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Post-Abe Japan’s Ties with the United States

Mr Abhijitha Singh is pursuing PhD at Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • November 24, 2020

    On assuming office on September 16, 2020, Japan’s new Prime Minister, Suga Yoshihide, declared that his would be a cabinet of continuity to further the policies championed by his predecessor, Abe Shinzo.1 This clearly indicates that the Suga administration will continue the process of moving away from Japan’s post-war defence policy and focus on developing a pre-emptive strike capability.2

    It may be recalled that Japanese Defence Minister Kono Taro said he would not be “excluding any option”3, when asked at a news conference in June 2020 if a pre-emptive strike capability would be among the new options on the agenda of his National Security Council. In the same month, Kono scrapped Japan’s Aegis Ashore deal—which was meant to complement Japan's seven Aegis destroyers and Patriot PAC-3 surface-to-air missile systems—with the United States (US).

    Japan’s focus on developing a pre-emptive strike capability is hardly surprising. Article 9 of the post-war Japanese Constitution renounces war as a means to settle international disputes involving the state. Generally, Tokyo has interpreted this Article as forbidding any pre-emptive attack. But this view has never been a dominant one across the Japanese strategic spectrum. In a remark made as early as in 1956, then Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama Ichiro stated:

    If Japan were in imminent danger of an illegal invasion, and the method of invasion were a missile attack against Japan’s national territory, I simply cannot believe that the spirit of the Constitution requires that we merely sit and wait to die. In such a case, I believe that we should take the absolute minimum measures that are unavoidably necessary to defend against such an attack…if no other suitable means are available, striking the missile base should be legally acceptable and falls within the range of self-defense.4 

    Suga’s predecessor, Abe, was inclined to amending Article 9 so as to take the necessary measures required in the interest of strengthening national security. The Abe Government expanded the scope of Article 9 by pushing forward security legislation that allows Japan to exercise the right to self-defence if it or its close ally is attacked, threatening Japan's survival.5

    Drivers of Change

    Japan’s focus on developing a pre-emptive strike capability can be attributed to its threat perception from North Korea in the main. Japan’s 2020 Defence White Paper clearly identifies the threat from North Korea. According to the White Paper, Pyongyang has tested several short, medium and long-range ballistic missiles in recent years, more than 70 since 2016. It has conducted six nuclear tests and is assessed to have already miniaturised nuclear weapons to fit ballistic missile warheads. Since May 2019, Pyongyang has launched three types of new short-range ballistic missiles that can breach the Japanese missile defence system. For years, it has continued with its nuclear weapons programmes in the face of international condemnation and sanctions.6

    Tokyo today does not seem to trust its alliance with Washington alone to deter any threat from North Korea. Its loss of confidence in Washington increased after US President Donald Trump ordered American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).7 Also, President Trump gave an impression during his meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that Washington cared only about Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and did not have much concern for the short and medium range missiles.

    Trump was seen as being too cosy with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. He seemed to hope Kim would agree to give up his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Trump’s assessment was that “there have been no nuclear tests, no ballistic missiles going out, no long-range missiles going out.”8 However, Tokyo does not seem to want to digest any such optimism. According to a report, President Trump was unfazed when North Korea fired off some small weapons,9 but it alarmed then Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, given Japan’s proximity to North Korea.10 The assessment in Japan’s latest defence White Paper suggests that Pyongyang has advanced missile-related technologies that are distinctive as they use solid fuel and fly at relatively lower altitudes than conventional missiles, trying to breach missile defence networks.

    Japan’s focus on developing a pre-emptive capability is also attributable to the threat it perceives from China.11 China has some 2,000 intermediate-range missiles that can reach targets all over Japan.12 If China’s pattern of behaviour in the East China Sea (and the South China Sea) is to go by, Beijing does not care for the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that prescribes the principle of the freedom of navigation for all states for the sake of trade and commerce. Beijing refused to respect a 2016 ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal appointed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which invalidated most of its claims in the South China Sea.13 Given Tokyo’s stake in the freedom of navigation, it cannot gloss over any threat from China.

    It is well known that one of Abe’s key strategic ideas was the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad with the US-Japan alliance at its core to meet this threat in the Indo-Pacific region. There are clear indications that Premier Suga’s concerns are the same. He is said to have raised the issue on Senkaku/Diaoyu islands during a recent phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He also spoke of other territorial dispute in the East China Sea and China’s activism around the islets of the South China Sea.14 Also, Japan’s new Defence Minister, Kishi Nobuo, who happens to be the younger brother of former premier Abe, is said to be pro-Taiwan.15

    Some reports suggest Prime Minister Suga may be inclined to being in touch with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.16

    Japan’s focus on developing a pre-emptive capability is unlikely to result in the souring of its overall ties with the US. The basics of Japan-US defence relations continue to be intact. Tokyo has had a Security Treaty with Washington since September 1951. Japan pays 74 per cent of the costs to base more than 50,000 US troops.17 Japan has its ships equipped with the powerful American Aegis radar system in the Sea of Japan facing North Korea. These are said to be capable of detecting hostile aircraft or missiles several hundred kilometres away. The Pentagon still has its nuclear-powered carriers, stealth fighters and F-16s on alert in the Sea of Japan to neutralise any possible long-range missile threat from North Korea.

