The USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and units from the Maritime Self-Defense Force and Australian Defence Force participate in trilateral military exercises in the Philippine Sea, July 2020. | U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Tarleton.

U.S., Japan, and the Quad: Mr. Trump, Stick to What’s Important

Japan must do far more to defend itself

Something important is afoot if Secretary of State Mike Pompeo goes to Tokyo while his boss is in the hospital – however reluctantly – with the coronavirus.

Secretary Pompeo cancelled planned stops in Mongolia and Seoul, but kept Tokyo on the itinerary in order to attend a meeting of the foreign ministers of the so-called “Quad”. This is the not-quite alliance of Japan, United States, Australia, and India that aims improve four-way cooperation to further the FOIP – Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Nobody will say it bluntly but it’s all about defending against Chinese expansionism.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Quad’s most visible progress has been on the security front.

Over the last few years military exercises and engagements between the four nations have markedly expanded. India invited Australia to participate along with the U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force in the Malabar naval Exercise for the first time in 13 years. Japan and Australia signed logistics support agreements with India, while Japan and Australia signed a similar pact, and are on the verge of inking a Status of Forces Agreement to allow Australian forces to someday operate in Japan. No small feat.

The Americans and the Indians are getting along better than anyone remembers – with at-sea replenishment between US and Indian naval ships taking place almost unremarked. And for the first time, a U.S. Navy anti-submarine aircraft stopped for refueling in Port Blair in India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands last month. Indian forces are welcome to stop by Guam and Diego Garcia anytime they like.

The Quad is about creating useful allies and alliances.  Mr. Trump and his team deserve credit for progress to date.

But a challenge is coming as early as this week when the Americans and Japanese restart negotiations over ‘host nation support’ – the money Japan pays the United States to defray the cost of U.S. forces in Japan.

Instead of hitting up Japan for more money, the Trump administration (or a Biden administration if things come to that) might better push for Japan becoming a more useful ally.

Japan currently pays the Americans about $2 billion a year under the so-called Special Measures Agreement (SMS). Mr. Trump has reportedly instructed his people to demand $8 billion.

A price of $8 billion for protection by the world’s most powerful military is a bargain. Indeed, call up Lloyds of London and ask for an insurance policy giving the sort of coverage the Americans currently provide.

It might require an up-front outlay from Japan of nearly $100 billion, and a doubling of Japanese defense spending from about $50 billion to $100 annually for the foreseeable future.

Tokyo doesn’t want to pay even five cents more for the Americans and reckons even $2 billion is too much. (Any future administration should take notice). Such negotiations will be acrimonious. The Americans will get nowhere near $6 billion more and the ill will on both sides will be long lasting.

But the headaches and resentment are avoidable.

Few people remember that the idea of “host nation support” for U.S. forces originated some years back from the U.S. side.

Nervous American officials decided it was better to ask Japan to chip in money (and be perceived as money-grubbing mercenaries) rather than asking Japan to improve Japan Self Defense Force capabilities. The Americans wanted to avoid provoking the Chinese.

Washington was wrong on all counts. Both sides still complain about money, the JSDF can’t fight very well and the Chinese are as angry as ever.

So here’s an idea:  Abolish the Special Measures Agreement. America doesn’t need another $6 billion from Tokyo. Or even $60 billion.

American forces need extra combat power – which is the basic reason for the Quad – not more money. And that means they need a Self Defense Force that can fight and bolster U.S. forces in Northeast Asia and farther afield in Asia.

American forces are overstretched and in some cases already overmatched by the expanding and improving Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

The Self Defense Force can’t fight? Then why is it rated the world’s fifth most powerful military according to Global Firepower’s 2020 Military Strength Ranking?

On paper the JSDF is indeed impressive and it puts on lovely demonstrations. But except for the Maritime Self Defense Force – the Japanese navy – it has little fighting ability.

This is no fault of its own. Rather, successive governments have consciously tried to emasculate and restrain JSDF development

One U.S. military officer summed things up earlier this year:

“The JSDF’s value was and remains that of a force-in-being, much as Napoleon’s navy was. As long as it exists, potential adversaries must take it into account. It is of enormous geopolitical importance, but of little use tactically or operationally.”

The officer made an exception for the “gallant” naval force “because they are, in all but name, an integral part of [the U.S.] 7th Fleet and largely ignore whatever the rest of Ichigaya [Ministry of Defense] says! I have no doubt they’d fight.”

Hyperbole?  Unfortunately not.

The JSDF is unable to conduct joint operations among its component forces, a prerequisite for any effective military. Thus, it is less than the sum of its parts.  Imagine the U.S. military if the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps could not operate together.

Adversaries would be far less frightened. If Japan really is the fifth most powerful military in the world, one imagines numbers six through whatever must really have problems.

Although the JSDF has bought expensive F35s and has been jury-rigging a couple of ships to upgrade them to “aircraft carriers,” JSDF hardware is a mishmash acquired with little thought of buying or developing what’s needed for a coherent defense.

And while Japan has fighters, destroyers and other shiny objects aplenty, it still lacks a radio with which the three JSDF services can talk to each other.

And besides JSDF services not being able to operate with each other, Japanese and U.S. forces, except for the Japanese and American navies, and to a degree in the missile defense arena, can’t operate together as needed to take on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

The JSDF has missed its recruiting targets by 20%-25% for years. It’s still not a respected profession in Japan. Morale matters.

As for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (and now Prime Minister Suga) increasing defense spending as Japanese officials boast: He has, but in the decade before he took office Japan reduced defense spending every year.

So in Abe’s eight years he has managed to increase spending by perhaps 15%.  Compared with the defense budget nearly two decades ago, 15% is not much. The threats facing Japan (and the U.S.) these days in Asia have gone up a lot more than 15%.

As for it being politically difficult for Japan to do more, maybe. But the U.S. (Japan’s only ally) has some political difficulties too. Especially if the Japanese say:

“Since it is politically difficult, we refuse to increase spending to attract enough recruits to fully man the JSDF and properly train and equip it. But we expect you Americans to come fully manned, armed and trained to defend us and die for us.”

That is not a vote getter in Washington DC. So If Mr. Trump really wants to improve things, he might tell Tokyo:

“Keep your money. But JSDF had better shape up. Spend more on your own forces – and figure out what Japan needs to defend itself. And don’t expect us to do all the hard work.  The more you do, and the more you do with us, the safer we will all be.

JSDF services had better figure out how to operate with each other – and with us.  So build a joint headquarters – or make that two of them. One for JSDF to get “joint operations” right, and another where Japanese and US forces operate side-by-side “jointly” defending Japan.

And once I’m reelected, let’s start joint, all-service training exercises between the JSDF and American forces. If you need some ideas, go down to Yokosuka navy base and look at what the U.S. Navy and the Maritime Self Defense Force have going on.

And one more thing: If you expect American forces to defend Japan, they’d better be able to train in Japan – not have to fly and sail thousands of miles away to practice. And the same goes for the poor JSDF.

You think I’m a shakedown artist? Japan’s local communities that demand money from Tokyo to allow Japanese and American forces to train in their neighborhoods put the Mafia to shame. Cut them off.”

If President Trump says all this (and says it nicely of course), it will also be worth far more to the U.S. and to Japan than a few billion dollars.  And it will be worth even more to the Quad.

About Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy. He also is a Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies focusing on Asia/Pacific defense, political and economic matters. Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine Colonel and was the first US Marine Liaison Officer to the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. He also served as reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific, and was the U.S. Marine Attaché, US Embassy Tokyo on two occasions.