Japan: Washington’s Most Powerful China Containment Ally

By Joseph Gerson 

Written for the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy, this essay describes the centrality of the U.S.-Japanese military alliance throughout the Cold War and increasingly aggressive and dangerous 21st century campaigns to militarily contain. Contrary to popular misunderstandings, with pressure from the United States Japan has built one of the world’s most advanced militaries. The blog concludes with Common Security alternative policies being advanced in Japan.

Throughout the Cold War and the early years of the Post-Cold War era, Washington’s military hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region was maintained in large measure via its “hub and spokes” alliance system. The U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, forced on Japan by the U.S. in 1952 as a condition for formally ending its post-war military occupation, was the hub, while separate alliances with South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and other U.S.  client states were the spokes.

Many Washington critics of this alliance system in the 1980s and 90s sought increased “burden sharing” by Tokyo and criticized the lack of mutuality in the alliance with Japan. Japan, from their perspective, was taking advantage of being a U.S. protectorate rather than carrying its weight as a true ally. The U.S. was indeed committed to the military defense of Japan – including extended nuclear deterrence, which began in the 1960s[i] – while Japan’s primary role supposedly was to “host” and defend U.S. bases throughout Japan.

But the alliance  has changed and continues to change.  The combination of Japan’s economic and technological progress combined with the Japanese ruling elite’s ambition have led to the creation of a Japanese military establishment which, as the National Interest has reported, is more advanced that most people realize and would give Beijing “a run for its money.”[ii] Moreover, Tokyo is increasingly willing to join  U.S.-led military operations.

Beginning with the Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia and the Pacific, Washington’s strategy and ambitions have turned toward the creation of  a more comprehensive and integrated alliance system, something akin to an Indo-Pacific NATO, in which Japan remains its most important partner.  Hence the quadrilateral alliance with Japan, Australia, and India (the “Quad”) and the April 2021 Biden-Suga summit communique, “U.S.-Japan Global Partnership for a New Era,” that declared their joint commitment to peaceful resolution of the Taiwan crisis, referencing their shared commitments to Taiwan in this way for the first time in 50 years.

Memories and fears of Japanese militarism still run deep throughout Asia and in Japan itself. The alliance has thus provided the Japanese elite and military with political and diplomatic cover for the creation of one of the world’s most sophisticated militaries. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Japan has long been among the world’s top 10 military spenders.[iii] In addition to the Quad,  growing Japanese military ties with Vietnam and its participation in joint naval maneuvers in the South China Sea are designed to contribute to the encirclement and containment of China. These ties with U.S. allies and partner states also serve as a foundation for Japan to balance Chinese power should U.S. political and financial pressures lead it, over time, to retreat from the Western Pacific.

With the Biden Administration reasserting the importance of alliances to bolster its military, political, economic, and technological power, U.S and Japanese leaders have been deepening and expanding their alliance for what is increasingly termed the New Cold War with China. In early January 2022, the U.S. and Japanese foreign and defense ministers, joined by newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, met remotely for a “two-plus-two” high-level meeting to bolster the U.S.-Japan military alliance. At the top of their agenda were joint planning for a possible war over Taiwan, plans to contain China’s ambitions and actions in the South China Sea, and assuring Japan’s continuing control of uninhabited East China Sea islets, called the Senkakus by Japan and the Diaoyus by China, claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing.[iv]

Major elements of the two-plus-two discussions and associated agreements remain secret, including what Japan’s Kyodo News reported to be their joint plan for military operations in the case of possible war over Taiwan[v] or incidents or accidents in the South and East China Seas. But Nikkei Asia, Japan’s leading English-language business publication, reported many of the areas of agreement:

·       Aligning “alliance visions and priorities through key forthcoming national security documents, including capabilities to counter missile threats”

·       Committing to advancing interoperability, including “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations, and realistic training and exercises”

·       Increasing joint use of U.S. and Japanese military facilities (the U.S. has more than 100 military bases and installations across Japan)

·       Augmenting cooperation, interoperability, and “joint responses to serious threats to, from, and within space”

·       Collaboratively investing to “accelerate innovation and ensure the Alliance maintains its technological edge…including artificial intelligence, machine learning, directed energy, and quantum computing

·       Cooperating  to counter hypersonic weaponry and missile threats

·       Reinforcing the resilience of their supply chains[vi]

That’s an ambitious agenda for any alliance, even without the secret provisions related to Taiwan and the East and China Seas. 

Japan Does Have a Military 

Despite its so-called “peace constitution,” Japan has developed one of the world’s most advanced militaries. Spurred by Washington and in conjunction with the U.S.-Japan Military Alliance (AMPO in Japanese) – which was secretly signed in 1952 as a condition for ending the United States’ formal military occupation – reconstruction of Japan’s military began in 1954. Okinawa, with the greatest concentration of U.S. bases then and now, remained under formal U.S. military occupation until its 1972 reversion to Japanese sovereignty. To this day, boosted by Japanese financial support, Japan serves as, in the words of former Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone,  an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the United States, with its military bases and the roughly 50,000 U.S. troops based there.

