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Hagel Offers China, North Korea Clear Guidance: Japan Is US Ally So Back Off

Posted by Colin Clark on


By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

The Chinese, who have been shoving their neighbors around with considerable panache over the last year, upped the ante yesterday with a claim in the official People’s Daily — not yet disavowed by the government — that the PRC may have a claim to Okinawa and others of the Ryuku Islands. Based on this logic — we used to have lots of influence there, sort of — we might next see the Chinese lay claim to substantial portions of Southeast Asia, India and, heck, maybe even the ports of East Africa, which they visited several times in the 15th century. Given how forceful China has grown in its claims against Japan, the Philippines and other countries in the last two years, effectively managing our relations with treaty allies such as South Korea and Japan — and sending signals to China that cannot be misunderstood or missed — becomes crucial. Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake address just how well they think the new Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, is doing on this front. The Editor.

Secretary of Defense Hagel has reenforced, in very clear and specific ways, American support for Japan in its confrontation with China over the disputed South China Sea islands and in regard to the defense of Japan against North Korea.


He appeared to move to clear up ambiguity left from Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Asia, where Kerry appeared to wish to work more closely with China than with Japan on the North Korean crisis.  While in Japan, Kerry highlighted the importance of trade with China and the threat from climate change, and, also highlighted the threat from North Korea.  What was not highlighted was what to do about the North Korean threat or China’s involvement in nuclear proliferation.

Each of the Pacific powers faces a similar Chinese problem: the Chinese are both key trade partner and a major threat.  Managing the two at the same time is the challenge. What is missing is a clear deterrent strategy towards North Korea which includes a nuclear and a credible conventional de-capitation strategy against a regime which would understand little else.

A key problem is rooted in perceived differences among key allies in dealing with North Korea. For example, in this piece from The Japan Times there is a clear treatment of this theme.

“Our choice is to negotiate,” Kerry said Sunday after meeting with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. “

The next day, the paper reported, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Kerry: “You mentioned dialogue, but we have been betrayed by North Korea before. I don’t want you to forget that.” The paper says that a government source characterized Kerry’s attitude toward Pyongyang as “more conciliatory than we had imagined.”

But Hagel, in his press conference with the Japanese, offered a refreshing concreteness to Kerry’s general principles.  With regard to the disputed islands, Hagel underscored that disputes about sovereignty were important but that:

“The United States does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands, but we do recognize they are under the administration of Japan and fall under our security treaty obligations.”

In other words, he was avoiding the mistake Dean Acheson made, possibly offering a moment on the table where the PRC leaders could assume that their bullying with regard to Japan was calling into question the role of US forces in the defense of Japan.

Throughout this crisis and in the Middle East, Hagel has demonstrated that his concern for allied security – which has been a hallmark of his years in public office and at the Atlantic Council – has a very practical bent:  what means can be generated to show practical support for allies facing near term threats?

In the Middle East, it is the coming transfer of missiles to support Allied partners and, with the Israelis, the sale of V-22s.

In the Pacific crisis, he is the first SecDef to move the Osprey onto the strategic chessboard.  As Hagel said at the press conference:

“Earlier this month, the United States and Japan jointly announced a base consolidation plan on Okinawa. Its implementation, in concert with moving ahead on the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) will ensure that we maintain the right mix of capabilities on Okinawa, Guam and elsewhere in the region, as we reduce our footprint on Okinawa and strengthen this alliance for the future.

“In addition, we confirmed the deployment of a second squadron of MV-22 Ospreys to Japan, which will take place this summer and increase our capabilities in the region.” 

The 1st Marine Air Wing Commander, Brig. Gen. Owens highlighted how the Osprey is part of the shaping of the USMC presence in the region:

“When you add to that the Osprey and its range and speed, you now have a wider selection of landing spots if we needed an intermediate support base,” he said. “Ospreys, particularly when supported by KC-130Js, would significantly complicate an adversary’s attempts to predict our movements and operations.”

In other words, Hagel has underscored a real capability to assist in the dynamic defense of Japan, and not simply provided assurances. This is a very important element of the deterrent approach in the Pacific. And in the years ahead, reinforcing the relationship with Japan will lie at the center of improving credible US and allied capabilities for deterrence and action.

Japan is a key technological partner for the United States. They are a founding member of the Aegis global enterprise. They are an investor and operational partner in the SM-3 missile capability. They are a major player in the F-35 program, which will allow the shaping of an attack and defense enterprise. They are building a final assembly facility for the F-35 which will become a key element in the F-35 global procurement system, subject to Japanese government policy decisions. And they are keenly interested in seeing how the Osprey can shape greater reach and range for the “dynamic defense” of Japan.

In effect, Japan is about to enter its third phase of defense and security policy since the end of the Cold War. The first phase was extended homeland defense, where the focus was primarily on defending the homeland from direct threats to the homeland. A more classic understanding of defense was in play, whereby force had to be projected forward to threaten Japan and as this threat materialized, defenses need to be fortified.  It was defense versus emergent direct threats to Japan.

Life changed. Technology made warfare more dynamic, and the nature of power projection has changed. The reach from tactical assets can have strategic consequences, the speed of operations has accelerated and operations highlighting the impact of “shock and awe” high speed operations made it clear that relatively static defenses were really not defenses at all.

At the same time, globalization accelerated, and with it the global significance of maritime and air routes and their security for the viability of the Japanese way of life.  When terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center, the Japanese got the point.  No man was an island, and neither was an island economy protected by having a global policy of shopkeepers. More was required to defend the Japanese way of life.

The emergence of the Chinese colossus and the expansion of the Korean crisis into a direct threat to Japan, combined with the resurgence of Russia  with its nuclear weapons and military forces, all posed the question of threats able to reach Japan rapidly and with significant effect.

A static defense made no sense; a “dynamic defense” became crucial.  This meant greater reach of Japanese systems, better integration of those systems within the Japanese forces themselves, more investments in C2 and ISR, and a long-term strategy of re-working the U.S.-Japanese military relationship to have much greater reach and presence.

Hagel seems to get this and has acted on the assumption of the centrality of the US-Japanese relationship in shaping 21st century deterrence and has acted on that basis to enhance some of the material means to do so.


Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake’s forthcoming book,  Rebuilding the US Military: Shaping a 21st Century Strategy, by Praeger Publishers, will provide an extended look at the evolving US-Japanese relationship within a 21st century strategic context. Laird is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors.

















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