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Blinken and Austin in Japan to Bolster Asian Allies

The Biden administration wants to prod Japan more on defense and resolve tensions between Tokyo and Seoul.

U.S. President Joe Biden, flanked by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken
U.S. President Joe Biden, flanked by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left), at the White House on March 1. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

TOKYO—U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Japan on Monday for high-level meetings with their counterparts, an early move from the Biden administration to both signal resolve toward a resurgent China and reassure U.S. allies after four tumultuous years of the Trump administration.

“Our combined power makes us stronger when we must push back against China’s aggression and threats,” Blinken and Austin wrote in a joint Washington Post op-ed, citing human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, and China’s pushback on freedoms in Taiwan and Hong Kong. “If we don’t act decisively and lead, Beijing will.”

Ahead of the so-called 2+2 visit of the countries’ respective foreign and defense secretaries, the Biden administration extended the agreement to house U.S. troops in Japan for one year and in South Korea for five more years. Senior defense officials on the trip have signaled the U.S. delegation plans to be in listening mode in Tokyo, as both nations are conducting strategy reviews. 

But behind the scenes, there is growing concern about how to nudge a politically wary Japan to boost its missile defenses, while hardening the U.S. presence that’s increasingly vulnerable to improving Chinese missiles.

“It remains to be seen if that concentration [of U.S. troops] there will be able to suffice with a growing Chinese threat,” said Heino Klinck, who until January was the U.S. Defense Department’s top official for East Asia. “I certainly would advocate for a more robust discussion between the U.S. and Japan. It’s exceptionally urgent.” 

Japan, an American treaty ally for more than 60 years, is home to 54,000 U.S. troops, most of them housed at large installations on Honshu, Kyushu, and Okinawa. As these are the main U.S. forces likely to respond to any Chinese provocation in the Western Pacific, there are concerns that a single strike could kill scores of American troops. 

Under former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who sought sweeping changes to the Japanese Constitution, Japan appeared to have growing momentum for bigger defense budgets and a more forward-leaning defense policy. But that trend has been threatened by a year of economic instability during the COVID-19 pandemic and Abe’s departure from office for health reasons last September. His successor and close ally, the soft-spoken Yoshihide Suga, isn’t as committed to Abe’s defense reforms. Still, some want to see the United States continue to apply pressure on the Japanese to increase their defense budget, especially after China recently announced plans to increase military spending by nearly 7 percent this year.

“My advice would be to push them until they say no,” said a former senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “To the extent that we can get the Japanese to do more, that can be a very powerful multiplier effect.”

Japan already has Aegis-class destroyers equipped with SM-3 missiles offshore, which the United States helped develop, and is a co-producer in the F-35 program. But last June, Tokyo canceled delivery of the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile system, a shore-based missile-defense system, pushing instead to develop a domestically produced solution. That’s another area where the Pentagon may press the Japanese.

“We are concerned,” said a current senior defense official. “We want to make sure we know what the timeline is. We’re committed to their defense as well. … What they do or don’t do affects our ability to help them with the integrated defense of the island nation.”

Other experts are more skeptical of missile defense systems, even Aegis, which can intercept rockets just before they reenter the atmosphere with a miniaturized warhead. “It’s really hard to hit a bullet with a bullet,” said James Holmes, a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College.

During the Cold War, the United States protected planes at West German airfields with reinforced concrete bunkers to prepare for potential missile launches from a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. South Korea, with a nuclear-armed northern neighbor, has also done a better job of hardening the bases housing 28,500 U.S. troops, the current senior defense official said, while U.S. installations in Japan have gotten comparatively little protection.

“We have this cognitive dissonance right now where we don’t necessarily have all of these hardened structures in our bases, places, [and] installations,” the senior defense official said. “Japan knows that too. They’re concerned about their aprons, their runways, their fuel facilities, their ammunition depots.”

Further clouding the picture of a unified regional front to deal with China, as Blinken and Austin noted on Monday, are lingering tensions between Japan and South Korea dating back more than 100 years to Tokyo’s forced occupation of the peninsula, which flared up again two years ago in the form of a trade war. In 2019 the two countries formalized the continuation of a military intelligence-sharing pact. Given the scope of challenges in Northeast Asia, the East China Sea, and the rest of the Western Pacific, U.S. officials are eager to prod their two allies into closer cooperation.

“We think that it’s important that Japan and Korea look at ways to resolve their differences,” a second senior defense official said. “We certainly don’t ask anyone to forget the past, but on the defense and security side, it’s all about looking towards the future.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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