How can the United States and Japan strengthen their alliance against Russia and China?

U.S: military facilities in Japan (Credits: 防衛省・自衛隊ホームページ, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 23 Issue 4
Author: Riccardo Rossi

The United States and Japan have intensified their military, commercial and diplomatic cooperation to counter Russia and China’s strategy in the Asia-Pacific and strengthen Washington’s foreign policy Pivot to Asia. 

On September 14th, 2022, Ysukazu Hamada, Japan’s Defence Minister, travelled to the United States to discuss with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III the political-strategic partnership with Washington to contain the growing economic-military presence of the Beijing-Moscow axis in the Northwest Asia-Pacific region.[1]

The analysis aims to understand Japan’s geopolitical role for the United States and, in the conclusions, to outline the possible evolution of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

 The Washington-Tokyo axis

In Washington’s Asia-Pacific foreign policy Pivot to Asia, Japan is the U.S. major ally in containing the Chinese-Russian economic-miliary presence on the northern side of the First Island Chain.[2] In this framework, the Shinzō Abe government (2012-2021) elaborated the 2013 National Security Strategy, which focuses on three issues: the geographical conformation of the Rising Sun, the economic importance of Japan’s geo-maritime space, and the U.S. tactical-strategic optimisation of its Japanese bases for missions to counter Sino-Russian military manoeuvres conducted in the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan.[3]

The geographical factor

Japan is an indispensable geo-maritime area for the United States to implement the Pivot to Asia project. Indeed, looking at the Japanese geophysical structure, it should be noted that the Rising Sun is an operational element of the northern side of the First Island Chain.[4]

In addition, Japan is closer to the Russian Federation (comprising the coastline and the Kuril Archipelago),[5]  the Korean Peninsula, the foreshore segment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the island of Taiwan, which is the subject of continuous claims by Beijing. Lastly, the Japanese territories are near countless sea straits, including Korea, La Pérouse, Taiwan and Miyako.[6]

Geoeconomy of Japan.

For the United States and Japan, the East China Sea (ECS) constitutes a geo-maritime space of great economic value due to both vast deposits of fossil resources, primarily concentrated in the waters of Okinawa Province, and important Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC), essential to support the Japanese economy.[7]

In a 2014 report, the energy resources in this area were quantified in the East China Sea as about 200 million barrels of oil and between 1 and 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves.[8] As stressed in the 2013 National Security Strategy, Japan defined the fossil reserves in the domestic exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as an indispensable asset to meet a large part of the national civil and industrial energy demand.

Consequently, Tokyo developed a specific energy policy, combining the construction of new oil platforms in Okinawa province with importing crude oil. In 2020, Japanese oil imports stood at 38.4 billion dollars, with the majority coming from Saudi Arabia (15.1 billion dollars), the United Arab Emirates (12.1 billion dollars), Kuwait (3.41 billion dollars), Qatar (3.23 billion dollars) and the Russian Federation (2.06 billion dollars).[9]

Referring to the SLOC, Abe (2012-2021) and his successor, Fumio Kishida, have repeatedly reaffirmed their geo-economic centrality for the national economy, given their crucial role in energy supply. Tokyo, like the People’s Republic of China, attaches particular importance to the Malacca Sea Route and the North Sea Route (NSR), which interconnect its national port network to global markets, among them the American and European ones.

The strategic-military aspect.

With the implementation of the PRC’s policy of containment within the First Island Chain, the United States has progressively reinforced the bases of the U.S. Navy, Army, Airforce, and Marines located along the archipelago of the Rising Sun. Particularly important among these are the military area of Yokosuka (home of the Seventh Fleet), the U.S. Navy outpost of Sasebo (where the expeditionary strike group led by LHD America is stationed) and the island of Okinawa, which hosts the most advanced bases including Camp Courtney, Kadena and Futenma.[10]

The Pentagon considers all these military assets deployed in Japan indispensable to gain a tactical advantage over the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and to carry out military operations near Taiwan, the Senkaku archipelago and the Okinawa EEZ.

