Will Japan fight? | The Economist
THE ROAR of the Japanese F-35 fighter jets over Misawa, in northern Japan, are terrifying. At the base, which houses the Japanese and American forces, pilots from both countries practice flying together. The threat of war with China against Taiwan has made these arrangements more urgent. Japan plans to double its defense budget by 2027 and acquire long-range missiles to complement its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) stronger. But it has not fired a shot in battle since 1945. Will Japan fight?
Geography puts Japan on the front line: its westernmost island is 111km from Taiwan. A conflict may be less likely if China believes thatin in Japan, like to enter into a conflict with China. If war breaks out, keeping Taiwan from falling may depend on Japanese support and firepower. “Japan is the linchpin,” concluded a recent war game by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. At the very least, America would have to use its bases in Japan. And if the Japanese forces were engaged in combat, success would be much more likely.
If a crisis around Taiwan were to happen, “there’s no way Japan won’t be involved,” says Otsuka Taku, a lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. In such a situation, “we will fight with the US. ” But the extent of that involvement is less clear. Much like America, Japan maintains uncertainty about its potential role. Unlike America, Japan has no legal commitment to help Taiwan defend itself. Despite strong talk from politicians, Japan’s official policies towards the island have not changed. It is a mistake to interpret their security policy reforms “to mean that Japan is completely involved in fighting in Taiwan,” says Christopher Johnstone, a former an American security official.
In wartime, the alliance between America and Japan would have several tests. If America were to come to the defense of Taiwan – almost a given – it would need permission from Japan to use its bases there, which house 54,000 American troops. Would Japan agree? Perhaps China is offering not to harm Japan if she refuses. But America would remind Japan of the long-term consequences. “If we don’t say yes, the alliance is over,” said Kanehara Nobukatsu, a former Japanese official.
Then Japan had to decide whether to act. It is likely that the Diet, Japan’s parliament, would at least consider the situation a “significant effect”, a legal designation that allows non-combat aid, such as providing fuel, care medical and logistical support. It would be more difficult to join the fight. The SDF allowed to use force if Japan itself is attacked. These powers would be used if China fired missiles at American bases in Japan, or launched a simultaneous attack on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which Japan controls but which China to say A law passed in 2015 also allows the use of force if another country is attacked and the Diet deems it a “survival threat” to Japan. This construction makes it easy, with political will. enough, to bring out the case sDF. But it also creates every opportunity not to be.
If Japan decided to fight, it would have to choose where and in what capacity. Japanese law limits the use of force to the “minimum necessary”. Planners see Japan largely as the shield to America’s spear – protecting its own territory and American institutions, freeing America to take on China. “Japan is taking care of itself, and America is protecting Taiwan,” said Kawano Katsutoshi, Japan’s former chief of staff. That could include sending the diesel-powered submarines to choke points in the East China Sea. But that may not mean entering the Taiwan Strait. Even so, Japanese and American forces would have to work around each other, especially in the air, says Zack Cooper of the American Enterprise Institute, another think tank in Washington.
The alliance between Japan and America was not designed for such a fight. Japan was seen less as a military partner than as a platform from which America could project power, as it did during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Unlike the NATO charter, which includes the principle of collective defense, the US-Japan Security Treaty of 1960 requires America to protect Japan in exchange for bases in the country, but not the other way around. Japanese and American soldiers have parallel chains of command. This is unlike America’s alliance with South Korea, where the forces respond to a single unified command that includes the mantra “fight tonight”.
It was necessary to be ready to fight to reform the institutions of the alliance. The lack of a unified American-Japanese command means that the forces respond to different sets of orders and follow different rules of engagement. Military units have found ways to work together. At Misawa, a rare example of a joint base, pilots from both countries can synchronize in the air. But if missiles are flying, both forces will need a way to synchronize their “sensors” and “shooters” at scale. “We need more effective and real-time situational awareness,” said retired Lt Gen Isobe Koichi.
Experts are looking for models. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, a think tank, recently studied examples, including the command structure used by America and Britain during World War II and multinational operations against drugs in the Caribbean. “The Americans and the Japanese have to work shoulder to shoulder, even if they don’t have a unified command,” said Jeffrey Hornung of the Scottish Task Force. VERSE Corporate, another think tank.
Japan plans to create a permanent joint headquarters, which is expected to rival America’s Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). But that can take years. America must also make changes: United States Forces Japan, America’s headquarters in the country, has the power to manage the alliance and keep troops ready, but it has no real operational role. The American war leaders at this time inDOPACOM, far away in Hawaii. Coordination with Japanese forces will be difficult if Tokyo is attacked, and doubly so if America’s own communications are reduced.
And any proposed changes will run counter to political realities. Japan fears America’s abandonment, but is wary of over-involvement. The Prime Minister of Japan, Kishida Fumio, has assured the Diet that he is not considering sharing leadership authority, or transferring it to America.
Polling finds strong support for the alliance in Japan. But the public is still against a more active military role for the SDF. One survey offered respondents three choices about how to react to a conflict between America and China: 27% said the SDF he should not work with America at all; 56% said they should limit themselves to backfield support; and only 11% said Japan should fight alongside America. “No one knows the truth” about how such options would play out, says Michishita Narushige of the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo. If Japan and America are forced to find out, they will have already failed. ■