Suga–Biden Meeting: Promises, Promises

April 21, 2021 Updated: May 10, 2021

Commentary

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden met in Washington on April 16, and both sides declared the meeting a success. The official joint statement issued afterward was comprehensive and unusually pointed to one particular topic: China.

Suga and Biden stated their serious concerns about Chinese activities in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. Beijing’s oppression of Hong Kong and the Uyghurs were also mentioned. Both sides pledged to work together to address the Chinese regime’s aggressive behavior—to include having “candid conversations” with Beijing.

Japan agreeing to such blunt language toward Beijing is no small matter given that China is next door—and Japanese corporations do huge amounts of business in China. This was, in fact, the first time in 50 years that a Japanese leader joined a U.S. president in a statement on Taiwan.

North Korea, the Quad, ASEAN, and Burma, also known as Myanmar, were also addressed. And the two leaders agreed to launch a Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRe) Partnership combining various activities and initiatives to better work together on 5G technology development, sorting out COVID-19, and tackling climate change, while aiming for a low-carbon future.

However, the thing that most frightens the Japanese is China. And Suga came to the meeting with one main objective: to get the Americans to state publicly once again that they will defend Japan.

Read the joint statement and the transcript of the Suga–Biden post-meeting press conference and Tokyo might be thinking “mission accomplished.”

From the joint statement:

“Japan resolved to bolster its own national defense capabilities to further strengthen the Alliance and regional security. The United States restated its unwavering support for Japan’s defense under the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, using its full range of capabilities, including nuclear. It also reaffirmed the fact that Article V of the Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.”

So, it seems that Japan made what looks like a promise to strengthen its military, in exchange for the services of the world’s most powerful military—to include its nuclear weapons.

But when evaluating these sorts of summit meetings, it is best to consider what’s said—and then wait a while and see what actually happens. This is especially true given previous U.S.–Japan meetings have agreed to pretty much the same things that were announced on April 16.

Here’s the problem: Americans tend to assume that Japan’s promise to “bolster its own national defense capabilities” means that Japan will push the limits and improve its long-standing defense shortcomings.

However, Japan often seems to regard its promise as meaning it will do nothing more than what it’s already doing—while expecting the United States to use everything in the arsenal on Japan’s behalf.

So, when it comes to Japan keeping its part of the bargain and improving defense capabilities, let’s wait 90 days and see if Tokyo moves to do any of the following:

1. Increase defense spending. It’s still much too low—even at about $50 billion a year. What’s needed are 10 percent increases each year for the next five years—spent properly. This means spending on personnel—to address 25 percent yearly recruiting shortfalls—and then spending to ensure forces can train adequately. Only then consider buying more weaponry.

2. Improve the capabilities of the three Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) services (ground, sea, and air) to be able to operate in a coordinated fashion—or, “jointly” in military-speak. They currently have only rudimentary capabilities, if that. It doesn’t matter if Japan buys or develops high-tech weapons, such as “hypersonics” or “strike capabilities” if the three services don’t have a radio with which they can talk to each other. Yes, it’s that serious.

3. Establish a combined headquarters in Japan where U.S. and Japanese forces work out the planning, training, exercises, and other activities necessary for Japan’s defense. There currently is no such headquarters—after 60 years of the defense alliance.

If these three “bellwether” indicators aren’t addressed, one wonders whether Tokyo is serious about bolstering its defense capabilities—as it promised (once again). It could be that Japan still might think the Americans will save the day—no matter what Japan does or doesn’t do. But that might not be what happens.

Joe Biden Yoshihide Suga
President Joe Biden meets with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on April 16, 2021. At left are Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

A Troubling Scenario

The promise of U.S. support is sincerely made but, paradoxically, it might be easier to carry out if the Chinese regime launches a full-scale assault on Japan. If China follows its current “below the line” approach, Japan—and the region—might get into serious trouble, quickly.

Imagine the following:

Three hundred Chinese fishing boats show up at the Senkaku Islands, along with 25 Chinese maritime militia boats. And a dozen China Coast Guard ships are with them, and an equal number of PLAN (the People’s Liberation Army Navy or Chinese navy) warships as well.

The Chinese armada tells the Japan coast guard on station to “clear out”—and then lands a small team onto one of the Senkaku Islands.

The Japanese navy and coast guard send reinforcements but are outnumbered—and outgunned. The Americans send ships from 7th Fleet—and U.S. and Japanese submarines are lurking nearby.

However, the United States and Japan might be reluctant to sink the invading Chinese vessels—because the PLAN might retaliate—and potentially risk starting World War III.

And Beijing and the PLAN know this and might have launched the invasion calculating that the U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force wouldn’t retaliate.

At this point, as one observer notes: “It’s check and mate, unless you want to go nuclear.”

But didn’t Tokyo get Washington’s promise that nuclear weapons are part of the defense? Kind of. However, there will be a strong constituency in the United States against using them in such gray-zone situations, especially when U.S. territory isn’t directly threatened. And the Chinese just might say: “Go ahead. Take a shot.”

But couldn’t the United States use smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons? In theory, but using nuclear weapons doesn’t get any easier just because it is a “little nuke.” A nuke is a nuke. And a Senkaku scenario may not be enough for Washington to pull the trigger on Japan’s behalf.

The point of all this?

Conventional capabilities still matter, and Japan hasn’t got what it needs—and is expecting too much from the Americans. The United States is overstretched and spent the past 20 years focused on Iraq and Afghanistan—instead of China.

The U.S. military is, of course, still potent. But the PLA (People’s Liberation Army or Chinese military) outmatches U.S. forces in some areas, such as ship numbers, anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), and a massive PLA rocket force that can hit U.S. bases in Japan and the region—including the U.S. territory of Guam—as well as moving ships.

Japan ought to realize that it can’t rely on the United States as it has done—and apparently still does. Rather, it needs to do much more to genuinely improve its capabilities, and in the process, it will make the U.S.–Japan alliance stronger and more of a deterrent against Chinese aggression.

When the Chinese show up in the Senkakus ready for a fight, it won’t matter much if Biden and Suga agreed to 5G technology development and to have “low-carbon footprints.” China will be more impressed with warships, aircraft, submarines, supersonic ASCMs, hypersonic weapons—and lots of all of them.

So now that the Suga–Biden summit is over and all the right things were said—and promised—let’s see what Japan actually does about “bolstering” its defense. Because it will take more than summit meetings and joint statements to deter the Chinese regime.

Does Japan’s Constitution prohibit it from doing more militarily? No. Article 9 that covers the use of force has been reinterpreted repeatedly—almost from the day it was enacted—to allow Japan to do whatever is necessary in its own defense. Japanese officialdom has wielded “the Constitution” and “Article 9” as effective excuses to avoid doing anything it doesn’t want to do.

Does Japan’s financial condition preclude it from increasing the defense budget? No. Japan is a wealthy country and has all the money it needs for its own defense. It just chooses not to spend it. And it’s easier to rely on the Americans to “fill in the gaps.” The United States has never really complained about this even though it undermines the security of both countries.

Does Japanese public opinion inhibit the Japanese government from strengthening defense capabilities? Not if Japan’s leaders “made the case.” Public opinion is overwhelmingly negative on China. And a large majority favors forceful measures to protect Japanese territory. If the public knew the reality of JSDF weakness, they would be surprised—and probably none too happy with Japan’s ruling class.

Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine officer and a former U.S. diplomat and business executive who lived and worked for many years in the Asia/Pacific region. He served as a reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific, and was the U.S. Marine attaché, U.S. Embassy Tokyo on two occasions. He is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy.

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