The Resurgence of the U.S.- Japan Relationship

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The Resurgence of the U.S.- Japan Relationship

While some focus on recent tensions, Tokyo and Washington have been quietly strengthening their security alliance.

The recent reciprocal visits of top U.S. and Japanese defense officials underscore how much the bilateral security relationship has rebounded from earlier tensions over local opposition to the proposed relocation of the Futenma Marine Air Station and the new Japanese government’s striving to pursue a more balanced policy between Washington and Beijing.

The focus of Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto’s August 3rd visit to Washington, his first foreign visit since being appointed in June, was the flight he took on the 12 MV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft that the Pentagon wants to incorporate into Marine Corps operations based in Japan. The tilt-rotor Osprey can take off and land like a helicopter but also has wings and can fly like a plane.

The dozen Ospreys were delivered to Iwakuni Air Station, the only U.S. Marine Corps station in the main Japanese islands in Yamaguchi Prefecture, in July for test flights before their deployment with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) at Futenma, which is located in a densely populated district of the city of Ginowan in Okinawa Prefecture. Their full operational capacity is scheduled for October.

Two recent Osprey crashes, in Florida and Morocco, resulting in the deaths of two people and injuring another five, has deepened Japanese concerns regarding the aircraft’s safety. The plane had a trouble-prone research & development history but the Pentagon considers the Osprey sufficiently safe to warrant its replacing older, less effective Marines helicopters such as the CH-46 at Futenma. Defense Department officials briefed a visiting Japanese delegation on the incidents in June.

Nonetheless, local opposition to the deployment remains high and partly reflects aversion to the continued U.S. military presence at Okinawa, which accounts for less than one percent of Japan’s soil but hosts about one-half of all the American forces in Japan. The Japanese and U.S. governments in 1996 reached an agreement on the return of Futenma base, but the deal was never implemented. Hence, a bilateral agreement was signed in 2006 stated on building an alternative facility in the coastal city of Chinook, north of Nago on the island of Okinawa

After the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) came to power in 2009, pledging to move Futenma base outside Okinawa, the situation took a turn for the worse. The Japanese Prime Minister at that time, Yukio Hatoyama, sought to move the base to Tokunoshima Island of Kagoshima County, located south-west of the Japanese territory, but opposition arose from the local population and Washington alike.

A solution may have been found this April, when the Pentagon announced plans to transfer 9,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, Hawaii, and Australia, while returning much of the land that they occupy to the Japanese.

Nonetheless, the governments of Iwakuni and Okinawa have supported protestors claiming that the Ospreys are unsafe. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has stated that he will not allow any Osprey tests flights until his government determines that the planes do not threaten the residents.

U.S. officials pledged that the Ospreys will not be used in Japan (though they will remain usable everywhere else) until Japanese safety concerns are satisfied. With DM Morimoto by his side, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the Department was reviewing the reasons for the crashes and would share the investigation’s results with the Japanese government.

Morimoto and other Japanese officials back the Osprey deployment because it will enable the Marines to fly farther and faster, which would help them defend Japan’s remote islands as well as support other East Asian contingencies in a region the Pentagon has identified as having increased strategic priority.

Although the Japanese-U.S. security relationship has evolved considerably since the end of the Cold War, the fundamental bargain enshrined in their mutual security treaty is that the United States will defend Japan from external aggression while the Japanese will facilitate this process by hosting U.S. military bases and contributing to their own self-defense.

After his Pentagon meeting, Morimoto flew a MV-22 to the nearby Marine Corps Base at Quantico, VA, where the Marines displayed the Osprey’s operations along with those of other Marine helicopters they use in Okinawa.

Prior to Morimoto’s visit, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter traveled in Japan on July 21 as part of his Asia-Pacific tour to discuss defense strategy. He also visited Thailand, India, and South Korea, but in an effort to reassure the Japanese about their value to Washington, Carter described Japan as the United States main ally in Asia, explaining that was why, “Naturally I come here first, to Tokyo.” During his trip, Carter expressed his hope that, by cooperating to resolve the Osprey issue, the United States and Japan could strengthen their mutual trust.

Another major topic of Carter’s discussions was Japan’s role in manufacturing the F-35 stealth fighter. Both the United States and Japan are counting on the new plane to play a major role in  air fleets during the coming decades. Carter stressed that  Lockheed Martin Corporation, the primary contractor of the fighter aircraft, will choose which countries will make parts of the fighter, based on economic efficiency. It will be Lockheed Martin, rather than the U.S. Defense Department, which will negotiate directly with Japan on the issue.

Japanese-U.S. security relations stalemated for several years after the DJP assumed power in 2009 and publicly pledged to relocate the Futenma Air Base “outside of the prefecture.” It was not until the dispute was finally resolved that a DJP prime minister, Yoshita Noda, was able to make an official visit to the White House in April 2012.

