US, Japan eye major upgrade to alliance, more authority for US forces in Japan

Posted on : 2024-03-26 16:46 KST Modified on : 2024-03-26 16:46 KST
The Financial Times said that the plans could amount to the “biggest upgrade” to the bilateral alliance since the signing of the mutual defense treaty more than 60 years ago
US naval forces and Japan’s Maritime Defense Force carry out joint exercises in September 2023. (still from JSDF social media)
US naval forces and Japan’s Maritime Defense Force carry out joint exercises in September 2023. (still from JSDF social media)

To counter the growing threat of China in the Indo-Pacific, Washington and Tokyo are reportedly in discussions to upgrade their military alliance and strengthen the US military’s command in Japan. The discussions represent a move toward increased integration of the US military and the Japan Self-Defense Forces. It could potentially be the largest security upgrade to the US-Japan security alliance since the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security in 1960.

On Sunday, the Financial Times reported that Washington and Tokyo “are planning the biggest upgrade to their security alliance since they signed a mutual defense treaty in 1960 in a move to counter China.” The British outlet also reported that US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are planning to “restructure the US military command in Japan to strengthen operational planning and exercises between the nations.”

The 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security was signed during the term of then Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, the grandfather of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and formed the foundation of the modern US-Japan alliance that permits US troops on Japanese soil.

The Financial Times reported that Biden and Kishida will disclose the plan for increased military cooperation when Biden hosts Kishida at the White House on April 10.

So far, the jurisdiction of the US military command based in Yokota Air Base, west of Tokyo, was limited to directing joint training exercises between US Forces Japan and the JSDF. Critics have lamented this limitation due to the obvious restraints it poses on the US in the event of an actual war or military conflict. 

Operational command for the US Seventh Fleet stationed at Yokosuka and for the US Marines at Okinawa was delegated to the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, some 6,200 kilometers away. In the current situation, if a military conflict were to occur in, say, Taiwan, practical cooperation between US and Japanese forces would be effectively impossible. 

For many years, Japan has requested changes to this alliance structure that would give more operational authority to the US Forces Japan commander, a three-star general, or assign a four-star general to command US forces in the country.

The Biden administration has proposed creating a separate joint task force under the US Pacific Fleet, the Financial Times reported. If that happened, a four-star US general would have direct contact with Japan. The paper also noted hopes that it would also enable an immediate joint response in the event of a conflict along similar lines as the Combined Forces Command made for Korean and US troops in Korea. 

“Co-locating these commands, at least partially, would move the US-Japan alliance closer to the 'fight tonight' mantra of the US alliance with South Korea — more responsive and credible in responding to regional threats,” said Christopher Johnstone, a former senior Pentagon and CIA official who is currently the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

The Yomiuri Shimbun also reported on Monday that US and Japanese authorities were discussing an upgraded military alliance, citing several government officials from both sides. The Japanese paper added that Japan is seeking to create its own unified operations command that would have control over land, sea and air operations by the JSDF in the region. 

The paper reported that discussions focused on upgrading US Forces Japan’s authority while still keeping the command position with the Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii. Specifically, the proposal would give US Forces Japan the authority to directly plan and oversee joint operations and training exercises with the JSDF. 

Although many within Japan are still calling for the establishment of a separate combined US-Japan command, operational command for the JSDF and US Forces Japan would still remain separate — unlike in South Korea, where operational command lies solely with US Forces Korea.

In 2022, Japan made the decision to acquire “enemy base strike capabilities” (counterstrike capabilities), which would allow it to launch strikes against bases in North Korea, China and other countries. This was a seismic shift in the security policy it had adhered to for seven decades.

The old division of labor with the JSDF as the “shield” and USFJ as the “spear” has broken down, as the integration of the JSDF with the US military moves ahead rapidly.

The US has been a driving force behind the transformation in Japan, which it hopes to use to counteract the military and economic rise of China. The plans for upgrading the bilateral alliance have been an extension of this activity.

Cheong Wook-sik, director of the Peace Network, said, “They’re saying that the integration of USFJ and the JSDF has already been under discussion for a long time, but if an agreement is actually reached between the two countries, China is unlikely to take it lying down, since it would essentially be targeting China’s expansion and the Taiwan issue.”

“There is also a risk of this having some kind of negative impact on South Korea as the Indo-Pacific Region becomes more unstable,” he warned.

By Hong Seock-jae, staff reporter

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