Undeniably, Washington considers this action the only possibility to prevent Beijing from exercising control over the spaces mentioned above, protecting Tokyo’s economic interests. Regarding the Taiwan crisis, Washington and Tokyo agreed to focus on this issue to prevent Beijing from controlling the island of Taiwan/Taipei, a strategic choke point between the East Sea and the South Sea.[11]

Indeed, by controlling Taiwan/Taipei, Beijing would contrast the Japanese and U.S. military bases’ threat to its cities and undermine freedom of navigation, causing severe damage to Japan’s energy supply system essential for functioning its economic-industrial apparatus. The second type of operation that the United States can carry out using its bases in Japan falls into the category of power projection missions, i.e. actions aimed at striking, in the event of a conflict with the People’s Republic of China or North Korea, military installations in Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang.[12]

Conclusions

Against the backdrop of this analysis, it can be argued that for the U.S., Japan represents a milestone in implementing its Pivot to Asia policy in the Asia-Pacific region. [13]

Implementing this project will gradually strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries, as witnessed by Biden’s diplomatic visits between 20-24 May 2022[14] and the regular joint exercises between the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and the U.S. armed forces.[15] These include Japan’s participation in the Rimpac 2022 exercise, the most important military manoeuvre that the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) organises annually.

Sources

[1]Dzirhan Mahadzir, (2022), U.S. Japanese Defence Chiefs Reaffirm Alliance in Pentagon Meeting, USNI News. Link: https://news.usni.org/2022/09/15/u-s-japanese-defense-chiefs-reaffirm-alliance-in-pentagon-meeting

[2]Riccardo Rossi, (2021), Japan in the U.S. Pivot to Asia Policy, Geopolitical Report Volume 17 Issue 1, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2022/03/01/japan-united-states-asia/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Toshi Yoshihara, (2012) China’s Vision of Its Seascape: the First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower, Wiley Periodicals, Asian Politics & Policy, p. 294

[5]Riccardo Rossi, (2022), Russian-Japanese relations and the Sea of Japan, Geopolitical Report Volume 17 Issue 5, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2022/03/21/russia-japan-geopolitics/

[6]Riccardo Rossi (2021), Il confronto militare sino-statunitense per il controllo dell’isola di Taiwan, Geopolitical Report  Volume 13 Issue 1, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2021/11/02/il-confronto-militare-sino-statunitense-per-il-controllo-dellisola-di-taiwan/  

[7]Riccardo Rossi, (2022), Russian-Japanese relations and the Sea of Japan, Geopolitical Report Volume 17 Issue 5, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2022/03/21/russia-japan-geopolitics/

[8]U.S. Energy Information Administration, (2014) East China Sea. Link: https://www.eia.gov/international/analysis/regions-of-interest/East_China_Sea

[9]The Observatory of Economy (n.d.) Crude Petroleum in Japan. Link: https://oec.world/en/profile/bilateral-product/crude-petroleum/reporter/jpn

[10]Riccardo Rossi, (2022), Russian-Japanese relations and the Sea of Japan, Geopolitical Report Volume 17 Issue 5, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2022/03/21/russia-japan-geopolitics/

[11] Li, Jie, (2001) The ‘island chain’ that ties up China, Modern Ships, cited by Toshi Yoshihara, (2012), China’s Vision of Its Seascape: the First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower, Wiley Periodicals, Asian Politics & Policy, Pages 293- 314

[12] Riccardo Rossi, (2021), Geostrategy and military competition in the Korean Peninsula, Geopolitical Report Volume 12 Issue 10, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2021/10/22/competition-korean-peninsula/

[13] Michael Beckley, (2017) The Emerging Military Balance in East Asia: How China’s Neighbours Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion, International Security Volume 42 Issue 2, pp. 78-119. Link: https://direct.mit.edu/isec/article/42/2/78/12177/The-Emerging-Military-Balance-in-East-Asia-How

[14] Riccardo Rossi, (2022), Analysis of President Biden’s visits to Japan and South Korea, Geopolitical Report Volume 20 Issue 6, SpecialEurasia. Link:  https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2022/06/06/us-biden-japan-south-korea/

[15]Yoshikazu Watanabe and all, (2016) The U.S-Japan alliance and roles of the japan self-defence force, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, Washington, https://spfusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/US-Japan-Alliance-JSDF.pdf


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