America’s Secretary of Defense: Reconcile Your China Strategy

The newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, has visited Japan to confer with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, and he confirms that the two countries have a solid alliance.

The prime minister said, “The bonds of the alliance are firmer than ever. We will strengthen its deterrence power and effectiveness.”

Displaying a firm Japanese-American alliance at home and abroad is meant to protect Japan, naturally, but also the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region and the world.

However, if the alliance is to live up to the “strong bonds” claim, then efforts to maintain its foundations must be redoubled. Judging by events in China, the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and Russia, Japan’s security environment is harsh.

At present, a great number of issues are emerging in the Japanese-American alliance that must be addressed.

First of all, there is the issue of a response to North Korea. Esper discussed North Korea’s firing of short-range ballistic missiles with his Japanese counterparts and confirmed that they were aiming for “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.” This is commendable, but as ever, Donald Trump tolerates the missile launches. The problem of renewing the General Security of Military Information Agreement between Japan and South Korea also remained unresolved.*

There was also no progress on the issue of participation in a “coalition of the willing” to protect tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and elsewhere in the Middle East, which America is seeking. The Japanese left it saying they would “consider the matter holistically.”

Trump’s suggestion to protect one’s own ships diverts attention from solving the problem and cannot be considered something that a reliable ally would do. Trump’s suggestion would have a negative impact on the management of the alliance in Japan’s vicinity.

Japan depends on the Middle East for 80% of its oil supply. Japan is debating whether it is the kind of country that would act on its own regarding tanker defense. Japan desires a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” but we must not forget that Japan’s economic lifelines, the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, are maritime appendages of the Indian Ocean.

There is quite a temperature difference in the Japanese and American postures toward China. The Sino-American trade conflict is largely prompted by American security concerns. Yet, the Japanese government emphasizes that “Sino-Japanese relations are completely back on a normal track.” At the same time, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has been suspended. Japanese-American strategy on China must be reconciled, and that must include a way to prepare for nuclear deterrence against China.

*Translator’s note: On Aug. 23, South Korea withdrew from the General Security of Military Information Agreement.

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