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The Sun Rises over the Shining Sea: Bolstering US-Japan Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

What is happening?

On April 10, US President Joe Biden hosted a US-Japan summit in Washington, DC, with the participation of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The long-awaited meeting took place amid a growing military threat from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and heightened tensions in the Indo-Pacific region. The following day, the leaders also met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. These exchanges gave rise to high expectations from the global community. According to many commentators, the summit could signal a significant shift in relations between the individual states, particularly in terms of security cooperation, and thus significantly strengthen the multilayered network of ad-hoc alliances that the US has sought to build for years to contain the growing influence and power of the PRC.


What is the broader picture?

Kishida’s cabinet has been significantly increasing the defense budget for several years. In 2027, defense spending is expected to reach 2% of Japan’s GDP by 2027. Tokyo invested massively in the production of new intelligent weapon systems, strengthened multilateral cooperation on deterrence and containment of the PRC, significantly revised its national security strategy, and announced extensive investments in counterstrike capability by purchasing long-range missiles. Significantly, these actions diverged Japan from the so-called Yoshida Doctrine adopted in 1951. Kishida also seeks to profile Japan not solely as a harbor for American aircraft carriers, but as a reliable multilateral partner in addressing global and regional security challenges.

In this context, Biden and Kishida concluded about 70 new agreements, which is an unprecedented result, considering that during similar summits, the number of the accords reached is usually about a quarter of that number. The US-Japan cooperation is also expected to bring tangible economic results, as both leaders announced billion-dollar foreign direct investments (FDIs). Additionally, the two sides will deepen academic collaboration and joint research activities in the field of advanced technologies, pursue closer cooperation in renewable energy and addressing the climate crisis, and facilitate the participation of Japanese scientists and astronauts in future NASA Artemis or Dragonfly missions. As a result, one of the Japanese astronauts will likely become the first non-American to walk on the lunar surface or ride in a pressurized lunar rover developed by the Japanese side specifically for the Artemis mission.

However, the most critical of the newly adopted measures by far is security cooperation and the reform of joint defense command and control mechanisms, precisely in the context of the Chinese and North Korean threats. As Japan becomes an increasingly capable military actor, Washington and Tokyo urgently need to build new structures suitable for supporting joint military operations, not only in the case of a large-scale military conflict or the US intervention in the potential defense of Taiwan but especially as a means of deterring a potential adversary from any military action against the Japanese islands. The defense cooperation between the United States and Japan currently lacks institutional mechanisms, such as the unified command of allied forces within NATO. For historical reasons, this unifying chain of command is absent in the US-Japan defense pact. It is different within the US alliance with South Korea, which has a joint headquarters led by a four-star American general, represented by a four-star general of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces. In an event of war, these joined commanders would jointly supervise the specific subordinate units.

Biden therefore plans to create a new command and control mechanism in Japan –  new operational headquarters, led by a four-star US general, will subordinate the US Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army in Japan to a unified command structure. The new institution will be established in close coordination with the Japanese side, which has already announced the establishment of its own new Japan Joint Operations Command (J-JOC) by March next year, to be commanded by a Japanese general of the same rank and serving as a counterpart to the American officer.


Why is it important?

The new measures which the US and Japan pursue to strengthen their security and defense cooperation should significantly facilitate the coordination between both allies during joint military exercises and streamline the planning and conduct of military operations in case of any regional escalation. Given that the US military doctrine sees parallel allied command and control structures as inappropriate, we can expect deeper integration of the two command structures towards a single chain of command and control, following the example of the US-South Korea alliance. This new trajectory remains politically sensitive, however. The Japanese public fears that their country will be drawn into a conflict. After the meeting, Biden said, “This is the most significant upgrade in our alliance since it was first established.” This statement needs to be taken with a grain of salt, especially considering the security treaty revisions made in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, the announced changes undoubtedly represent a historic step towards strengthening the mutual defense of both allies and maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region through a trajectory outlined by the United States in its Indo-Pacific strategy two years ago.