The United States and Japan have unveiled plans to strengthen security cooperation in the face of shared worries about China.
In a joint statement issued on Wednesday in Washington, DC after talks between the US and Japanese foreign and defence ministers, the two countries said China presented an “unprecedented” threat to international order and pledged to position their alliance to “prevail in a new era of strategic competition”.
“China’s foreign policy seeks to reshape the international order to its benefit and to employ China’s growing political, economic, military, and technological power to that end,” said the statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and their Japanese counterparts, Yoshimasa Hayashi and Yasukazu Hamada.
“This behavior is of serious concern to the alliance and the entire international community, and represents the greatest strategic challenge in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”
They also added a formal mention of outer space in the longstanding US-Japan security treaty, making clear that “attacks to, from and within space” could trigger the mutual defence provisions of the treaty. That had previously been outside the scope of the agreement.
The four men agreed to adjust the American troop presence on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa in part to enhance anti-ship capabilities that would be needed in the event of a Chinese incursion into Taiwan or other hostile acts in the South or East China seas.
In addition, the US space agency NASA plans to sign a cooperation deal with Japan on Friday, they said.
Blinken said the agreement reflects the two nations’ effort to deepen cooperation “across all realms”, including space, cybersecurity and emerging technologies.
He said the US-Japan alliance has “been the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, ensuring the security, the liberty and prosperity of our people and people across the region”.
Wednesday’s discussions will be followed by a meeting on Friday between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida where they will underscore the importance of the relationship.
Kishida, on a weeklong trip to visit allies in Europe and North America, signed a defence agreement with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday that strengthens military ties between the two countries, also in response to China.
Austin noted that the agreement affirms the US’s “ironclad commitment to defend Japan with a full range of capabilities, including nuclear” and underscores that Article 5 of the mutual security treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.
The disputed islands outside Japanese territorial waters are also claimed by Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands.
The changes in the US deployment on Okinawa will transform the 12th Marine Regiment into a smaller, more rapidly mobile unit – the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment, which will be designed to be better equipped to fight any adversary and defend the US and its allies in the region.
Austin said the regiment will bring “tremendous” capabilities to the region as a “more lethal, more agile, more capable” military unit.
US officials said the decision will not increase the number of marines on the island and does not come with any significant change in weapons capability. Reinforcement of military capability or troops is a sensitive issue for Okinawa, the site of one of the bloodiest ground battles at the end of World War II. The island hosts more than half of the US troops based in Japan, and Okinawans want that number reduced.
A littoral regiment is made up of roughly 2,000 marines and includes a combat team with an anti-ship missile battery, a logistics battalion and an air defence battalion. The current marine regiment on Okinawa that it would essentially replace includes about 3,400 marines and sailors.
Wednesday’s agreements follow Japan’s announcement last year that it would increase its defence spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) over five years. That would make its defence budget the world’s third-largest – a dramatic shift in Tokyo’s priorities that reflects growing concerns about North Korea and potential Chinese military action against Taiwan.
Asked about the Japanese reforms, Blinken said: “It’s very simple, we heartily welcome the new strategies especially because there is … a remarkable convergence between our strategy and strategies and Japan’s.
“We applaud the commitment to increase investment, to enhanced roles, missions and capabilities … to closer cooperation not only between the United States and Japan but as well with other allies and other partners,” he said. “We already have a strong foundation that’s only going to grow.”
Austin noted ramped-up Chinese military activities near the Taiwan Strait, but said he seriously doubted they were a sign of plans for an imminent invasion of the island by Beijing.
China claims Taiwan, a self-governing democracy, as its territory and last year carried out exercises seen as a test run for an invasion after a defiant visit to Taipei by Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the US House of Representatives.
“We believe that they endeavour to establish a new normal but whether or not that means that an invasion is imminent, you know, I seriously doubt that,” he said.
“I won’t second-guess Mr Xi but what I will tell you that what we are seeing recently is some very provocative behaviour on the part of China’s forces,” Austin said, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping.