Japan to U.S.: ‘We are with you’
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (left) and Maj. Gen. Allan M. Pepin (right), commanding general, Joint Forces Headquarters – National Capital Region and the U.S. Military District of Washington, participate in an Armed Forces full honors wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., Jan. 13, 2023. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery/released)

Japan to U.S.: ‘We are with you’

The recent U.S.-Japan summit in Washington served to highlight how committed Japan is to regional and international security – and how important Japan is to the national security interests of the United States. Just as the island democracy of Britain was America’s main ally during Cold War I and the bridgehead to the main theater of Cold War I, the island democracy of Japan is emerging as America’s main ally in Cold War II and bridgehead to the main theater of Cold War II.

Actions. During their summit, President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida unveiled a number of “strategic initiatives,” including greater interoperability between the U.S. and Japanese militaries, streamlined command-and-control systems, development of Japan’s suite of counterstrike capabilities, a networked air-defense architecture enfolding the United States, Japan and Australia, a regular battery of U.S.-Japan-Britain military exercises, co-development and co-production of missile systems, and co-sustainment of U.S. warships and warplanes at Japanese facilities.

Biden called it as “the most significant upgrade in our alliance since it was first established” in 1951.

“As the United States’ closest friend,” Kishida declared, “the people of Japan are with you, side by side, to assure the survival of liberty … You are not alone.”

Japan is committing much more than words to this alliance and to the cause of liberty. Tokyo is backing up its words with resources and actions.

For example, after decades of investing barely 1% of GDP in defense, Japan is doubling defense spending over the next four years. This will position Japan as the third-largest defense spender in the world, behind the United States and People’s Republic of China (PRC). Already, Japan’s defense budget is 50% larger than it was in 2022.

With those resources, Japan is fielding a large and lethal force of 22 attack submarines, acquiring 500 Tomahawk land-attack missiles to deter Xi Jinping, and upconverting helicopter carriers into full-fledged aircraft carriers – the Kaga and Izumo – armed with F-35Bs. U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs have already conducted flight tests off Izumo, and modifications to Kaga were completed in March. The Izumo and Kaga are now spearheading a seven-month deployment of Japanese warships throughout the Indo-Pacific.

To deter PRC aggression, Japan has bolstered defenses all across its southwestern island territories. Japan is basing F-35Bs on Kyushu, the southernmost of its main islands, and deploying anti-ship, air-defense and electronic-warfare units on islands south of Kyushu. It’s also standing up air-defense and missile-defense units on Yonaguni Island (just 70 miles east of Taiwan) and Ishigaki Island (200 miles east of Taiwan).

Speaking of Taiwan, Tokyo vows to “closely cooperate” with Washington in the event of a PRC attack on Taiwan. “If a major problem took place in Taiwan, it would not be too much to say that it could relate to a survival-threatening situation,” Japan's deputy prime minister said in 2021. “Okinawa could be the next.” A “survival-threatening situation” for Japan, as Reuters explains, “refers to a situation where an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs, which in turn poses a clear risk of threatening Japan's survival.” Such a situation would force Japan “to exercise its right of collective self-defense” and come “to the aid of an ally under attack.” A PRC attack on Taiwan would surely involve Japan’s chief treaty ally, the United States.

Japan collaborates closely with the United States on missile defense. Japan hosts two AN/TPY-2 missile-defense radars networked with a web of U.S. and Japanese missile-defense assets. Japan deploys eight Aegis missile-defense warships. And after codeveloping the SM-3 Block 2A interceptor missile, the United States and Japan are now codeveloping a hypersonic-missile interceptor. Related, South Korea has joined Japan and the United States in activating a joint data-sharing system to detect North Korean launches. The three partners are conducting missile-defense exercises at sea.

Japan is partnering with Britain and Italy on a sixth-generation fighter-bomber, entering into Reciprocal Access Agreements (RAA) with Britain and Australia, hosting air exercises with India, and participating in naval exercises with the U.S. and Indonesia.

Japan is providing arms and training to Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Japan and the Philippines are finalizing an RAA that will enable each nation to deploy military assets on the other’s territory. Japan also has delivered coastal and air radar systems to the Philippines. Underscoring Japan’s growing commitment to the Philippines and growing recognition of the links between the security of Japan and the Philippines, Kishida joined Biden and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Washington for a trilateral summit. The trio pledged to deepen coordination of maritime-domain awareness, combined training and multilateral activities. They also condemned PRC aggression and committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Reactions. It’s more accurate to describe Japan’s recent policy changes as reactions rather than actions, because Tokyo is reacting to the threats swirling around it – threats emanating from China, North Korea and Russia.

Xi’s China has absorbed Hong Kong, threatened to seize Taiwan, illegally constructed and militarized islands in an effort to annex the South China Sea, used military exercises to effectively blockade Taiwan, and attacked India. Plus, Xi is hacking Japan’s defense ministry, planting cyber-timebombs inside U.S. critical infrastructure, tripling his nuclear arsenal, backstopping North Korea, and violating Japanese waters and airspace. PRC vessels loiter in Japanese waters for days at a time. According to a RAND study, since mid-2014, on average, Chinese government vessels “have penetrated the territorial seas (of Japan) seven to nine times a month.” Hostile nations commit an average of 58 incursions of Japanese airspace per month (there were 70 in March). While the PRC accounts for 61% of those airspace incursions/violations, Russia accounts for the rest.

Then there’s North Korea with its 1.3-million-man army, thousands of missiles and dozens of nukes. North Korea recklessly and relentlessly conducts missile tests that threaten – and sometimes violate – Japan’s airspace. In 2022 alone, Pyongyang test-fired more than 90 missiles, including 23 on a single day. Some of the tests have triggered air-raid warnings in Japan.

“North Korea's nuclear and missile program is a direct threat,” Kishida explained during his visit to Washington. “China's current external stance and military actions present an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge, not only to the peace and security of Japan but to the peace and stability of the international community at large.”

Beyond the Indo-Pacific. While Japan is understandably focused on the threats in its neighborhood, it is globally engaged.

“In order for Japan, the U.S., the Indo-Pacific region and, for that matter, the whole world to enjoy peace, stability and prosperity lasting into the future, we must resolutely defend and further solidify a free and open international order based on the rule of law,” Kishida argues.

Toward that end, Japan has sent anti-drone systems and $12.1 billion in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Japan has transferred Patriot interceptor missiles to the U.S to backfill inventory that’s been sent to Ukraine. Tokyo has leveled heavy sanctions against the Putin regime. Following the lead of Britain, Germany and France, Japan is hammering out a long-term security deal with Ukraine. And the Kishida government is already planning for postwar Ukraine. Japan convened a conference in February to line up industry support – 130 firms participated – for what promises to be a herculean reconstruction effort.

War in Ukraine has undermined the international order,” concludes Takeo Akiba, Japan’s national security adviser. “The security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific is inseparable.” He notes that an epic change is underway, in which Japan sees its role in the world as one of maintaining universal values and protecting the international order.”

America should welcome Japan’s acceptance of this role and reemergence as a global military power. As Kishida reminds us, we are not alone.