Over the decades, conservative Japanese political leaders and a supine Japanese Supreme Court variously proved eager or willing to reconstruct Japanese military power. But Japan’s war-adverse population had to be brought along gradually. Instead of a formal military, in 1954 Tokyo created its euphemistically named “Japanese Self Defense Forces” (JSDF), with land, sea, and air components, alongside a Defense Ministry. Year by year, the JSDF’s responsibilities and capacities expanded, often in response to U.S. demands and pressure. It could protect the Japanese homeland and the U.S. military forces based there. It could support or join military operations consistent with the U.N. charter. It could engage in U.N. peacekeeping operations, giving  the JSDF international logistical and tactical experience and increased capacities. In 2004, in a “watershed moment,” Japan dispatched a small and well insulated military mission to Iraq, ostensibly to contribute to reconstruction; Tokyo’s top priority was to ensure that none of its troops were injured or killed, in order to accustom the Japanese public to foreign military deployments.[vii]

Less well known is that the Japanese government has never indicated that Article 9 of its “peace constitution,” – renouncing war “as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” – precludes the nuclear option “or the acquisition of the ability to strike offensively with armed force should Japan’s security be threatened.” In fact, for the past sixty years the Japanese military has maintained that the constitution doesn’t prohibit it from developing or possessing tactical (Hiroshima-sized) nuclear weapons. As the lead author of Japan’s Defense White Paper told this author in 1996, that is simply “a right that the Japanese military has not yet chosen to exercise.”[viii] 

A Continuing Commitment to Pacifism? 

With the calamities of World War II still vivid to many, the Japanese public has remained war-adverse.  With 55% of the Japanese people steadfastly opposing constitutional revisions, Prime Minister Abe retired without fulfilling his most heartfelt political goal of eliminating Article 9.[ix] Yet, with the passage of four generations and the receding memory of Japanese and others’ suffering from its war of aggression, by 2004 nearly 85 % of people polled saw the JSDF in a “favorable light.”[x]  With North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons developments, the culture shock caused by China’s transformation from an impoverished and backward society to an economic and regional superpower, and the growing military tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets, public support for Japan’s military has grown.

Beginning in the fall of 2021, recently elevated Prime Minister Kishida began a drumbeat of aggressive military proclamations. In November 2021, despite Japan’s continuing economic stagnation, the Kishida government felt sufficiently politically secure to increase Japan’s military budget by 6.5%, in part to strengthen its ability to defend the Senkaku islets and isolated Okinawan islands near Taiwan. To reinforce U.S. Congressional support for the alliance, Kishida’s predecessor had agreed to increase Japanese financial support for U.S. troops and bases across Japan to nearly $2 billion per year.[xi]  More significantly, in what it describes as its “harsh security environment,” Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party announced its commitment to double military spending from 1% of GDP to 2%. Prime Minister Kishida also pledged to “keep all options on the table, including acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases [in China or Korea] in response to an imminent attack.”[xii]

Also in November 2021, the Japanese and Vietnamese defense ministers declared that they would “strongly oppose any unilateral actions aimed at altering the status quo in South China Sea” and would  collaborate in sustaining “free and open sea lanes as tensions escalate in the region among China’s rise.”[xiii] Days later, Prime Minister Kishida pledged to consider “’all options,’ including acquiring enemy base strike capability” to defend Japan against growing Chinese and North Korean threats.[xiv]

On December 1, 2021, following statements by Japanese foreign and defense ministry officials, former Prime Minister Abe declared  that “Japan and the United States could not stand by if China attacked Taiwan.” Reminding his audience that the Senkaku, Sakishima islands, and Yonaguni Island (a focus of Japan’s military buildup) are just 100 kilometers from Taiwan, he declared that a “Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance.”[xv]

On January 5, 2022, building on the recently forged alliance between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. (AUKUS), Prime Ministers Kishida of Japan and Morrison of Australia promulgated a new agreement to meet ”the shared strategic security challenges we face and to contribute to a secure and stable Indo-Pacific.” In other words, to reinforce containment of China.[xvi]  

From Tragedy to Visions of Common Security

We ignore history at our peril. Since the 7th century, when Japan became a T’ang Dynasty vassal nation, the histories and cultures of China and Japan have been intertwined. Their peoples have traded with and tragically warred with one another.[xvii]  Beginning with the 663 AD Battle of Baegang and extending through the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 and Japan’s 1931-45 brutal conquests of China and other Asia-Pacific nations, millions of innocent lives have been cruelly sacrificed. Yet geography remains a constant. China and Japan remain neighbors and trading partners, even as they continue to contest for influence in Taiwan and the South China Sea – all in the context of the U.S. resolve to maintain its regional hegemony.

There is a critically important lesson to be taken from recent history. At the height of the Cold War in 1982, under the leadership of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues published its seminally important Common Security report.[xviii]  The essence of the report, which contributed greatly to the termination of the original Cold War, was the conclusion that the great powers “must achieve security not against the adversary but together with him.”  International security, it warned, “must rest on a commitment to joint survival rather than on a threat of mutual destruction.”

