Top 5 ways to upgrade the U.S.-Japan alliance
November 26th, 2012
10:52 AM ET

Top 5 ways to upgrade the U.S.-Japan alliance

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.

More from GPS: Why Asia is arguing over its islands

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.

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Topics: Asia • China • East Asia • Japan • Military

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Frangible

    "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."

    So we'd be vulnerable with our ships just sitting there exposed to a surprise attack on say... December 7th?

    November 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • ComSenseWiz

      Whatever as long as it is crystal clear that all strategic adjustments by the USA are within the necessary reduction in total military expenditures. In other words, we pay less while all allies must pay much more so that military expenditures among allies are similar relative to each country's GDP.

      November 26, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  2. c s

    What a war-mongering article this is!!! So China is going to start a war with it biggest market? For what reason, so that their factories have no customers? I realize that China and US has differences but this article make it seem as though the US and China are on the verge of war. The more belligerent the US is towards China, the more China will be more defensive in turn. The idea that China wants a war is ridiculous.

    The US has military assets all around China. How would the US feel if the reverse was happening. How would the US feel to have a Chinese fleet permanently off the west coast? Or if China had military base in Mexico and Canada? It is China that feels threatened, not the US. The fact that the Chinese military is getting stronger is not by itself a reason to put more military force around China. What is needed is diplomatic action so the Chinese can feel that they are less threaten not more. A peace treaty to allow the transition of Taiwan back to China would go along way to achieving it. The treaty could be modeled on the transition that worked for Hong Kong. The treaty would allow US bases in Taiwan for a long period of time period like a 100 years. At the end of the 100 years, Taiwan would revert to China and all US bases would be removed. This would allow the Chinese to regain control of Taiwan and the 100 year transition would allow China and Taiwan to work out their political differences. The model of Hong Kong could be use to resolve these differences.

    November 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • GonzoinHouston

      China is actively engaged in expansion through economic manipulation, military intimidation, and cyber-warfare. They are more than willing to use force whenever they think they can get away with it. As for war with their "largest customer", never forget that they are still a glorified dictatorship. We may be in business together, but that doesn't automatically make us friends.

      November 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • irunner

      Do the Chinese really need Taiwan? Do the Taiwanese really want to be under Chinese authority again? I think not...

      November 26, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Tony

      Hey CS, there are no US bases in Taiwan. You just lost all credibility. You are speaking from emotion with no regards to the facts.

      November 26, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
      • Dogstar2

        Spot on, Tony!

        November 26, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
      • MICKY

        US doesn't need any base in Taiwan because it has been used as proxy. If not US won't be trying to supply weapons and help Taiwan to upgrade their weapons. US is just another wolf in sheep clothing instigating others to start a war and will have no hesistation to use proxy war in Asia

        December 3, 2012 at 12:55 am |
    • Adam

      What if the people of Taiwan don't want to be part of China (like their ancestors clearly did not). They've been essentially independent for over 60 years now

      November 27, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  3. 4JULY1776

    Every measure recommended in this article would cost money.

    Therefore we should not do any of them.

    It is much more important to expand the welfare state and increase handouts such as free doctor visits than it is to provide for the defense of our country or our allies.

    Hardening our air bases to defend them from attacks? No way! I want another block of government cheese, thank you very much!

    November 26, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • c s

      Let the Republicans raise the taxes on the rich to pay for more military spending. Oh I forgot, the real leader of the Republican party forbids it. So go ask Norquist to allow the Republicans to pay for more defense spending instead of putting it on the Chinese credit card.

      November 26, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
      • palintwit

        Better yet, let's not raise taxes on anybody, and tell the foreigner to go jump in the lake.

        November 26, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Jason

      Even Cuba has a better health care system than the USA and their dirt poor. You are a low life who puts your money ahead of your fellow country men's health. We're not talking free steak and lobster handouts here, we're talking doctor visits, medicine, you know things that keep people alive. Perhaps if you help your welfare state become a working state instead of just throwing them under a bus your time would be better spent than complaining about handouts. All those laid off NASA workers need a handout to get back on their feet. Should we throw them under the bus too? You're a scrooge with a heart of stone who knows nothing of what you're talking about.

      November 26, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  4. Chan

    Exactly there is a small but alarming number of people who think we are going to fight or that they want to invade lol.... These people know nothing of how diplomacy or the world really works beyond their hourly job and taxes.
    Its a simply fact of biting off the hand that feeds you... Irony being we would be 6' under as a country already if not for their help. But hey that in itself is some evil trojan horse plot right? Chinese are not a warmonger country; we are. they fuss over 2 locations that have been in their territory for 1000s of years and we blow up in rage? Yet we are invading an entire landmass... Actually 2; we have massive efforts being undertaken cia mercs, UN etc in Africa right now also...

    I laugh because here and there some nobody extremist in China supposedly in the military talks about invading or fighting us yet its a baseless. That would be like a member of the KKK or black panther party representing all of the US.

    They are opening factory's here now and buying land... Yell at your Gov people not them if you have issues with this. Its Americans allowing your so called under table invasion to happen. Not some great Chinese conspiracy.

    Americans often forget the Chinese have been here as long as they have...

    I favor no side; its just fact...

    November 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  5. BJJSchecter

    I know that nuking them again will not work.

    November 26, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  6. Carl

    This indian guy always writes articles again China, for his own nation, India

    November 26, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Stuart

      Did you even read who wrote the article? James Holmes does not sound Indian to me.

      November 26, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  7. j. von hettlingen

    The New York Times reported on J apan's activities in Southeast Asia. It took part in joined ventures and exercises with the Philippines and Vietnam. A decade ago, it was highly unimaginable for these countries to turn to their former aggressor for help.

    November 27, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Indeed, Russia hasn't forgotten its backyard in the Pacific northeast. In fact it wants to upgrade the infrastructure in Wladiwostok and keep an eye on China and the US. Sarah Palin would do a wonderful job to keep track of what the Russians do from her kitchen window in Alaska.

      November 27, 2012 at 8:49 am |
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