Don’t Let the U.S.-Japanese Alliance Get Out of Shape
Joint military exercises have kept the relationship strong despite Trump, but that could soon change.
YAKIMA, Washington—Gunfire rang out as U.S. and Japanese troops descended on a small village. Unloading from their armored vehicles, they poured into alleyways and set up security positions. The soldiers moved carefully, methodically clearing out buildings before going to the next position as they looked for enemy forces. The maneuvers felt real, but in truth, they were part of the annual training exercise, Rising Thunder, that brings U.S. soldiers and members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) to the Yakima Training Center in Washington state.
The U.S. Army first began using these training grounds in the 1940s, when it leased the land to prepare soldiers to fight against the Japanese military. In those days, the wide-open terrain was ideal for artillery drills for U.S. troops training to defend the United States’ coastlines and fight Japanese forces in the Pacific.
This time around, the two nations were working together as allies. As soldiers cleared buildings, officers explained that the U.S. Army has been putting increasing attention on training for potential battles in densely populated megacities, which military planners worry could pose major challenges in future wars. The exercise wrapped up on Sept. 14, and each side hopefully left with a better understanding of the other’s tactics and equipment for such future missions.
For many decades, Japan, which is home to several U.S. military bases and is a key trading partner, has been one of Washington’s closest allies. They share common concerns about China’s territorial assertiveness and North Korean nuclear ambitious.
But things have been more strained since U.S. President Donald Trump was elected and could grow even more so after Trump meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this month to discuss trade policy. In a recent call with a Wall Street Journal columnist, Trump claimed to have a good relationship with the Japanese leader but added: “Of course that will end as soon as I tell them how much they have to pay.”
This wouldn’t be the first time a meeting between the two men ended in discomfort. According to the Washington Post, Trump surprised Abe during an otherwise pleasant meeting in June when he declared, “I remember Pearl Harbor,” before launching into a tirade about trade relations between the two countries. During the 2016 campaign, Trump questioned the value of the U.S.-Japanese alliance and suggested withdrawing all U.S. troops from country unless Tokyo agreed to pay vast sums of money.
On the flip side, Japanese officials have also expressed frustration with the White House’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Abe reportedly told Trump that it would be unwise to suspend joint training between U.S. and South Korean troops, a concession that Trump readily made in his face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Japanese officials have also been exasperated with the White House’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and impose stiff tariffs on steel and other goods.
However, even as diplomats and elected officials on both sides of the Pacific have tested one another, the relationship between Japanese and U.S. military professionals remains strong. Many of them have known and worked with each other for years. Maj. Gen. Willard Burleson, the commander of the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Division, chalked it up to the training. “Through exercises like Rising Thunder, we are able to engage in genuine and sincere human interactions that are critical to maintaining strong bonds and building trust,” he said.
Despite a language barrier, Japanese and U.S. soldiers in Yakima laughed and joked with each other between rounds of practice—and sometimes during. “I like to think it’s kind of like a culture of soldiers that has a lot of overlap,” Spc. Richard Caldwell said. “We’ve actually been laughing to ourselves about how similar the Japanese soldiers and our soldiers are in terms of mannerisms and just overall personality traits.”
The infantrymen value strength, aggressiveness, and initiative. They also value reliability—knowing that a comrade will have their backs regardless of where they’re from. “They’re an extremely professional army,” Lt. Col. Donald Neal, a seasoned infantry officer who previously deployed with the elite 2nd Ranger Battalion, said, speaking about the Japanese forces. “They’re here for the same reason we’re here.”
One of the soldiers working on bridging the language barrier was Staff Sgt. Lucas Miller, a fluent Japanese speaker who had been called in from his regular duty station in Alaska. Miller’s paternal grandfather served in the Pacific as a U.S. Marine and his maternal grandfather as a colonel in the Imperial Japanese Army. “At the time, in the 1940s, they would not have imagined that I could be serving in the U.S. Army, working side by side with the [Japan] Ground Self-Defense Force,” Miller said.
It is not surprising that there is so much overlap between the two armed forces. Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 constitution—written by U.S. officials during the country’s military occupation of Japan—officially forbids Tokyo from maintaining “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.” However, when many of the U.S. troops that had been stationed in Japan left to fight the Korean War—which made Japan potentially exposed to Soviet military action—Japanese and U.S. leaders were hesitant to leave the country vulnerable. They came to agree that Article 9 didn’t mean Tokyo couldn’t have weapons for self-defense.
By the 1950s, the United States began shipping warplanes and other military hardware to Japan. The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) became a de facto military that drew upon both the country’s martial lineage and U.S. expertise. In 1956, the JSDF began training its own elite Rangers after two JGDSF officers attended the U.S. Army’s Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Japanese firms also began rebuilding an arms industry and designing weapons of their own.
