Three decades after the Cold War ended, the global security environment is beginning to change dramatically, with rapid military buildup by China and Russia threatening the United States’ status as the world’s sole superpower.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is shifting the country’s focus from the war on terror to competition with other major powers, particularly aiming to contain China.
In a series of three articles entitled “Spear and Shield,” Jiji Press will report on the current state of the Japan-U.S. security alliance and trilateral cooperation among the two plus South Korea.
China’s Rise Prompting Integration between Japan, U.S. Forces
Washington, Sept. 13 (Jiji Press) — At U.S. Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina, three brand-new Osprey tilt-rotor transporters are waiting to be deployed in Japan next March.
With the Japanese flag on their bodies, the Osprey aircraft are used in aircrew and maintenance training for troops sent from the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force ahead of the deployment.
“The crewmen, the mechanics, U.S. Marines, and (Japan Air) Self-Defense Force (troops) are combined in this squadron,” said Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger, who visited the base recently.
“Japanese crewmen working on U.S. aircraft, U.S. crewmen working on Japanese aircraft, (and both) flying each other’s aircraft,” the top Marine officer stressed.
“We are not divided,” he said. “It was very powerful for me.”
Japan’s procurement of U.S. defense equipment, including Ospreys and state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighters, is aimed at enhancing interoperability between its Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military. The use of the same equipment enables closely coordinated operations.
A senior U.S. military officer said that military cooperation between any two countries has four stages: deconfliction, coordination, integration and synchronization.
To become a real countervailing force against China, the Japan-U.S. alliance has to advance from the current stage of coordination to the next level of integration, the officer suggested.
Japan, which upholds a defense-only policy under its pacifist Constitution, has been serving as the “shield” of the bilateral security alliance, with the United States acting as its “spear.”
This division of roles is now being reviewed, with the rise of China as a major military power changing the regional security landscape.
Another senior U.S. officer voiced expectations for stronger defense ties between Japan and the United States, saying that every alliance transforms to fit a new security environment.
At the field level, the Japanese and U.S. forces are already beginning to move toward “spear and shield” integration.
At Yokota Air Base in a Tokyo suburb, the command centers of the Air SDF and the U.S. Fifth Air Force are located side by side. There is also an underground section where both sides exchange information.
In joint exercises, the underground area is used as a possible Japan-U.S. command center, according to a U.S. military source.
Furthermore, the U.S. Air Force is considering setting up an air and space operations center, or AOC, within the Yokota base. In that case, U.S. Forces Japan is expected to assume a certain level of operational control.
With the launch of the AOC, U.S. Forces Japan would no longer need to take instructions from U.S. command in Hawaii and could make real-time coordination with the Japanese side, the U.S. source pointed out.
In 2015, Japan’s parliament enacted security legislation to lift the country’s self-imposed ban on so-called collective self-defense, or the use of force to defend allies under attack overseas, as the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is aiming to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Among Japanese people, meanwhile, there are persistent concerns about operational integration between the SDF and the U.S. military. Some argue that SDF troops could become embroiled in U.S. wars and that Japan’s sovereignty could be undermined.
Indeed, it seems possible that the SDF would effectively come under the U.S. military’s command, once their chains of command are integrated.
The threat from China is “not being made up by Americans” but is “very significant,” retired Navy Cpt. James Fanell said.
Fanell stressed that Japan is not subordinated to American control, but that the two sides are “codependent on each other.”
“We both need each other to survive and to win against China. Because if they were to attack, it would be massive and it could be an existential threat,” he said.
Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “Until the very end, the alliance is, I think, going to be the preferred means for Japan to provide for its security.”