Asia Defense | Security | East Asia

What COVID-19 Means for the US-Japan Alliance

With both militaries having to fight the pandemic alongside their existing operations, how can the U.S. and Japan keep deterrence robust?

By Yuki Tatsumi and Yoshimitsu Sato for
What COVID-19 Means for the US-Japan Alliance
Credit: U.S. Army photos by Sgt. John L. Carkeet IV, U.S. Army Japan

On May 11, 2020, media reported that Admiral Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Navy, will be quarantined for one week after coming into a contact with a relative who has COVID-19. The same report also indicated that the commanding general of the National Guard Bureau in the U.S. Air Force has tested positive for COVID-19.

These reports are yet another example of the indiscriminate nature of the pandemic. The U.S. Navy already faced previous challenges in addressing the case of Captain Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, who was dismissed from his post after his memo warning about the serious impact of the spread of COVID-19 on the ship’s crew was leaked to the news media. Taken together, such incidents signal the challenges that all militaries face as the world muddles through the public health emergency triggered by COVID-19.

In the face of the pandemic, militaries need to engage in a two-front battle by default.  On the one hand, their operations and operational circumstances make it extremely difficult for the military to contain the spread of highly contagious diseases. Operations are executed as a group; personnel usually live within close proximity, often under circumstances where “social distancing” is not only infeasible but often impossible. On the other hand, militaries (and national guards in the case of the United States) are often called upon as the first responders to these emergencies, while they are also expected to sustain their level of readiness to respond to a national security crisis.

In case of the U.S. military, this challenge is particularly pressing. The U.S. military, by its expeditionary nature, requires a large part of its personnel to be deployed overseas for an extended period for a wide variety of missions, with its forces often living in close quarters. Training, done in groups, is critical in maintaining the readiness of the force. Also, in-person engagements with counterparts in the militaries of U.S. allies and partners through joint trainings and other cooperative activities are an integral part of demonstrating U.S. military presence and thereby the U.S. commitment to continue to play a leading role in maintaining peace and stability. The COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the resulting limitation on its activities in the Indo-Pacific are a reminder that the spread of pandemic within the U.S. military can hamstring the country’s ability to sustain its presence and thus exert effective deterrence vis-à-vis the disruptive behavior of potential adversaries.

The Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) faces a similar challenge in containing the pandemic from spreading within the force. Moreover, unlike the U.S. military which is primarily tasked with expeditionary missions, JSDF takes on both national defense operations (such as warning and surveillance activities in Japan’s water and airspace) and international missions while still expected to carry on with its disaster relief (such as responding to large-scale disasters in Japan, including the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in March 2011). For instance, the JSDF Central Hospital was among the primary facilities that admitted COVID-19 patients from the cruise ship Diamond Princess, and they also provided transportation support for those who came off from the ship. With JGSDF Medical School in its immediate neighborhood, the JSDF Central Hospital is also designated as the treatment facility in the event of emergencies involving chemical and biological weapons in Japan. Already facing the increasing tempo of Chinese vessels and aircraft’s incursion into Japanese airspace and in and near its territorial waters, the diversity of JSDF missions coupled with its small size — the entire JSDF is approximately the size of the U.S. Marine Corps — makes it especially challenging for the JSDF to conduct these operations while maintaining the readiness that is required for homeland defense.

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Beyond the immediate impact on the JSDF, COVID-19 will potentially have a long-term impact on U.S.-Japan defense cooperation both bilaterally and beyond. For examples, the restrictions on meetings and other large-group activities driven by health precautions could reduce the number of bilateral joint trainings and joint exercises and other face-to-face engagements that can take place between the two militaries. That will limit the opportunities for both militaries to familiarize themselves with each other, which is essential for continuing to enhance personal ties. In addition, the U.S. military and JSDF often have served as the nucleus of trilateral and multilateral military-to-military interactions. These include the trilateral military-to-military engagements among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea; U.S., Japan, and Australia; and U.S., Japan, and India, among others. Similar to bilateral engagements, restrictions on meetings and other activities could also limit opportunities to deepen these trilateral defense relations.

Second, public health precautions could hamper the U.S. and Japanese defense authorities in their continuing effort to improve relations between U.S. and JSDF bases and their surrounding local host communities. Concerns over large gatherings can restrict public access to popular events such as the Independence Day and Halloween celebrations on U.S. bases and Air Shows on JSDF bases. Health precautions could also limit other social activities outside the base, such as community clean-ups, and other engagements that have been instrumental in efforts to facilitate the interaction between local communities and the military personnel on these bases.

Finally, the COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt reveals the real possibility that the pandemic might impact the operational capacities of forward-deployed U.S. forces. That risk requires Japan to think through the ways in which its alliance with the United States can maintain effective deterrence when both militaries are simultaneous battling COVID-19 at home while having to meet their national security requirements. Does that mean Japan needs to pursue capabilities that it can operate autonomously when necessary to meet its defense requirements? Or does that mean the United States and Japan need to begin to take a more holistic look at what each force can bring to their relationship to jointly maintain effective deterrence, even if one or both suffers reduced operational capacity?

China’s continuing attempt at a show of force in the East and South China Seas in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic is an indicator that a national security crisis will not wait until the pandemic gets under control. U.S. and Japan defense authorities need to have their discussion on how to cope with another pandemic and its impact on alliance capacity sooner rather than later.

Yuki Tatsumi is a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the Japan Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

Yoshimitsu Sato is a Nonresident Fellow with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center. The views and opinions expressed here are of the authors only.