It’s time to rethink the Japan-U.S. alliance by OUE Sadamasa

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments in the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Senior Consulting Fellow, API & Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on August 13, 2020:

API Geoeconomic Briefing

August 13, 2020

It’s time to rethink the Japan-U.S. alliance

OUE Sadamasa, Senior Fellow, Asia Pacific Initiative (API),
Lieutenant General, Japan Air Self-Defense Force (Ret.)




The novel coronavirus pandemic emerged as a crisis on the 60th anniversary of a revised security treaty between the U.S. and Japan, challenging the alliance.

As relations between the U.S. and China are beginning to resemble a “new Cold War,” fanned by public sentiment, potential problems with the Japan-U.S. alliance, post-coronavirus, have come into focus.

The scope of the rivalry between the U.S. and China is expanding beyond the geopolitical sphere into the geoeconomic sphere.

In many of the areas the countries are battling, the Japan-U.S. alliance alone cannot protect the lives of Japanese people, as has been the case with the current health crisis.

The alliance is indispensable as a deterrent against China’s military power. But Tokyo needs to deal with information manipulation and other nonmilitary campaigns by Beijing on its own. It is important for us to understand that the alliance is necessary — but not sufficient — and conceive its new form.

In 2017, the U.S. released its National Security Strategy document, in which the country identified China as a major threat and began shifting its approach to countering the so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy that had been adopted by Beijing to try to keep U.S. forces out of its key operational areas before the coronavirus.

But the virus crisis has exposed vulnerabilities in the U.S. military, which are likely to affect its preparedness.

The pandemic has proved that officers and soldiers — the most essential element of the military’s strength — are prone to infection, and the U.S. forces, thought by some to be the most powerful in the world, could be substantially impeded by this microscopic enemy.

In the post-coronavirus world, the military’s readiness to respond to bioterrorism and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons would become “the new normal.”

One priority will be to overcome the military’s weakness through the deployment of unmanned and remote operations.

Infections that spread within the U.S. Navy created a void in their presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

About 1,100 personnel on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, including the captain, tested positive for the coronavirus after the first case was detected there in March. One died from the disease.

Due to the outbreak, the aircraft carrier was sidelined in Guam for about two months.

The widespread infection has prompted the U.S. military to cancel or postpone regular joint exercises and other events, raising concerns for their operational readiness in the future.

Infections on the USS Theodore Roosevelt also led to the resignation of the Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, after criticism mounted over his quick decision to oust the captain, who had informed a high-ranking government official outside its chain of command of the outbreak via email.

Chaotic civil-military relations in the United States are becoming more of a serious issue. One example is tensions inside the government of President Donald Trump, who threatened to deploy the military to quell protests sparked by police brutality, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who opposed the idea. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis also condemned Trump’s handling of the protests.

The split is affecting the military industry that anchors the U.S. forces.

The implication is severe for suppliers to major players like aerospace company Boeing Co., which relies on those suppliers for 70 percent of the value of contracts.

Many of them are in Mexico, India and other countries outside the United States.

On April 20, Ellen Lord, U.S. defense undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, requested the Mexican government to resume production of U.S.-bound military supplies. The U.S. is heavily dependent on the overseas supply chain in the fields of airplanes, shipbuilding and satellites, and it is impossible for the country to move all the subcontracting within its borders.

An F-35 stealth fighter jet, for instance, is jointly developed by nine countries including the U.S., the U.K. and Italy. Each country is also responsible for production.

The exclusion of Turkey from the venture had already delayed the production schedule and stalled the supply of parts, but the spread of infections among the participating countries has exposed vulnerabilities in the F-35 fighter’s supply network.

Commenting on the F-35 manufacturing process, Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network on May 14: “We should make everything in the United States. Yeah, we’re doing it because I’m changing all those policies.”

His remark poses a threat to Japan, which plans to secure 147 F-35s, the largest order outside the U.S.

China, which was able to quickly contain the pandemic, sees the spreading infections in the West as a chance to expand its influence.

Its government vessels were spotted in Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea on three consecutive days from May 8, tailing a Japanese fishing boat operating in the area.

In late March, a Chinese Houbei-class missile boat conducted a four-day live-fire drill in the East China Sea. In April, the aircraft carrier Liaoning, together with five other Chinese warships, sailed for the first time in the waters between Okinawa’s main island and Miyako Island.

In the South China Sea, too, China’s navy reportedly pointed a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship, while a government vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat.

China has even stepped up its provocations against Taiwan. A People’s Liberation Army unit has disseminated a message implying its intention to unify Taiwan with China by force on its official website.

