clear signal to China that the Washington and Tokyo are routinely upgraded their alliance for a contingency, including one in the waters around Taiwan.
These steps appear to be the beginning, not the end, of a series of initiatives intended to bolster deterrence by enhancing U.S.-Japan posture and capabilities. Expected announcements on efforts with the Philippines, Australia, and others hold the promise of what Assistant Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner called “the biggest year for posture in a generation.” There is much more work to be done to implement these reforms, but this is notable progress and deserves to be commended.
This broader regional framework reinforces the point that changes in the U.S.-Japan alliance are not happening in a vacuum. South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and others are tightening ties with the United States in response to China’s more assertive behavior. These efforts will have to be closely coordinated to reinforce one another. Yet there are real opportunities to include third parties in this new approach, as is occurring with Japan and the United States conducting training in Northern Australia.
If Japan can boost its defense spending, modernize its command-and-control arrangements, and upgrade its defense posture, that would set Tokyo on a major new path. Washington should welcome Kishida’s bold vision and robust contribution to regional security. Japan’s transition from pacifism to regional protector is not yet complete, but there is now no denying it is well underway.
Zack Cooper is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a partner at Armitage International. He hosts the Net Assessment podcast for War on the Rocks and previously served in various roles at the Pentagon and White House.
Eric Sayers is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a managing director at Beacon Global Strategies. He previously was a special assistant to the commander of Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM).