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International relations

Japan gears up for US defense cooperation in 'all domains'

Biden seen leaning more on Tokyo than Trump to expand role in regional security

The Biden administration may press for Japan to increase its defense budget, which has grown 10% over the past decade. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force)

TOKYO -- Japan will push to increase defense spending and capabilities to broaden cooperation with the U.S. in regional security as laid out in Friday's joint statement.

Facing China's rapid military buildup, Tokyo is tasked with taking on a larger role in its security alliance with Washington in addressing potential missile threats and defending remote islands.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday reaffirmed their commitment to the bilateral security alliance in their meeting in Washington. Japan "resolved to bolster its own national defense capabilities to further strengthen the Alliance and regional security," according to the joint statement.

The phrasing struck a stronger note than the statement from last month's "two-plus-two" meeting of the countries' foreign and defense ministers, which referred to Japan's commitment to "enhance" its defense capabilities. By contrast, the joint statement from the 2017 summit between Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump said only that "Japan will assume larger roles and responsibilities in the alliance."

The increased defense cooperation will require Japan to be equipped with the latest military technology, such as cutting-edge stealth fighters.

Considering China's stockpile of missiles capable of reaching Japanese targets, Japan plans to build destroyers equipped with Aegis missile defense systems. Rapidly developing hypersonic and long-range missiles are also seen as priorities in the defense of the Nansei Islands -- which include Okinawa -- stretching to the southwest.

Japan's defense budget increased for a ninth straight year in fiscal 2021, growing 10% over the past decade. Meanwhile, China's defense spending more than doubled over the same period.

Japan has generally limited defense outlays to around 1% of gross domestic product. The Trump administration had called on Japan and other allies to increase spending to 2%, with a similar push to potentially come from the Biden government.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, left, and U.S. President Joe Biden hold a joint news conference at the White House on April 16.   © Reuters

Friday's joint statement also touched on the U.S. defense of Japan "using its full range of capabilities, including nuclear," under their bilateral security treaty, and a commitment to "bolster extended deterrence" -- the concept of deterring attack on an ally.

The joint statement from Abe's meeting with Barack Obama in 2014 cited the "importance" of U.S. extended deterrence, while the 2017 Abe-Trump statement made no mention of the concept.

Friday's joint statement refers to the commitment by the two countries to "enhance deterrence and response capabilities in line with the increasingly challenging security environment, to deepen defense cooperation across all domains, including cyber and space."

Discussions in Japan on concrete steps to strengthen deterrence will come next. The need for the capability to strike enemy bases in response to an impending missile launch has been brought up by government officials and ruling party members since last year. The deployment of midrange missiles in the Asia-Pacific is among the plans considered by the U.S.

Greatly expanding defense spending remains a fiscal sticking point, and some within the ruling coalition express concerns that strike capabilities would provoke neighboring countries.

The Japan-U.S. joint statements have traditionally covered a wide range of security issues. The Abe-Trump era was an exception, with the statement from their September 2018 summit fitting on one page in Japanese.

The latest joint statement was the result of White House and State Department staffers working with Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, culminating in roughly 6,000 words across six pages in Japanese.

"Professionals in diplomacy have returned to the White House and State Department with the Biden administration," a Foreign Ministry staffer said.

Trump used security issues as a bargaining chip in economic negotiations, making executive decisions. Abe played up Japan's economic contributions to parry extreme demands on the security front.

With the change to the Biden administration, the breadth of defense issues that the two countries will work together on is significant. Yet Japan will be called on to engage in efforts to bolster deterrence even more than under the Trump administration.

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