Why Korea shouldn’t welcome Japan’s newly beefed up defense cooperation with US

Posted on : 2024-04-23 15:49 KST Modified on : 2024-04-23 15:49 KST
While the US and Japan are upgrading the strength of their alliance by joining hands in military strategy and the defense industry, what is South Korea doing?
US President Joe Biden (center) stands with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida before a trilateral meeting at the White House on April 11, 2024. (AP/Yonhap)
US President Joe Biden (center) stands with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida before a trilateral meeting at the White House on April 11, 2024. (AP/Yonhap)

Is the US-Japan alliance really entering a new phase? Tokyo and Washington released a joint statement after their leaders’ summit in Washington, DC, on April 10. The statement was around four times longer than the joint statement released after the Camp David summit with South Korea in August of last year and contains specific plans for nearly every scope of cooperation, including efforts to contain China, deterrents against North Korea, R&D and defense industry cooperation, joint development of cutting-edge technologies, and subsidies for educational exchange programs. It is a clear expression of the intent to ramp up the alliance into a globally influential partnership. US President Joe Biden called these agreements “the most significant upgrade in our alliance.”

In a document produced at the US-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit, the leaders declared that “a new trilateral chapter between our three nations begins today.” During the summit, Biden said the US commitment to defending allies in the Pacific was “ironclad.” The message was a reiteration of Washington’s warning against China’s territorial aggression in the South China Sea. 

Regarding economic cooperation, the US pledged to make the Philippines’ Luzon Economic Corridor (Subic Bay, Clark, Manila and Batangas) the latest economic corridor in the G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure, which is the US response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The stated aim of the project is “accelerating coordinated investments in high-impact infrastructure projects, including rail; ports modernization; clean energy and semiconductor supply chains and deployments; agribusiness.” It also seeks the joint construction of an “open, interoperable, secure, reliable and trusted information communications technology system in the Philippines.”

Finalizing the containment network around China

The recent summits have allowed the US to bring the Philippines, its only ally in Southeast Asia, into the fold of its network of pseudo-alliances for containing China. The US-South Korea-Japan trilateral framework covers Northeast Asia while the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between the US, Australia, India and Japan extends the network to the Indian Ocean. On top of this, AUKUS (Australia, the UK and the US) further extends US influence into a global alliance to counter Russia and China. Furthermore, the presence of the UK introduces the potential for the to link with NATO. 

The presence of the Philippines, in addition to Japan, allows a tighter grip on Southeast Asia, which has historically been on the fringes of US influence. By providing military aid and funding to Taiwan, the strategic containment network is complete.

Japan and the US have agreed to cooperate on many things, but the crux is strengthening their military alliance. The result is a two-pronged, integrated military system led by the US. 

The first prong is increasing the interoperability between militaries by updating the overall command structure. Even before the recent summits, many US think tanks and media outlets had proposed that the commander of US Forces Japan, currently a position held by a three-star general, be assigned to a four-star general. These institutions have also suggested that operational command over the Japan Self-Defense Forces should be delegated to a joint US-Japan unified command, rather than the unified command reportedly slated to come into being by March 2025. 

Although the joint statement did not specify this, it is likely that such plans have been finalized at the working level. The leaders of the US and Japan have agreed to build a trilateral missile defense network with Australia and to conduct regular trilateral military exercises with the UK. It’s essentially AUKUS plus Japan.

The US is in control of both the Republic of Korea-US Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command. It’s clear that the US wishes to incorporate US Forces Japan into the UN Command. The addition of Japan to the original member nations of the UK, Australia, and the Philippines would result in a more comprehensive command structure, with Washington at the helm. 

When it comes to operational efficiency and the interoperability of weapons systems, this structure makes sense. But it’s unlikely that Japan will forfeit complete operational command for the Japan Self-Defense Forces to the US Forces Japan commander. Conversely, the US has complete operational command over the South Korean military in wartime.

In September 2015, the Japanese parliament approved legislation that authorized military action under “three new conditions for ‘use for force’ as measures for self-defense.” One of these conditions is “when an armed attack against Japan occurs, or when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s survival.” 

The “foreign country that is in a closer relationship with Japan” here essentially refers to the US. The legislation effectively authorizes Japan to mobilize its military in an offensive capacity as a supporting force for US-led operations.