The Japan-U.S. Joint Statement during Noda’s visit affirmed the harmony of the two countries regional security and economic goals based on liberal democratic principles. Indeed, the Obama administration’s strategic rebalancing to Asia and the DJP’s commitment to developing a dynamic defense force can likely reinforce one another by facilitating their shared goal of promoting peace and stability throughout East Asia through an elevated security presence and measures to maintain access to the global commons such as freedom of navigation and secure cyber networks.

The common strategic objectives included several related to China, such as promoting defense transparency and adherence to widely accepted international norms of behavior, discouraging the acquisition of destabilizing military technology, promoting multinational security cooperation, and ensuring access to global commons of the sea, air, space, and cyberspace. The Joint Statement also called for bilateral measure to strengthen U.S. extended deterrence guarantees, increase joint training and exercises, and expand information sharing and joint intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) activities, and deepen cooperation regarding humanitarian missions as well as space and cyber space security.

The June 2011 meeting of the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee (“2+2”) meeting issued a list of the “common strategic objectives” of the two countries in the final Joint Statement, “Toward a Deeper and Broader U.S.-Japan Alliance: Building on 50 Years of Partnership.” It somewhat widened the goals enumerated in the February 2005 and May 2007 “2+2” meetings as well as recommitted the two governments to their 2006 Joint Roadmap for Realignment Implementation.

The 2010 revision of the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) also identifies cooperation with other partners and broader multinational security cooperation (such as participation in UN peacekeeping operations) as well as Japan’s own efforts as essential for achieving an effective deterrent. Australia, South Korea, and especially the United States were identified as key allies due to their shared values and interests.

Several new trilateral initiatives have been launched in recent years involving Japan, the United States, and another partner. Progress has been greatest with Australia, with the launching of joint foreign and defense ministerial (“2+2”) meetings in 2007 and the signing of a 2010 Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement. Despite shared concerns about North Korea, Japan’s bilateral and trilateral cooperation involving South Korea has made less progress due to historical tensions and other differences. The United States has sought to facilitate this cooperation but has limited leverage in this regard.

With the current disputes in abeyance, it is now time to consider making further progress on critical Japan-U.S. defense issues. During his recent visit, Morimoto and Panetta discussed collaborating more on drone technology and to establish permanent joint training bases in the U.S. South Pacific territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, such as Tinian. The United States and Japan should continue to look for opportunities to consolidate defense facilities as the U.S. basing posture in Asia continues to evolve away from the long-term bases that have long characterized the American military presence in Japan.

The two governments are also considering allowing Air Self-Defense Force and Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel to serve as liaison officers to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Office of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force to help the SDF become more familiar with U.S. military tactics, techniques, and procedures. Such a step would prove helpful given the two national forces aim to work closely together in coming years and that the U.S. strategy and plans for Asia are now in a state of flux due to the general strategic rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan’s commitment to joint ballistic missile defense (BMD) research & development with the United States has led its policymakers to modify constitutional interpretations that would prevent it from  using any new capabilities to defend the United States homeland or U.S. forces located outside Japanese territory. But further progress is needed on developing joint capabilities and refining the multilateral rules of engagement for missile defense given indications that North Korea will not soon transform into a less aggressive state. The two defense establishments should continue to refine their crisis-management coordination as well as integrate their command and communications systems for joint operations.

Another area warranting further joint attention is cybersecurity. It was only during the September 2011 session of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee that the first Japan-U.S. working-level dialogue on cybersecurity issues occurred. Thus far the only concrete cooperation is an agreement to share more information about cyber attacks and threats. Since both militaries are so dependent on computer networks for their operations, they would both profit from more robust cybersecurity initiatives, such as holding more joint military exercises in cyber degraded environments. The importance of their information assurance and security systems will grow over time as U.S. and Japanese forces increasingly rely on one another’s cyber networks for net-centered operations.

Unfortunately, both their domestic political systems are stalemated on the issue, which is complicated by the dominant role of private sector actors in managing the cyber networks in both countries. The U.S. Congress recently failed to enact necessary cybersecurity legislation despite the efforts of congressional and executive branch leaders to make this a priority.

For similar reasons, outer space defense infrastructure is another area for further joint initiatives. The two armed forces rely increasingly on space satellites for surveillance, navigation, and other enabling capabilities. For the last few years, Japan has been expanding its space defense architecture to support the country’s expanding security interests and activities. Although the initial objective was to provide Japan with a military space capability independent of the United States, with this goal accomplished, the two countries can now pursue more cooperation in this area to exploit synergies. With China’s demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities, the two countries should develop enhanced means of allowing their militaries to exchange information and use one another’s systems in degraded space environments.