To maintain deterrence against China, U.S. forces have introduced an F-35 jet-carrying amphibious assault ship in a joint drill with Japan, Australia and other allies and deployed littoral combat ships on patrol missions.

The U.S. Navy continues to send warships to the Taiwan Strait. In April, a navy destroyer crossed the median line of the strait between Taiwan and China to the Chinese side. U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers flew from the U.S. mainland to areas near Japan to conduct a joint exercise with Japanese Air Self-Defense Force F-15 and F-2 fighters.

But these actions were taken mainly as an emergency measure to replace the absence of the U.S. aircraft carriers.

As previously mentioned, the U.S. military started shifting the focus of its strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific region to China, but the process is still only half complete.

The navy plans to cut its number of aircraft carrier battle groups from 11 to nine, beef up more maneuverable combatant ships and downsize the marines by gearing toward maritime operations, instead of the ground combat readiness they currently focus on. The air force has already withdrawn bombers from Guam to the mainland.

All these moves are drawing criticism and concern over what appears to be Washington’s intent to roll down the presence of the U.S. military in the Pacific.

Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told the U.S. Congress on April 1 that he would like an additional budget of $20 billion. It will be used, he said, for a defensive ring around Guam, precision-strike networks along the First Island Chain — the string of islands that run from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan and the Philippines and on to Borneo that Beijing considers to be areas it must prevent the U.S. from penetrating — and an enhanced force posture that provides for dispersal, among other programs.

Congress is also considering a bill to bolster deterrence against China, but a sizable government expenditure on coronavirus response and the post-pandemic recession will undoubtedly bear down on its defense budget.

The potentially lasting impact could undermine the military posture and lead to pressure on allies to shoulder heavier burdens.

For Japan, deterrence in the Japan-U.S. alliance is vital. Tokyo must be more proactively involved in developing the U.S. military posture.

China is going on the offensive in nonmilitary fields as well.

There have been a number of such instances in which China used its influence in bilateral relations. Examples have included introducing high tariffs and banning imports of agricultural products from countries it fell out of sync with, or prohibiting exports to those countries. Limiting visits is another measure.

The governments of the U.S. and the U.K. have issued a joint advisory on the latest situation regarding cyberattacks that take advantage of the coronavirus crisis. The latest data on the development of virus vaccines has become a target for hackers.

On April 15, the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency of the U.S. warned that Chinese government-linked hacking group Electric Panda had launched cyberattacks on 38 American medical technology companies with access to classified information.

The hacking group takes aim at a wide range of strategic areas in Japan and other countries, including medical facilities and pharmaceuticals, as well as biotechnologies.

The International Committee of the Red Cross released a letter on May 27 that called on the world’s governments to step up measures against cyberattacks on hospitals and medical facilities.

Even though international cooperation on information sharing on these attacks has progressed, dealing with them has been the responsibility of each country. Reinforcing the domestic capacity to cope with cyberattacks is an immediate challenge for Japan to be addressed.

The Japan-U.S. alliance has been redefined to cope with the changing times and now forms the cornerstone of a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy to help stabilize the region.

The coronavirus crisis that came on the 60th anniversary of the security partnership urges us to go back to its origin and once again re-define it.

At a time when the U.S. and China are fighting for a geoeconomic advantage, it is important to balance security and economy in their defense ties.

Article 2 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty calls for the aligning of the countries’ international economic policies and the promoting of their economic collaboration.

There are many new challenges involving Article 2, regarding the supply networks of strategic materials and management of emerging technologies.

While the Japan-U.S. alliance should be further strengthened as an essential portion of the country’s defense, it should be re-defined to allow Japan to develop its own capabilities in areas where it cannot count on the alliance.

The coronavirus crisis would hasten the end of Pax Americana, which refers to the period of relative peace in international society after World War II, safeguarded by the U.S. as a superpower.

The virus will have serious implications on American society, having killed far more Americans than the Vietnam War. Trump, whose priority is to win the presidential election in November, will try to push up approval ratings through hostile policies against China.

He may also pressure Japan to conform and accept heavier defense burdens.

In other words, it offers us an opportunity to work with the U.S. to address challenges that have surfaced during the pandemic and reshape the Japan-U.S. alliance, post-coronavirus. Japan, for its part, needs to bolster its own ability to deal with new geoeconomic threats.

Given the extremely limited resources to fight the pandemic that is expected to drag on, Japan and the U.S. need a new way of thinking, unencumbered by conventional ideas and plans.


Disclaimer:The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.