Capstones: Pacific Partners

By Alan W. Dowd, 11.2.17

We have heard much in recent years from the Oval Office about allies “free-riding” and not “paying their share.” Setting aside the myriad problems with publicly scolding allies, such broad-brush criticisms are often unfair and unwarranted—especially when it comes to Japan. Spurred by China’s drive for regional hegemony and North Korea’s reckless missile tests, Japan is turning the page on decades of postwar pacifism and increasingly contributing to stability in the Asia-Pacific. With his party’s lopsided victory in October’s snap elections, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is primed to steer Japan into a new era of regional and global leadership. Washington should encourage and applaud Tokyo’s return to the international stage.

Dangers on the Doorstep

“My immediate task is to deal with North Korea,” Abe said after the election. “It will take tough diplomacy. With the mandate given by the people, I would like to exercise my command in diplomacy.”

“Immediate” is the operative word: As The Washington Post points out, “three of the four missiles that North Korea launched March 6 fell within Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan,” a North Korean missile tested in May has a range of 2,800 miles “easily putting all of Japan…within reach,” and North Korea “fired a missile over Japan in 1998 and again in 2009.”

All told, North Korea has fired 22 missiles this year. In fact, under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has detonated more nuclear devices and test-launched more missilery than it did under his father.

As a consequence, Japan’s government this year revised its civil-defense guidelines to include “for the first time instructions on how to respond if a North Korean ballistic missile is heading toward Japan,” the Post reports. The updated civil-defense document notes that “It is extremely difficult to be able to pinpoint missile landing areas before their launch,” explains that “a warning will be issued to the effect that a launch of a ballistic missile is imminent,” and grimly concedes that “It is difficult to specify the kind of warheads (conventional warheads or nuclear, biological and chemical warheads) before they land.”

Put another way: While American politicians quibble about presidential condolence calls, Abe and his cabinet are trying to prepare their nation for an unprovoked missile attack and mass-casualty event.

But North Korea is not Japan’s only security worry.

In 2016, the Japanese air force had to respond to 851 Chinese incursions into, or encroachments on, Japanese airspace.

Similar incursions are happening around Japanese islands and waters. Based on maps created by Chinese cartographers in 1947, China is laying claim to vast swaths of the South and East China Seas, turning coral reefs hundreds of miles from its territorial waters into military outposts, and violating its neighbors’ sovereignty in a brazen military context.

Satellite images detail Beijing’s island-construction operations. These made-in-China islands have obvious military applications. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructure—including radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns, helipads and docks—on some of the man-made islands.” One of the islands has a 10,000-foot airstrip—big enough for long-range bombers and fighter-interceptors.

As the Japanese Defense Ministry puts it, Beijing “continues to display what may be described as a heavy-handed attitude, including its attempts to alter the status quo by force.” Abe is less nuanced, concluding that China is trying to turn the South China Sea into “Lake Beijing.” His response serves a as a reminder that America has a serious and stalwart partner in the not-so-pacific Pacific: “We will firmly defend the lives and property of Japanese people as well as our territories, territorial waters and territorial air space.”

Helping Hand

Abe is backing up his words with actions.

In response to Beijing’s outlandish claims and Pyongyang’s outrageous behavior, Japan has increased defense spending five consecutive years. The 2018 defense budget will be 2.5-percent larger than the 2017 budget; and at $48.1 billion, it will set a defense-spending record for Japan.

As The Diplomat reports, Japan’s 2018 defense budget includes money for an Aegis Ashore missile-defense system, SM-3 Block 2A interceptor missiles, a new radar system capable of tracking stealth aircraft, F-35A stealth fighters, V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, and two new warships. In fact, Japan has announced plans to produce two frigates per year, rather than the previously planned one per year, Reuters reports.

Japan is a global leader in missile-defense development and deployment—and understandably so, given the reckless regime next door in North Korea. The U.S. and Japan co-developed the SM-3 Block 2A interceptor missile. Japan hosts two powerful AN/TPY-2 missile-defense radars, which are networked with other U.S. missile-defense assets. And Japan deploys a fleet of six Aegis missile-defense warships (eight by 2020). Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have begun joint missile-defense exercises (see here and here) to prepare for what was once unthinkable but increasingly seems inevitable.

Condemning “continuous provocations” by China, Abe has increased the troop strength of Japan’s Self-Defense Force (JSDF) for the first time in 20 years. Japan’s troop deployments in the East China Sea have increased by 20 percent (to some 10,000 personnel). Tokyo is deploying massive “helicopter carriers” that can be up-converted to launch vertical-takeoff F-35Bs. And the JSDF is standing up an amphibious unit modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps.

The JSDF amphibious unit will be a 3,000-strong battle-ready force deployed on Japan’s southernmost islands; the unit will be equipped with amphibious vehicles and V-22 Ospreys.

One of Japan’s helicopter carriers—the largest Japanese warship put to sea since World War II—was recently christened and promptly deployed to waters off the Indian coast for exercises with the U.S. and Indian navies. The U.S.-Japan-India naval maneuvers in July—featuring 17 ships and submarines from the three countries, including the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz, India’s carrier Vikramaditya and Japan’s helicopter carrier Izumo—marked the largest naval exercise in the region in more than two decades.

Similarly, in a signal to China that the West is ready to defend international waterways and island territories in the Pacific, Japanese troops and warships joined the U.S., Britain and France for military exercises around Guam and Tinian in May. As AP reports, the drills featured two French warships; British helicopters and troops; Japanese landing craft; 210 Japanese troops; and U.S. Marines.

The Japanese government recently agreed to allow the JSDF to support U.S. forces throughout the Asia-Pacific region, and the U.S. military is training to transport JSDF personnel by air and sea, Stars and Stripes reports.

Japan is also partnering with the U.S. on freedom of navigation exercises in response to Beijing’s attempt to annex waters and islands to which it has no right.

Elsewhere, Japan is participating in maritime policing operations in the Strait of Malacca and Bay of Bengal, as well as the Combined Maritime Forces—a partnership of 31 nations that contribute naval and air assets, basing and/or personnel to operations focused on security in the Persian Gulf, counterterrorism and counterpiracy.

In addition, Japan is helping the Philippines and Vietnam defend their territorial waters by supplying maritime patrol ships and training to these former foes.

Add it all up, and it’s undeniable that Japan’s return to the international stage is promoting stability in its neighborhood and beyond, strengthening a rules-based order that is increasingly under assault, and serving as a force multiplier for America’s overstretched military. In short, Japan and its resolute prime minister deserve America’s support.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in Providence.