Japan in the U.S. Pivot to Asia Policy

Main U.S. military facilities in Japan (Credits: Ministère de la Défense du Japon, GJSTUv1, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 17 Issue 1
Author: Riccardo Rossi

Since the Obama administration took office, the United States has identified Japan as a key ally to contrast the rapid economic and military growth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Asia-Pacific region.

Concerning Asia-Pacific, the Obama Presidency, later confirmed by the successive Trump and Biden governments, in 2011 presented a specific and articulated foreign policy program for this region called Pivot to Asia, containing Beijing’s economic-military assertiveness within the First Island Chain.[1]

The implementation of this geopolitical vision has required Washington, with the support of the CIA and the Pentagon, to re-evaluate and deepen the geostrategic role of its U.S. Navy, Airforce, Army and Marines deployed in the Asia-Pacific Partner countries, paying particular attention to those located in the Japanese archipelago.

In observance of these assertions, the objective of the following analysis is to understand the geostrategic reasons that have led the United States to consider Japan as its principal ally in the implementation of political-military containment of Beijing’s assertiveness within the eastern and southern sides of the China Sea.

The importance of Japan to the United States

Since the conclusion of the Second World War, the United States has identified the Japanese territory as an essential platform for maintaining a constant political and military presence in the Asia-Pacific, with particular reference to the geo-maritime space between the semi-enclosed Japanese Sea and the two sides of the China Sea, such as the East China Sea (ECS) and the South China Sea (SCS).

One of the main reasons for this U.S. decision can be traced back to the particular geographical conformation of the Rising Sun, attributable to two peculiar features. The first is due to the presence within its territories of the Strait of Japan (interconnects the Sea of Japan with the ECS) and the Miyako channel (which connects the ECS to the Pacific Ocean). The second peculiar feature is due both to the proximity of the Japanese archipelago to the Russian territories (Senkaku Islands and the Sea of Okhotsk), to the Korean Peninsula and the northern coastline of the People’s Republic of China and to be part together with Formosa of the First Island Chain.

This particular location of the Rising Sun has led Washington after the victory of the war in 1945 to establish there a large number of military bases U.S. Navy, Airforce, Army and Marines, operation partly successful thanks to the ratification in 1960 together with Tokyo of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, judged as:

 «The U.S.-Japan alliance remains the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign and security policies, building on the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security that codified a core strategic bargain committing the United States to Japan’s defense in exchange for access to bases in Japan that would allow for the maintenance of peace and security in the Far East.»[2]

This Cold War treaty allowed Washington to enhance the value of its Japanese bases by increasing the operational range of the U.S. Navy and Airforce in the geo-maritime space between the Okhotsk Sea, Japan and the East China Sea. This advantage has allowed the U.S. to operate effectively in two circumstances. The first was the Korean conflict (1950-1953), during which the Pentagon used the Japanese territory for logistic support to the troops deployed to the front and at the same time as a launching platform for bombing operations against the North Korean military installations and air support to the soldiers on the ground.[3]

The second circumstance is due to the need of the United States to control the activities of the Soviet Pacific Fleet, particularly the nuclear missile submarines (SSBN), deployed since the 1970s at the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy base located in the southern sector of the Kamchatka peninsula.[4]

For the United States, the end of the Cold War and the relative dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not disrupt its relationship of cooperation with Japan, since the White House considered it an indispensable ally in maintaining a geostrategic balance in the ECS, in the face of the high instability of the Korean peninsula.

With the inauguration of the Obama Presidency (2009-2017) and its successors Trump (2017-2021) and Biden (2021-in office), this cooperative relationship between the two states has seen a rapid strengthening in light of the Obama administration’s recognition of the political-military rise of the People’s Republic of China led by Xi Jinping in the Asia-Pacific as a significant security threat in the region. This observation prompted the Obama Presidency in 2011 to present a specific foreign policy line for the Pacific, called Pivot to Asia. This geopolitical project, aimed at containing Beijing’s political-military assertiveness within the perimeter of the First Island Chain, requires the protection of the areas part of the China Sea claimed by the Xi Jinping Presidency, such as Taiwan and its strait, the Senkaku Islands, and the Miyako, Luzon and Malacca constrictions. The latter plays a vital geostrategic role as necessary passageways for the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) that cross the China Sea.

Within this program, the United States attributed to the Japanese archipelago, because of its proximity to the geo-maritime spaces claimed by Beijing, an essential political-strategic function for the organisation of an effective containment manoeuvre against the assertiveness held by Beijing in the ECS, especially towards Taiwan and the Nipponese Senkaku archipelago.

In this sense, Washington has developed a policy line for Japan to support the Shinzō Abe government (2013-2020) and his successor Fumio Kishida (2021-in office) and implement the line of Japanese geopolitical vision for the Asia-Pacific, argued in the National Security Strategy of 2013.[5] In the document in question, Tokyo recognises the PRC as the main danger to its security, hence the need to modify the article of the 9 Constitution,[6] and at the same time increase the budget for military spending.