Although blocked by the U.S.-backed conservative opposition, the foreign policy platform of the Democratic Party of Japan, which briefly ruled between 2009 and 2012,  had a vision for Japan that could contribute to building a Common Security order in Northeast Asia. The party called for Japan to become a full “member of Asia,” balancing its ties between East and West – in part by reducing but not eliminating the country’s reliance on ties with United States and the AMPO alliance.[xix]

As described above, in conjunction with Washington’s pivot to what is now termed the Indo-Pacific and its priority on containing China, the LDP is playing major roles in the New Cold War’s arms race and the intensification of dangerous military tensions. Fortunately, there are other Japanese voices, visions and political pressures that need to be understood, and, as appropriate, supported, from abroad. The four-party coalition that fought the LDP in Japan’s 2021 election, composed of the Constitutional Democratic, Communist, Shinsengumi, and Social Democratic parties stressed the need “to ensure security on the basis of the spirit of the Peace Constitution, and make every diplomatic effort to create peace in Asia.”

Given the pervasive power of nationalisms, great power cultures and ambitions, and military-industrial complexes in the United States, Japan and China, turning away from arms races and increasingly dangerous provocations toward Common Security diplomacy will at best be challenging. But it is our only path to war prevention and the urgent need for cooperation to contain and reverse climate change.

ENDNOTES:

[i] Hans Kristensen. Japan Under the U.S. Nuclear Umbrella. Nautilus Institute, July, 1999, https://nautilus.org/supporting-documents/japan-under-the-us-nuclear-umbrella/#1

[ii] Kyle Mizokani. “Japan’s Military is a Lot More Powerful Than You Realize”, National Interest, July 15,2021, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/reboot/japans-navy-lot-more-powerful-you-realize-189542

[iii] https://ca.news.yahoo.com/worlds-top-10-biggest-military-spenders-sipri-174216058.html

[iv] US, Japan to crank up cooperation vis-à-vis China, Asia Times, January 10, 2022, https://asiatimes.com/2022/01/us-japan-to-crank-up-cooperation-vis-a-vis-china/

[v] Japan, U.S. draft operational plan for Taiwan emergency sources, Kyodo News, Dec. 23, 2021,                 https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2021/12/f5ed60ab6502-japan-us-draft-operation-plan-for-taiwan-contingency-sources.html

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] https://medium.com/war-is-boring/ten-years-ago-japan-went-to-iraq-and-learned-nothing-b7f3c702dd1f

[viii] Author’s notes, interview with Mr. Takamizawa, Japan Defense Agency, March 12,1996;  Sheila A Smith. Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2019,, p. 8

[ix] Adam P. Liff. “Japan’s Article 9 Challenge”, National Interest, June 27, 2014, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/japans-article-9-challenge-10766

[x] Smith. op. cit, pp. 137-38

[xi] Reuters. Japan plans record extra defense spending as China threat eyed, Nov. 19, 2021; Asahi Shimbun, Japan drops term ‘sympathy budget’ for host nation spending, December 22, 2021

[xii] Reuters. Japan Plans To Double Military Spending In Rush To Bolster Air And Sea Defenses, Nov. 27, 2021, https://gcaptain.com/japan-double-military-spending-in-rush-to-bolster-air-and-sea-defenses/; Jesse Johnson. For Kishida, 2022 could be make or break in security and diplomatic sphere, Japan Times, January 1, 2022,

[xiii] Mari Yamaguchi. “Japan, Vietnam express serious concern about South China Sea”, Associated Press, Nov. 24, 2021. https://apnews.com/article/business-china-japan-vietnam-south-china-sea-895f28bf2743c03613c27400309492e6

[xiv] “Japan PM vows to step up defense amid China, NK Threats., Associated Press, November 27, 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/japan-north-korea-china-tokyo-shinzo-abe-b1965183.html

[xv] Reuters. “Former PM Abe says Japan, U.S. could not stand by if China attacked Taiwan”, December 1, 2021. https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-11-30/former-pm-abe-says-japan-u-s-could-not-stand-by-if-china-attacked-taiwanz

[xvi] Jason Scott. “Japan and Australia to sign defense and security cooperation pact Thursday”, Bloomberg, January 5, 2022, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/australia-japan-sign-historic-defense-security-pact-82081122

[xvii] An excellent history of Japanese-Chinese relations is Ezra Vogel’s China and Japan: Facing History, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2019.

[xviii] Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security. Common Security: A Blueprint for Survival, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

[xix] Weston S. Konishi, “The Democratic Party of Japan: Its Foreign Policy Position and Implications for U.S. Interests”, Congressional Research Service, August 12, 2009, https://www.voltairenet.org/IMG/pdf/Democratic_Party_of_Japan.pdf’       

Original article published at: https://www.saneuschinapolicy.org/blog/japan-washingtons-most-powerful-china-containment-ally