Today, for an organization that’s not technically meant to wage war, the JSDF is a formidable force. Japan has more troops than the German military and more warships than the French Navy. It’s arguably one of the world’s largest and best-equipped armed forces, even if it’s not an officially battle-proven one.
But Japanese troops have deployed around the globe—often working closely with the U.S. military and its allies. JGSDF troops, for example, participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom with a controversial deployment of troops to Samawah in southern Iraq from 2004 to 2006. For legal reasons, Japanese forces in Iraq mainly focused on humanitarian efforts, such as setting up water purification systems, and were supposed to stay clear of combat zones. Although Japanese forces suffered no fatalities, records released this year indicate that they at times strayed into potentially dangerous combat zones and endured rocket attacks during their mission.
Similarly, in 2009, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force deployed ships and aircraft to join international anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Two Japanese P-3 Orion patrol aircraft operated out of the U.S. military’s Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti until 2011, when Japan opened its first permanent overseas base—the Japan Self-Defense Force Base Djibouti. The base played a key role in a 2016 JSDF mission to evacuate Japanese citizens from South Sudan—a country where Japanese troops have deployed as U.N. peacekeepers. In 2017, the Chinese military opened its own base in Djibouti, putting it just miles away from Japanese forces.
Some of Japan’s neighbors have decidedly mixed feelings about the JSDF venturing outside of its area. Bitter memories of the Japanese Empire’s brutal conquest of Asia and the Pacific still linger. For instance, South Korea regularly criticizes Japan for not adequately owning up to war crimes, especially sexual violence against Korean women. U.S. diplomats have in the past urged Japanese officials to refrain from public visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a site that honors Japan’s war dead—including several convicted war criminals.
However, the Trump administration appears to broadly approve of Japan’s military aspirations. While White House trade policies are disrupting several global industries, defense industry ties across the Pacific are still booming. Japan’s military budget for the 2019 fiscal year is set to include a 70 percent increase in purchases of U.S. weapons systems from last year.
For now, military relations will likely continue to be smooth, since the two countries face a common threat. While U.S. and Japanese troops were training in the dusty Yakima desert this year, Chinese troops joined the Russian military for Vostok 2018—the largest military exercise in over 30 years. It’s not the first time that Russian and Chinese troops have trained together, but it’s been one of the most comprehensive joint exercises between the two nations in years. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the training exercise on Sept. 11 as a guest of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
China is particularly interested in learning from the Russian military, which has been getting combat experience in recent years in Ukraine and Syria. “The Russian army has a very vast experience in conducting practical combat operations and powerful combat capability,” Chinese Maj. Gen. Shao Yuanming told journalists covering the massive exercise. “And for us it’s been very useful to learn from the Russian army and get this very valuable experience.” According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Russia and China will now hold joint exercises on a regular basis.
U.S. military leaders, who view both China and Russia as top threats, have viewed deepening ties between the two powers with alarm. And for Japan, the situation is perhaps even more perilous. Tokyo and Beijing have both accused the other of ratcheting up military tensions. In 2010, Japan announced a new strategy to check Chinese moves in the Pacific that would shift more Japanese forces to islands around Okinawa and increase the size of its submarine fleet. The document called Beijing’s rapid military modernization “a matter of concern for the region and the international community” and encouraged closer cooperation with Australia, India, South Korea, and the United States.
Both China and Japan have become much more assertive in their respective claims over islands and waterways in the Pacific. The Chinese military has gone so far as to build man-made islands for troops and equipment—to the harsh condemnation of both Japan and the United States. Meanwhile, in 2015, the Japanese parliament voted to reinterpret its constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight overseas if the deployment involved “collective defense” of its allies. Now, as Abe seeks another term as prime minister, he’s floating the prospect of further amendments to the constitution to clarify the legal status of Japan’s defense forces.
Joint exercises with the United States may prepare Japanese forces for a day when they face fewer restrictions. According to some Japanese troops I spoke with, out in the Washingtonian desert they’re able to let loose and train in something much closer to combat conditions than they can back home. “In Japan, when we do an urban assault course, it’s really hard for us to use live rounds because of regulations,” said 1st Lt. Ryusuke Okada, a JGSDF platoon leader. “Over here, it’s more lenient, and we can train just like the Americans.”
After each simulated operation, Japanese and U.S. soldiers quickly began discussing what went right, what went wrong, and how they could work together better.
“We don’t always at all times grasp that what we’re doing is on a global scale. You’re working internationally, and you can go anywhere in the world and work with anyone, and you need to be prepared to do that,” Caldwell said. “So, for myself, it’s really been a great opportunity to see the bigger picture.”
The Japanese government is currently mulling the possibility of deploying troops to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as part of a U.S.-led peacekeeping force. Despite trade turmoil and unpredictable Twitter diplomacy, Japanese and U.S. military interests remain tightly intertwined. The trick will be keeping the forces close, too.