The second line of U.S. action in the Japanese archipelago is to maintain its military assets in the Rising Sun, estimated in the Congressional Research Service report in 54,000 troops deployed in bases.[7] Among these military installations, the majority are divided between the archipelagos of Honshū, Kyūshū and Okinawa. Three major bases are located on the island of Honshū: the first in the city of Yokosuka is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet, composed of Carrier Strike Group 5, led by the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan. The second is the Yakota base point of direction for U.S. Air Force forces deployed on Japanese soil. The last of these three military areas is Zama, command headquarters of the U.S. Army. The island of Kyūshū near Sasebo hosts the second largest base of the U.S. Navy, where the Amphibious Ready Group is located, including the amphibious assault ship USS America (LH-6), capable of combining the amphibious component with the air component represented by helicopters, tiltrotors (V-22 Osprey) and fixed-wing aircraft (F-35 B and AV-8B Harrier II). Last but not least, the Okinawa archipelago, due to its conformation and location close to the territories claimed by Beijing, the Senkaku Islands, Taiwan and its strait, represents the island territory where the United States have the most advanced bases, including Camp Courtney (3rd Marine Expeditionary Force HQ), Kadena (U.S. Air Force: 18th Winge) and Futenma (CH-53, AH-1, UH-1, MV-22 ).

For the United States, the tactical-strategic enhancement of its Japanese bases, in particular Okinawa, is considered essential to obtain a tactical-operational advantage in the imposition of its sea control located near the island of Taiwan and the Senkaku archipelago, using sea denial strategies, thus preventing Beijing from exercising air-naval control of the spaces mentioned above. The Pentagon strategy is based on the combination of maritime capabilities underwater (minefields, the use of nuclear attack submarines), surface (including aircraft carriers and LHD), air (F-15/18/22/35, B-52, B2) and missile (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System).[8]

Conclusions

It is possible to say that for the United States, Japan represents a milestone in implementing its Pivot to Asia policy in the Asia-Pacific region, aimed at containing Beijing’s assertiveness within the geo-maritime space of the First Island Chain.

This assertion can be argued considering the particular geophysical conformation of the Rising Sun, due to its structure of island state due to the presence of countless islands (including the Senkaku are disputed by Beijing), two major sea straits such as Japan and Miyako, and its proximity to the geo-maritime areas considered by Washington of high geostrategic importance such as the Korean Peninsula, the Asian coastal segments of Russian and Chinese and the island of Taiwan.

Historically for the United States, the geographical position of the Japanese archipelago has represented an indispensable launching pad for military operations during the Cold War, as occurred in the conflict in Korea (1950-1953) and for the control of the manoeuvres of the Soviet Pacific fleet.

This geostrategic role of Japan has been taken up and enhanced by the Obama Presidency to implement the Pivot to Asia project outlined above. In this project, Washington intends both to support the rearmament policy conceived and described by the Shinzō Abe government in the National Security Strategy of 2013, and to employ its military resources in Japan to impose its sea control near the geo-maritime areas claimed by Beijing, such as the island of Taiwan, the Miyako channel and the Senkaku archipelago, to which Japan holds sovereignty.

The implementation of this project will increase more and more for the United States the tactical-strategic importance of the Japanese archipelago and the role of Tokyo in supporting the containment policy against Beijing’s assertiveness in the East China Sea. In this regard, it is necessary to dwell on the value recognised by Washington to the Japan Self-Defense Forces, which has expanded their level of participation in the military activities organised by the Pentagon near the island of Taiwan.

Sources

[1] Yoshihara. T, China’s Vision of Its Seascape: the First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower, Wiley Periodicals, Asian Politics & Policy 2012, Pages 293-314 

[2] Kiley. G, Szechenyi. N, U.S. Force Posture Strategy in the Asia Pacific Region: An Independent Assessment, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, 2012, p.23

[3] Dingman, R. (1993). The Dagger and the Gift: The Impact of the Korean War on Japan, The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 2(1), 29-55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23612665.

[4] Hara. K, Ikegami. M, New Initiatives for Solving the Northern Territories Issue between Japan and Russia: An Inspiration from the Åland Islands, Issues & Insights Vol. 7- No. 4, April 2007, pp. 57-58

[5] Watanabe. Y, Yoshida. M, Hironaka. M, The U.S-Japan alliance and roles of the japan self-defense force, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, Washington, 2016

[6] See Japanese Constitution: https://www.art3.it/Costituzioni/costituzionegiappone.pdf

[7] Congressional Research Service (2019), The U.S.-Japan Alliance, see at: https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/RL33740.pdf, p.1

[8] Kearn. D, Air-Sea Battle and China’s Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenge, St. John’s University, 2014

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