As Japan and the U.S. work toward a historic upgrade of bilateral defense cooperation guidelines for the first time in 17 years, the biggest tasks for the two allies may be dealing with China’s growing military and economic might while also keeping an eye on events in North Korea and its unpredictable leader.

In interviews with The Japan Times last week, Richard Myers, former chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Takashi Saito, former chief of staff of the Joint Staff Council of the Self-Defense Forces, agreed that while the two allies have boosted their deterrence power, especially against China, more work should be done to counter nontraditional threats such as cyberattacks.

While China remains a big concern in the Asia-Pacific region for Japan and the U.S., both former officials admitted that neither country could contain Beijing, as the three nations remain economically interdependent.

Washington, especially, faces a delicate balancing act in dealing with Beijing as it pushes for what it has referred to as a “new model for major-country relationship.” This was highlighted by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent remarks that “the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both the United States and China.”

While China rejects U.S. interference in its “core interests,” including Tibet and the South China Sea, Washington hopes that Beijing will abide by the rule of law to resolve international conflicts.

Myers said the best way to deal with an aggressive China is to have a stronger Japan-U.S. alliance, and that the security reforms that Tokyo has undertaken since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power “are considered very important” in beefing up the alliance.

“What we know from history is that weakness is provocative. So if you are weak, people tend to take advantage of you. So you want a strong alliance where people do not feel they can take advantage of the alliance. So I think that’s the best thing you can do — to make sure we have a strong alliance,” Myers told The Japan Times last week on the sidelines of the Japan-U.S. Military Statesmen Forum, hosted by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation.

In his push to beef up the alliance and strengthen the nation’s deterrence power, Abe has been busy. The prime minister has launched a Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council and enacted a special state secrecy law. He has also lifted a ban on the right to collective self-defense by reinterpreting the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 so that Japan can defend its allies, namely the U.S.

The retired U.S. Air Force general noted that it was an especially great leap forward for the SDF to be able to aid U.S. aircraft or destroyers.

Referring to a 2001 incident near China’s Hainan Island, when a U.S. Navy EP-3 plane and a People’s Liberation Army Navy F-8 fighter jet collided, Myers said he could envision scenarios where Japan could help the U.S.

“I could see situations where Japan and U.S. could assist each other in ways they cannot today in terms of protecting assets. But it’s all hypothetical,” Myers said. “Clearly today there are situations where Japanese can come to the aid of Americans and destroyers. Not being able to do that seems to be unequal in terms of our relationship.”

Saito, a retired Marine Self-Defense Force admiral, agreed with Myers but said the primary purpose of the right to collective self-defense for Japan is not about exercising it but rather using it as a deterrent.

“We should not let Japan resort to force,” said Saito in an interview with The Japan Times. “But it is important to send a message that Japan and the U.S. would work together when Japan is under attack.”

Saito also said the new framework would allow both countries and potentially others to enhance their interoperability through expanded joint drills. Currently, Japan can only engage in noncombat exercises, if countries other than U.S. join the exercises, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in multilateral military exercises such as the Rim of the Pacific Exercises (Rimpac) — the world’s largest international maritime warfare drills.

In cyberspace, Myers said the enactment of the contentious state secrecy law would help prevent leaks of critical government information and enable further cooperation. However, both Myers and Saito agreed that even more coordination on cybersecurity was needed.

While cybersecurity will be one of the new domains likely covered in the bilateral defense guidelines due to be compiled by the end of the year, capability gaps between the U.S. and Japan remain.

In an effort to shore up its abilities and defend critical computer systems and conduct offensive operations against foreign adversaries over the next several years, the Pentagon is reportedly looking to increase the size of its cybersecurity force to nearly 5,000 personnel — more than five times the current numbers.

By comparison, Japan’s Cyber Defense Unit, launched in March to detect and respond to attacks on the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces, has only about 90 SDF personnel.

The effort to boost coordination among ministries, agencies and the private sector to counter the new and growing threat remains in its infancy.

Saito suggested that Japan have a higher-ranking officer oversee the unit. While the U.S. Cyber Command is led by an admiral, Michael Rogers, Japan’s Cyber Defense Unit is headed by a colonel, Masatoshi Sato.

“A military is a hierarchical society, and Japan needs somebody whose rank is higher than two-star class (lieutenant general or vice admiral,) to have a smoother exchange of information,” Saito said.

While Japan is not allowed to consider counterattack strategies in the event of cyberattacks, Saito suggested that the central government should create an “experimenting system” to help train the SDF to deal with actual viruses and to understand the intentions of any potential adversaries.

“It is most important for Japan to understand how to defend against each cyberattack incident and how Japan can coordinate with the U.S.,” Saito added.

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