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A new age in Japan, US military ties emerging

With a new military policy, Japan is also reimagining its strategic ties with the United States.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III welcomes Japanese Defense Minister to the Pentagon.


A significant moment in the US -Japan Security Alliance took place as the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III and the Defence Minister of Japan Yasukazu Hamada met to strengthen the alliance even further. This exchange happened earlier in the week and ahead of the meeting between the US President Joe Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to discuss a broad based agenda of mutual cooperation. The 2+2 dialogue aimed at enhancing the US military posture in the region and also signalled Japan’s increased receptiveness to the agenda. The major outcome of this dialogue was the signing of the Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Memorandum of Understanding. This seeks to provide the two countries with opportunities to collaborate on developing research potential for emerging technologies in defence.


Apart from research and development in technological potential there is also a tangible aspect to this security alliance. As a part of the new US-Japan security partnership, Japan has consented to the increase of the military buildup of the United States in the country. This involves stationing of new and improved marine units that possess higher surveillance and counter strike capabilities. It has been decided that the 12th marine regiment of the US Marine Corps currently stationed in the Japanese island of Okinawa is going to be transformed into the more agile and responsive 12th Marine Littoral Corps. There will not be any changes in the number of US marines present in Okinawa however. The aim is to provide readily available defence infrastructure and improved interoperability in the event of any aggressive activities from either China or even North Korea that remains to be a contentious player in the region.


Space cooperation


Greater cooperation between the two countries is not just limited to the military domain or research domain but also extends to a sector that has a huge room for exploration at present, the space exploration program. The US and Japan have, with this new strategy, reiterated their commitment towards cooperation in the research and development for space defence technologies and building hypersonic weapons equipment. This development is important to be considered in the context of China’s rapidly building space program. China, in the recent past has worked towards building hypersonic weapons technology and this poses a great threat to the military hegemony that the United States claims to possess.


The US officials, in the ongoing negotiations, invoked the presence of Article V of the US-Japan Security Treaty that was signed way back in 1951. This strategy primarily forms the backbone of the military engagement between the two countries. Under this Article the United States has agreed to provide military support in defence of Japan’s territories if they are ever under attack. This suggests that the attacks from space or even the cyberspace attacks are primarily considered to be direct threats to Japan’s security and hence the US would retaliate in response as per Article V. The new space agreement for shared exploration and information exchange between the two countries is also in the works.


In this context, it is important to understand what exactly the 1951 US-Japan Security Treaty is and how the terms have evolved over time which finally led to a more stringent defence posture of Japan.



Under the US Umbrella


The US and Japan have a history of military engagement that dates back to after World War II. Adversaries in the war, the US executed the most devastating attack in the history of the world on Japanese soil as it became the first and the only country to drop a nuclear bomb on another.


It was in 1951 that as Japan was coming to terms with the consequences of the war and was still under the US military occupation entered into the pact that allowed for the US troops to be stationed in Japan. This led to the beginning of the US military presence in Japan that continues to this day. This military presence has not always been popular in Japan and there have been protests from time to time to challenge this status quo. One important development occurred in 1954 when Japan established its own Self Defence Force (SDF) to take care of national security to minimise the US military interference.


Over the years Japan has manoeuvred around its policies of pacifism and also aiming to respond to the threats that develop in the region. This has formed the basis of its increasing engagement and even dependence on the US umbrella for deterrence in the region. The island of Okinawa forms the most important strategic point in this military engagement as the major contingent of the US Marine corps is stationed in the island. The number approximately stands at fifty five thousand.


The presence of the US troops is a contentious issue for the residents of Okinawa, Japanese citizens and the international human rights organisations as well. However, one thing that remains clear in this regard is that this presence is unlikely to reduce in the future. Japan provides the perfect territorial space for the US to ground its strategic base in the Indo Pacific and hence counter the threats that be.


National security strategy of Japan


The signing of this new MoU has to be considered in the context of the recently unveiled National Security Strategy of Japan that signals the highest military buildup and a surge in projected defence spending since World War II. This shift in the military posture of the largely ‘pacifist’ country comes from the understanding of the regional threat perception. The increasingly aggressive stand of China over the issue of Taiwan which is in proximity to Japan has added to Japan’s worries towards its own national security as well as the regional stability.


It may also be highly likely that the aggressive military posture adopted by China towards its dispute in Taiwan gets snowballed into the long standing crisis in the East China Sea as well which can turn out to be a bigger concern for Japan at this moment.


Japan, through this new security strategy aims to build a strong counter strike capability and while also reducing its reliance on the US strike capability. This development in the US - Japan Security Treaty which aims at building the US marine presence in Japan even further can be seen as a natural progression to Japan’s increasing interest in developing its defence capabilities. The aim could be to expand on its own defence and build alliances with the countries that can further contribute to it, in this case, the United States. An argument can be made that both the US and Japan have a lot to gain from this developing security relationship in terms of countering the looming threat of the Chinese dragon.


Ahead of the G7 summit


As Japan gears up for the G7 Summit this year, the leadership is exploring opportunities for cooperation with major western allies and the recent US President Joe Biden - Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meeting forms an important part of this endeavour.


The security commitment reached together by Japan and the US also serves as the endorsement of the new Japanese defence posture by the United States. As the US begins to tighten its grip on the security developments in the Indo Pacific, it is very important for the country to engage deeply with the allies in the region and what better way to do that than looking towards Japan? Japan's geostrategic location adds to this factor. Being in proximity with China, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula gives Japan the front row seat to the unfolding events in the disputes of the region and also makes it all the more vulnerable to the threats that persist. For the United States, Japan remains to be the most stable ally to counter the problems posed by the revisionist China and the unpredictable North Korea.


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