    The Trump Administration sought to allay, from time to time, the Japanese (and South Korean) concerns vis-à-vis North Korea. It may be recalled that the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said at a news conference in Seoul in 2018 that the United Nations (UN) sanctions would remain in place until North Korea had accomplished “complete denuclearization”.18 Moreover, Washington and Tokyo share common goals in the Indo-Pacific region. These goals include the freedom of navigation, economic prosperity within the rules of international law, and deterrence of aggression from nations such as China, Russia and North Korea, as well as from terrorist organisations.19

    Also, personal relations between top officials of the two countries continue to remain warm. President Trump was the first world leader to meet Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito after he ascended to the throne in May 2019.20 While in Tokyo, Trump also played golf with then Japanese Prime Minister Abe.21 Since his election, Prime Minister Suga has already made it clear that he will seek continued strong ties with Washington.22

    US-Japan Relations under Abe

    Former Prime Minister Abe promoted Japan’s ties with Washington very tactfully. US President Donald Trump’s emphasis on America first23 and his much-publicised reservations with regard to Washington’s alliance commitments cast doubt on the future of the  US-Japan treaty  that  governed US troops on Japanese soil since 1960.24 Many hardliners in Japan reportedly advocated having a more symmetrical alliance with the US.25 Abe used this in expanding the role of  the Japanese Self Defence Force (JSDF) . At the same time, he retained the US at the heart of his foreign and security policy.

    While reinterpreting Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution to impart the country greater autonomy in determining its defence policy, he saw to it that it did not hurt Japan’s defence relations with Washington. In 2015, Abe agreed to the revised US-Japan Defence Guidelines that expand Japan’s commitment to provide military support to the US in the event of conflict.26 Also, Abe purchased more US military hardware and technology.27 One estimate has it that the percentage of Japan’s total defence budget devoted to US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) has climbed from less than 1 per cent in financial year (FY) 2011 to nearly 10 per cent in FY20.28 According to another estimate, Japan  purchased  73 SM-3 Block IIA missiles amounting to  $3.295 billion in the third purchase of SM-3 missiles announced for Japan in the fiscal year 2019-20.29 

    Thus Japan, under its new premier, looks all set to proceed with the course it has chosen over the years of boosting its defence capability without in any way altering its strong post-war defence cooperation with the US. In other words, the focus on enhancing its defence capabilities and boosting defence cooperation with the US is likely to stay somewhat as a permanent feature of Tokyo’s strategic calculus. It will be worth watching how Prime Minister Suga goes about this business of statecraft.

    Challenges for the New Administration

    Domestic politics in Japan against US base relocation politics may give Suga a great headache. Last year, a majority of voters in a referendum opposed a plan to relocate the US Marines’ Futenma air base within Okinawa. Nevertheless, the Abe Government intended to press ahead with its construction plans. It may not be easy for Suga to overlook the sentiments of Okinawans in general. Okinawa is host to the bulk of US military forces in Japan. Many residents of Okinawa associate the bases with crime, pollution and accidents and want them off the island.30

    It is to be seen how the Suga administration goes about renegotiating with Washington Tokyo's budget for hosting the US military for another five years beginning April 2021 as the current deal expires in March 2021. Presently, Japan shoulders nearly 200 billion yen ($1.9 billion) annually for on-base utility fees, civilian labour costs and expenses related to relocating military drills. Recently, Japanese and US officials had preparatory talks over updating the bilateral defence cost-sharing agreement. Japan and the United States held full-fledged negotiations (November 10-11, 2020) in Washington on Tokyo's new budget from April 2021 for hosting the U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan. In the meeting, both sides “affirmed the importance of further enhancing the strong solidarity of the alliance” and said they "look forward to a mutually beneficial outcome."31  Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu is believed to have viewed the current sharing of expenses to host US military in Japan as appropriate.32

    President Trump is said to have demanded  Japan to quadruple its annual host nation support to $8 billion.33 Kenneth Weinstein, Trump’s nominee as the next US Ambassador to Japan, wants Japan to take on a bigger alliance role, financially and militarily.34

    Suga may find it tougher also to sell Tokyo’s traditional policy of going in for large arms purchases from Washington. A section of Japanese officials and politicians are said to have appeared increasingly willing to question this conventional wisdom.35 According to the US Department of State, Washington has over $20 billion in active government-to-government sales cases with Tokyo under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system.36

    Also, it is to be seen what a future US administration under its President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr may demand from the Suga government on the issues of hosting American troops on Japanese soil and purchasing military equipment from Washington. It is possible that a Biden administration, unlike its predecessor, would not be too demanding on these matters. Political observers say President-elect Joe Biden may ease pressure on Tokyo to significantly increase its burden as he focuses more on collaborating with US allies.37 "The "Biden administration may pursue a more strategic approach, working with allies to confront China on trade and technology issues." This may keep Washington focused on building ties further with Tokyo to ensure a rule-based international order and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region.38

    Biden’s preference for a coalition to counter China is well known. It may be recalled that the Obama-Biden administration was the first to focus on Asia-Pacific in order to build a coalition to counter Chinese inroads to the region.39 In an article “Why America Must Lead Again. Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,”40 Biden stressed the need to “to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations,  even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.”

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.