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US-Japan alliance must strengthen as tensions rise in Asia, defense experts say

A C-130J Super Hercules assigned to the 36th Airlift Squadron flies over Yokota Air Base, Japan, with Mount Fuji in the background, Jan. 8, 2019.

YASUO OSAKABE/U.S. AIR FORCE

By HANA KUSUMOTO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 22, 2019

TOKYO — Japan needs to further strengthen and evolve its alliance with the United States amid the region’s rapidly changing security environment, Japanese defense officials and other experts agreed Tuesday.

The consensus, which came during a symposium hosted by the nation’s Ministry of Defense in Tokyo, did not include specifics on how the two nations’ longtime alliance should move forward in the face of an increasingly aggressive China and uncertainty over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

However, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, speaking at the opening of the symposium, said his agency chose to review the country’s defense guidelines in December — five years ahead of schedule — because the “severity and uncertainty of the security environment has increased faster than expected when the last guideline was written” in 2014. The guidelines are usually reviewed every 10 years, he said.

Since the 2014 update, Beijing has militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea and stepped up patrols near the Japan-controlled Senkaku islands in the East China Sea that it claims as its own. North Korea performed three underground nuclear tests and test-fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles over Japan, in addition to numerous other launches. The December revision — which calls the U.S. alliance one of the main pillars of Japan’s security policy — points out that the security environment surrounding Japan is changing at “extremely high speeds.” Furthermore, changes in the international balance of power are “becoming more complex, and uncertainty over the existing order is increasing.”

Though the panel did not agree on specifics on how it thinks the nations’ longtime alliance should evolve, Japan has already taken steps to do more in recent years. For example, it passed security legislation in 2015 allowing its Self-Defense Force to defend allies under attack. The next year, it allowed its troops to provide ammunition to U.S. forces, even in nonemergency situations.

“The Japan-U.S. alliance has been the key to our national security,” said Tetsuro Kuroe, special adviser to the National Security Secretariat of Japan. “We have to strengthen it further in the future.”

Professor Narushige Michishita of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies said during the symposium he is not concerned that the U.S.-Japan alliance will weaken.

“The U.S. wants to be the No. 1 country and will not allow China to take over its seat,” he said. “If China seriously wants to compete [economically and militarily], then the U.S. will need Japan.”

Michishita pointed out that it was easy in the past for Japan to balance its position between the U.S. and China since Japanese involvement mainly concerned security issues, such as the dispute over the Senkakus.

However, Michishita said, Japan may need to think how it positions itself between the U.S. and China if competition heats up in either economic activities or the international order.

But most panelists agreed that Japan needs to step up its commitment to the United States.

“Japan has been in a favored system and [its] security policy is based on the fact that this system will continue,” said Hiroyuki Akita, a commentator on foreign affairs and international security at the national financial newspaper Nikkei.

He pointed out that former President Barack Obama, not Trump, said the U.S. will no longer be the policeman of the world.

Akita fears the Trump administration could pull U.S. troops out of the region over the president’s often-stated view that allies should pay more for the American presence.

“This doesn’t change if another president takes over,” he said. American voters elected Trump to office.

“If Japan wants to maintain the alliance, it needs to defend itself where they can and ask for [the U.S.] support in the areas they absolutely need,” Akita said.

Kuroe said Japan must take an even more active role in the alliance.

Also, he said, Japan has shouldered much of the cost to station U.S. forces.

“In some sense they are indebted to us,” he said.

kusumoto.hana@stripes.com
Twitter: @HanaKusumoto

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