5 Steps for Japan, U.S. to Credibly Deter China

Japan and the United States have made remarkable progress on defense cooperation in the last few years. Now is not the time, however, to rest on these accomplishments. Instead, alliance leaders should be even more ambitious about what the allies can, and must, do in the years ahead.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Xi Jinping’s posturing on Taiwan have demonstrated that Japan and the United States can no longer ignore the possibility of a serious conflict in the near to mid term.

Instead, the allies must start preparing in earnest for a major contingency involving the People’s Republic of China. Sustained focus on this objective will be needed to stabilize the military balance and present Beijing with a more credible deterrent.

Leaders in Tokyo are already doing their part by breaking some outdated taboos. At the top of the list was the informal 1% ceiling on defense spending, which is no longer sufficient to guarantee Japan’s security. Next up are restrictions on Japan’s ability to conduct strikes in response to an attack by a foreign power. Details on each will need to be sorted out in the months ahead, but Japan’s level of ambition should be a model for the United States.

When Japanese and American foreign and defense ministers met in Washington this January, they also announced a series of steps designed to bolster deterrence. These initiatives included a new marine littoral regiment in the Southwest (Nansei) Islands, which will have the ability to engage naval targets from the land.

Enhanced training and exercising are planned as well. So too are new command and control arrangements.

These are substantial steps so their implementation will not be easy. As bureaucrats turn toward their execution, alliance leaders should already be laying out the next set of Japan-U.S. initiatives. These efforts should be laser-focused on continuing to bolster deterrence of a contingency in the Taiwan Strait. For a war-winning strategy, five items should be on the agenda.

First, the allies should begin an alliance stockpiling program. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that modern warfare requires vast stocks of munitions and other supplies. In just a matter of months, Ukrainian forces are going through American and European stocks that will take years to refill. This challenge would be even more serious in a conflict with China, given the massive number of targets that could be involved. If a conflict became prolonged, China’s manufacturing capacity could provide it with an edge over the United States and Japan.

To prepare for this challenge, Japan and the United States should establish a program for alliance stockpiling. Today, neither Tokyo nor Washington has nearly the number of anti-ship missiles, naval mines, or other munitions that would be required early in a conflict. In a longer conflict, it would be necessary to produce an even wider range of defense systems and supplies. Therefore, the allies should invest now in the industrial capacity and supply chains required for key munitions and other vital defense capabilities that would be needed in a contingency.

Genuine cooperation on defense tech

Second, the allies should establish a defense technology initiative. The United States has entered into a major defense technology cooperation program with Australia and the United Kingdom through the Australia-United Kingdom-United States arrangement (commonly known as AUKUS). More recently, Washington and New Delhi announced a U.S.-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET). For its part, Japan has inked a deal with the United Kingdom and Italy to develop aerospace cooperation on a new fighter jet.

These expanding defense technology linkages are positive, but they highlight an extraordinary gap in U.S.-Japan cooperation: genuine cooperation on defense technology. The allies need to address this issue head-on by establishing a joint development and co-production arrangement. A perfect area, as outlined above, would be the munitions needed for long-range missiles. An initiative of this sort has the potential to improve interoperability and decrease per unit cost, but recent experience demonstrates that it would require a push from political leaders.

Third, the allies should start a quadrilateral extended deterrence dialogue. China is now conducting a rapid nuclear build-up and both Russia and North Korea are engaged in nuclear saber-rattling, so many U.S. allies are growing more nervous about America’s extended deterrence guarantees. South Korean leaders — scarred by their experience during the Trump administration — have recently been calling for Seoul to consider its own nuclear capabilities, forcing Washington to reconsider its approach to extended deterrence.

This is the moment to establish a quadrilateral extended deterrence dialogue including the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. America’s top allies in the Indo-Pacific are seeking more clarity on the workings of nuclear deterrence. Rather than letting this become a wedge issue in (or between) these alliances, allied leaders should use it to tighten cooperation. Explaining U.S. nuclear planning and posturing in more detail would not only reassure allied leaders but also signal to China, Russia, and North Korea that nuclear threats are likely to tighten allied cooperation.

Fourth, the allies should finally create joint bases, particularly in the Southwest Islands. The future of the U.S.-Japan alliance is interoperable forces able to fight together in a major contingency. This means using bases more interchangeably, including civilian ports and airfields if this is required. In Yokosuka, this already occurs, with Japanese submarines stationed at the U.S. naval base there. But this is an outlier when it should be the norm.

21st century command, control

As the U.S. Marine Corps and Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force develop the capabilities to serve as “stand-in” forces, they will need to be able to quickly deploy across the Southwest Islands, particularly Yonaguni and Ishigaki. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force and Japanese Air Self-Defense Force could be forced to redeploy quickly to facilities farther from a conflict so that they can conduct operations from the “outside in.” All of these movements will require allied forces to be more capable of shifting seamlessly from American to Japanese bases, and vice versa. This cannot be started during a crisis; the planning and exercising must start now.

Finally, the allies should establish a 21st century command and control arrangement. Japan has recognized this problem and announced that it will create a new joint command to relieve some of the burden on the chief of staff. The U.S. Congress has also tasked Indo-Pacific Command to establish a task force focused on the Western Pacific. But the linkages between the two new command structures remain murky.

If the United States and Japan were forced to engage in a major contingency with China, they would need a combined command to maximize the shared capabilities of their joint forces. This means co-locating key leaders and giving them the authority and staff required during a crisis. Improving the allies’ own parallel command structures is a first step, but a standing combined command structure is required for real warfighting. Alliance leaders should therefore make this a priority as they update each country’s own command arrangements.

None of these steps would be easy or simple. But U.S.-Japan alliance leaders have shown recently that they can accomplish things that seemed impossible just a few years ago. That same kind of initiative will need to be continued in the years ahead if Tokyo and Washington are to reinforce deterrence and prevent conflict from erupting in East Asia.

Richard L. Armitage

Armitage is the president and founding partner of Armitage International, L.C. He previously served as U.S. deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.

The Japanese translation of this article appeared in the March 5 issue of The Yomiuri Shimbun.