Amid shifting global security environment, will Japan remain the 'shield' in U.S. alliance?


At U.S. Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina, three brand-new Osprey tilt-rotor transporters are waiting to be deployed to Japan next March.

The aircraft, emblazoned with the Japanese flag, are used for aircrew and maintenance training for troops sent from the Air Self-Defense Force ahead of the deployment.

“The crewmen, the mechanics, U.S. Marines, and 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 … flying each other’s aircraft,” the top marine officer said.

“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 the SDF and the U.S. military. The use of the same equipment enables closely coordinated operations.

A senior U.S. officer said 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 the pacifist Constitution, has traditionally served as the “shield” in 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 landscape of regional security.

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 the city of Fussa, western Tokyo, the command centers of the ASDF and the U.S. Fifth Air Force are located side by side. There is also an underground area where both sides exchange information. In joint exercises, the underground area is used as a Japan-U.S. command center, according to a U.S. military source.

The U.S. Air Force is considering setting up an air and space operations center within the Yokota base. In such a case, U.S. Forces Japan would be expected to assume a certain level of operational control. With the launch of the center, U.S. Forces Japan would no longer need to take instructions from U.S. command in Hawaii and could engage in real-time coordination with the Japanese side, the U.S. source said.

In 2015, the Diet enacted security legislation to lift the country’s self-imposed ban on so-called collective self-defense — the use of force to defend allies under attack overseas — as part of efforts by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.

But despite these steps, there are persistent concerns among ordinary Japanese 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 the nation’s sovereignty could be undermined.

Indeed, it seems possible that the SDF could effectively come under the U.S. military’s command if their chains of command were integrated.

Responding to such concerns, retired U.S. Navy Capt. James Fanell said the threat from China is “not being made up by Americans” but is “very significant.”

Fanell said Japan is not subordinated to American control but that the two sides are “co-dependent 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 the alliance is likely to remain strong.

“Until the very end, the alliance is, I think, going to be the preferred means for Japan to provide for its security,” Smith said.

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