By James Holmes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of ‘Red Star over the Pacific’. The views expressed are his alone.
Earlier this month, the news broke that Washington and Tokyo intend to review the longstanding Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation. The guidelines sketch, in broad terms, how the allies plan to respond to common challenges. Meetings will reportedly commence in early December. The two governments last revised the guidelines in 1997, with an eye toward managing crises on the Korean Peninsula. China’s rise to martial eminence has transformed the Asian order since then – leaving the transpacific alliance trailing behind new strategic realities. Here’s one guy’s list of topics for alliance managers to explore, in ascending order of importance:
5. The northern axis. While the alliance has understandably turned its attention and energies southward toward China, Tokyo and Washington should cast the occasional glance to the north. Russia has made noises about reclaiming its heritage as a Far Eastern naval power, using the Sea of Okhotsk as a platform for operations in the Pacific Ocean. Should global-warming forecasts pan out, meanwhile, navigable Arctic sea routes may open and close intermittently each year as polar ice retreats and expands. A new inland sea, however mercurial in nature, would transform Eurasian geopolitics. These developments warrant attention to such geographic features as the Bering Strait, the entryway from the Pacific to the Arctic, and to the Aleutian and Kuril island chains, which are well positioned to regulate access to the two oceans.
4. Combined anti-access measures. Beijing has premised its maritime strategy on fending off U.S. Navy forces based at Hawaii or the West Coast while slowing or stopping the movements of allied assets already deployed in the Western Pacific. But the U.S.-Japan alliance can fashion an “anti-access/area-denial” strategy of its own, barring China’s navy from operating grounds in the China seas and Western Pacific. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has devoted enormous effort to offensive submarine and mine warfare to hold allied navies at bay. Curiously, though, it has neglected anti-submarine and counter-mine-warfare doctrine and hardware. The U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) should exploit these blind spots. Allied commanders should devise joint measures for assailing shipping passing up and down the Asian seaboard while closing the straits through the Ryukyu Islands and the Japanese home islands. Mutual sea denial would translate into mutual deterrence if the allies prosecute anti-access strategy effectively.
3. Hardened bases. My colleague Toshi Yoshihara has demonstrated unequivocally that naval and military bases such as Yokosuka and Sasebo – the facilities that anchor the American presence in East Asia – are naked to air and missile assault, and that Chinese strategists avidly plan to exploit this oversight should war come. The allies must protect against preemptive attack. That could mean dispersing forces among more sites, building small yet still lethal patrol craft in large numbers, constructing shelters able to withstand strikes from the air, digging into Japan’s rough coastal terrain – or all of the above. Defensible bases will come neither cheap nor easy. But dial up “Yokosuka” in Google Earth and zoom in. You can enjoy a nice view of U.S. and JMSDF warships sitting at their berths while glimpsing how exposed allied forces are to surprise attack. Offsetting that vulnerability should rank high on the allies’ to-do list.
2. An end to free-riding. Tokyo cannot escape lifting its self-imposed cap on defense spending, which has stood at 1 percent of GDP for decades. This is an unserious commitment for a nation that inhabits a tough neighborhood like the Far East. It breeds unhealthy dependence on the United States for the archipelago’s defense. Tripling the defense budget to a still-modest 3 percent of GDP would empower Japan to shield its military bases, develop sea-denial capabilities, and guard its northern as well as western and southwestern flanks. Americans, furthermore, are generally willing to help those who help themselves. By helping itself, Japan can improve the chances of the United States’ rendering aid against China – and incurring the economic and diplomatic hazards of such a venture. Allied concord would take an upturn as Japanese military capabilities improved. U.S. representatives should impress upon their Japanese counterparts the relationship between Tokyo’s strategic vitality and the common defense.
1. Disparate worldviews. U.S. and Japanese emissaries must recognize and work around the vagaries of alliance politics. Strategist Carl von Clausewitz observes that all politics is local. The value a nation assigns its political aims determines how many lives and how much treasure it’s willing to expend on behalf of those aims, and for how long. But allies—no matter how friendly or like-minded—never set identical goals or make identical strategic calculations. Writes Clausewitz, you never attach as much value to someone else’s cause as to your own. Frankly acknowledging that America prizes, say, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands less than Japan does, and thus will defend the islands less fervently, will bolster the quality of consultations over the defense guidelines. Absent such candor, the transpacific alliance could fray in times of duress.