Experts believe that Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, will continue to increase Japan’s commitment to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), but that greater efforts to strengthen Japan’s military will be necessary to secure the region from aggression by the Chinese regime.
A key area of concern is the ability of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to adequately carry out joint military activities with its allies in the Quad, the informal forum for strategic coordination between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific.
“American and Japanese ‘alliance managers’ have boasted for years that the alliance has never been stronger,” said Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. “One fairly asks: Compared to what?”
“Except for their two navies, the U.S. forces and JSDF really cannot work together very well at all,” Newsham added. “This needs to be fixed.”
The push to build interoperability between nations’ forces, effectively allowing their militaries to work as a single joint unit in combat, has been a core focus of the Quad in recent years and is a central part of the allied strategy to mitigate adventurism by the Chinese regime, particularly with regard to the safety of Taiwan—the self-ruled island Beijing claims as its own and has threatened to take by force if necessary.
Japan’s ground-based forces have not yet successfully built up that interoperable capability, however.
Japan’s (Self) Defense of Taiwan
Following World War II, Japan’s constitution was amended to allow for national self-defense forces while barring the buildup of an expeditionary military. Over time, Japan’s military policies slowly evolved to incorporate the defense of its allies as an extension of its self-defense.
That evolution came to the fore in June, when Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama made comments that Taiwan’s continued de-facto independence and democratic governance needed to be protected to ensure Japan’s own national security.
Since then, Japan announced funding for new missile and electronic warfare units across the Yaeyama Islands, some a mere 70 miles from Taiwan.
Newsham said that the JSDF, for all its professionalism and technology, still lacked the joint capabilities needed to effectively win a war against a major power like China.
“Militarily, Japan has not yet addressed JSDF shortcomings and developed JSDF capabilities needed to allow JSDF to fight a war against a serious opponent,” Newsham said.
“The Americans and Japanese apparently do not have a joint operational plan in the event something happens with Taiwan.” Newsham added. “There is also no joint Japan-US headquarters in Japan, or anywhere, where operations will be directed, or even peacetime training and exercises.”
Robert Eldridge, director for Northeast Asia at the Global Risk Mitigation Foundation and senior fellow at the Japan Strategic Studies Forum, also believed that the Kishida government would need to commit greater resources to tangibly increasing its defense of Taiwan if it hoped to successfully deter China.
“Japan is not doing enough to end Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation and preserve its safety and security,” Eldridge said in an email. “Speeches and comments are not enough. While they do send a message, it needs to be backed up.”
To that end, Eldridge commended Nakayama’s comments on Taiwan, and hoped that the Kishida government would follow suit with greater diplomatic and military commitment, which he believed the Japanese people would favor.
“Japanese public opinion supports doing more,” Eldridge said. “Unfortunately, most politicians do not understand this and continue to act cautiously.”
A Time for Choosing
A key issue at hand with the coming of the Kishida government, then, is how Japan as a democratic nation will build new capabilities from the successes of its involvement with the Quad.
“I think Kishida will keep things going on the current trend,” Newsham said. “But that’s the problem.”
“Japan’s defense is entirely inadequate, and without the Americans around the Japanese would be in big trouble. It would have no good options for taking on the Chinese aggressors, and no options at all that don’t involve nuclear weapons.”
To that end, Newsham said that Japan ought to do more to build upon the lessons learned by the U.S. Navy and maritime elements of the JSDF during Quad military exercises.
Further, given the goal of the Chinese regime to undermine the legitimacy and status of democracies everywhere, Newsham said that Japan’s example as a democratic nation in east Asia would be doubly effective once it improved such military capacities.
Newsham said that at the end of the day Japan was one of the United States’ key allies, and that its dedication to democratic principles ought not be overlooked.
“Sure, we have some differences, but Japan is a splendid example of individual freedom, rule of law, and consensual government,” Newsham said. “So is Taiwan for that matter.”
“A solidly linked US-Japan alliance with JSDF and US forces also solidly linked and able to operate together is, or will be, hugely stabilizing for the region and globally.”
Likewise, Eldridge said that Japan’s commitment to democratic principles demanded greater action, adding that the time to choose greater involvement and military responsibility was fast approaching.
“Japan and the LDP-led government as a whole, and Kishida’s faction in particular, are historically committed to the democratic principles of the postwar,” Eldridge said, referring to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. “I would like to see Kishida do it more forcefully in the case of China, however.”
“[Japan] needs to understand that the world as a whole, the region in particular, and its only formal ally, the United States, expects Japan to play a larger role,” Eldridge said.