Japan and US Strengthen Military Ties to Counter China Threat

March 9, 2022 Updated: March 9, 2022

News Analysis

Unlike the ambiguity in the Taiwan Relations Act, which makes it unclear whether or not the United States would fight for Taiwan, America is bound by a treaty to defend Japan and the Senkaku Islands, under Article 5 of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.

In the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States, said, “This is the occasion to show our solidarity.” If the world lets Russia get away with this, Beijing may be emboldened to “take such action as well.”

Confronted by an increasing threat from the Chinese regime, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi have pledged to strengthen Japan’s alliance with the United States, while also beefing up the country’s military.

Hayashi told reporters on Feb. 26 that the impact of the Russian invasion would be felt beyond the borders of Europe. After the invasion of Ukraine, Japanese and U.S. diplomats discussed the need to enhance the alliance between the two countries, including deterrence and response capabilities. Both nations expressed concerns that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could use the distraction of Ukraine to increase its aggression in the Indo-Pacific.

Hayashi stressed the need for a harsh response in order to discourage similar moves from Beijing and others. The Chinese Navy already has a history of repeatedly trespassing the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, where standoffs with the Japanese Coast Guard threaten to turn violent.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida identified Taiwan as the other flashpoint where fighting could break out. Last month, alone, the CCP sent 39 warplanes into Taiwanese airspace.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, back in January, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Hayashi and Kishi. Blinken commented on how Japan and the United States have worked together on security to modernize and improve defense capabilities, and how they have strengthened the Quad, which consists of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India.

Blinken explained that this enhanced security cooperation is important because “Beijing’s provocative actions keep raising tensions across the Taiwan Strait, and in the East and South China Seas.”

Austin reaffirmed the commitment of the two nations to meet “challenges posed by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and by the coercive and aggressive behavior of the People’s Republic of China.”

Hayashi and Kishi both restated the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance, and looked forward to discussing the progress that the two countries have made in this area.

What the two Japanese ministers did not ask, however, was the question most important to Japanese security: can Japan count on the United States?

The CCP claims that U.S. allies lost faith in America after the Afghanistan pullout, calling the United States an “unreliable partner.” Many fear that if the United States does not fight for Ukraine, then America would not fight for the Senkaku Islands. And by extrapolation, if the United States does not stand up for Ukraine, then perhaps it would not stand up for Taiwan or Japan.

Fortunately, unlike Ukraine or Taiwan, Japan has a solid defense contract, obligating the United States to fight; whereas Taiwan is covered by the ambiguous Taiwan Relations Act.

Under the Act, the United States is obligated to sell weapons to Taiwan, and to provide the means to defend itself. The Act also says that the future of the self-ruled island should be determined by peaceful means. Consequently, it is unclear if the United States would or would not fight for Taiwan.

However, the outermost Japanese islands are about 68 miles from Taiwan. As an invasion of Taiwan would necessitate China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) asserting control in the air and sea space around the island, it would most likely be encroaching on Japanese territory. Consequently, an attack on Taiwan would become an attack on Japan, forcing the United States to engage.

Under Article 5 of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, the United States is obligated to defend Japan against attacks by third parties. As the agreement extends to the entirety of territory controlled by Japan, the United States extends this protection to the Senkaku Islands. Article 6 gives the United States the right to station troops on Japanese soil.

A Chinese coast guard vessel sails near disputed East China Sea islands on Aug. 6, 2016. Japan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement it filed the protest after Japan's coast guard spotted the vessels Saturday along with a fleet of 230 Chinese fishing boats swarming around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. China also claims the islands, calling them the Diaoyu. (11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters via AP)
A Chinese coast guard vessel sails near disputed East China Sea islands on Aug. 6, 2016. Japan’s Foreign Ministry filed its protest after Japan’s coast guard on Aug. 6 spotted the vessel, along with a fleet of 230 Chinese fishing boats swarming around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. (The Japanese 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters via AP)

In recent years, the United States has been pressuring Japan to expand the size of its military, in order to remove some of the financial burden from Washington. Japan has been watching its former World War II ally, Germany, which is now stepping up defense spending. Japan wants to do the same, trying to narrow the gap with China, whose defense budget is almost four times as much. Japan’s military expansion is being taken in coordination with the support of the United States.

This fiscal year, Japan approved the largest defense budget in decades, approximately double the previous year. This includes money for realignment with U.S. forces. At the close of 2021, Japan and the United States agreed to increase Tokyo’s cost for hosting U.S. troops to cover expenses related to joint training exercises. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has also allocated funds to convert its two helicopter carriers into aircraft carriers capable of carrying U.S.-made Lockheed Martin F-35B fighter jets.

Japan will be arming its destroyers with U.S.-made SM-6 air-defense missiles and will be modifying Lockheed Martin AN/SPY-7 solid-state radars (SSRs) to fit onto two Aegis-equipped ships, as a replacement for ground-based Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems.

The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) will be purchasing an additional eight conventional U.S.-made F-35As, as well as four short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs. Over the next 10 years, Japan expects to purchase 147 F-35 fighters from the United States, which include 105 F-35 Lighting II joint strike fighters and 42 F-35As.

Last May, the U.S., Japanese, and French troops conducted urban warfare training. It was the first time that the three nations had ever trained together on Japanese soil.

Last fall, U.S. Marine Corps F-35B fighter jets operated off of a Japanese warship, also for the first time in history, demonstrating the commitment the two militaries have toward integrating their capabilities to counter China.

In the event of war, in order to access the Pacific Ocean, the PLA Navy would have to pass through the strait between Japan’s Ryukyu Islands. If the Chinese invaded Taiwan, they would have direct access to Japan’s eastern flank. The U.S. aircraft carriers would engage in naval battles with PLA Navy ships, inside of the first island chain.

Defense plans call for the U.S. Marines to coordinate with the Japanese Self-Defense Force to defend the islands, preventing Chinese ships from making it to the Pacific. U.S. Marine Corps fighters, deploying from Japanese ships, could provide a tremendous edge in this scenario.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., has spent more than 20 years in Asia. He is a graduate of the Shanghai University of Sport and holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Graceffo works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his books on China include "Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion" and "A Short Course on the Chinese Economy."