Another condition involves a threat that can only be countered by a preemptive attack, or “when there is no other appropriate means available to repel the attack and ensure Japan’s survival and protects its people.”

Effectively, Japan’s “pacifist constitution” that renounced war as a sovereign right has been nullified. It is now capable of engaging militarily with another country.

One of the most urgent threats facing Japan is Chinese military aggression. In the joint leaders’ statement, Biden “reiterated the unwavering commitment of the United States to the defense of Japan under Article V of the Treaty [of Mutual Cooperation and Security], using its full range of capabilities, including nuclear capabilities,” and reaffirmed that this clause applies to the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited island chain that is administered by Japan but claimed by both China and Taiwan.

From Japan’s viewpoint, the agreement is strategically ideal. It gives Tokyo military autonomy while simultaneously granting Japanese forces access to US assets and forces should the occasion arise. The conversation regarding operational and jurisdictional authority over US Forces Japan and the Japan Self-Defense Forces will keep evolving according to various conditions and situations.
Growing opportunity costs for South Korea
The two country’s integrated military system also involves cooperation in military technology and the defense industry.
This is a perfect match for both countries’ interests, as it allows them to increase the interoperability of their weapon systems now as well as in the future, develop advanced weapons, and earn money by exporting munitions.
The US-Japan joint leaders’ statement lists co-development and co-production of cutting-edge technologies such as common jet trainers, development of the Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI) cooperative development program to counter hypersonic threats, bilateral collaboration on a low Earth orbit detection and tracking constellation for missiles, upgrading respective command and control frameworks, and convening a Forum on Defense Industrial Cooperation, Acquisition and Sustainment, or DICAS.
In addition, Biden said he was considering Japan’s participation in AUKUS Pillar II advanced capability projects. While Japan may not be invited to Pillar I, which is concerned with nuclear submarine development, Pillar II regards the development of advanced military capabilities, such as in the artificial intelligence field and autonomous weapons systems, which have become an area of heightened interest these past few years.
The US has used defense industry cooperation to strengthen its alliance with Japan, control over the country militarily, and gain economic benefits from the development, production and sale of weapons. Japan plans to increase its defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product by 2027. Even if the calculations are based on Japan’s 2022 gross domestic product of US$4.2 trillion, that would be more than US$80 billion, some of which will be spent on US weapons.
Japan’s technology and capabilities in the defense industry are among the best in the world. However, due to its policy of being exclusively defense-oriented, a strategy based on passive defense, it has been lacking in important areas, such as offensive missile capabilities. Therefore, in the future, it will buy the weapons it needs first, but gradually move towards independent or joint production.
Japan’s real focus is on breaking into the global arms market, which is at a scale of US$530 billion. In April 2014, Japan established its “three principles of transfer of defense equipment,” which allowed the country to transfer defense equipment under certain conditions.
In March 2023, the Japanese cabinet voted to further relax the principles, allowing for the export of finished equipment. This led to Japan selling Patriot missiles, which had been produced under US license, back to the US.
In terms of global arms market share in 2022, the US is the overwhelming leader with 40%, followed by Russia, France, China and other European countries. South Korea ranks No. 8 with a 2.4% share from its US$17 billion in weapons deals. Now, Japan is on the verge of joining the ranks after starting from zero.
While the US and Japan are upgrading the strength of their alliance by joining hands in military strategy and the defense industry, what is South Korea doing? Although the three countries solemnly swore to pursue a de facto trilateral alliance in August 2023, the specifics of that promise are being controlled by the US and Japan.
Can South Korea stand tall and boast that it is standing shoulder to shoulder with the greatest powers of the free world and transcending the boundaries of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia to the Indo-Pacific and the world?
We need to keep a cool head when analyzing the situation. While the US and Japan are reaping profits while keeping China and North Korea in check, South Korea runs the risk of complicity, and may have to pay hefty opportunity costs.
The situation is becoming increasingly difficult to reverse, especially as Japan’s military rise poses a danger to its ally, South Korea. In his remarks welcoming Kishida to the US on April 10, Biden sang praise while stating that the leaders of South Korea and Japan have “decided to heal old wounds and start a new chapter of friendship.”
We here in Korea have no reason to cheer and dance.

By Moon Jang-nyeol, former professor at Korea National Defense University

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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