WASHINGTON — Japan is seeking new missile defense assets in light of the North Korean threat, while also looking at ways to expand a 2015 defense agreement with the United States.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, speaking Thursday at the State Department following a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, said that the threat from Pyongyang is driving Japan to look to accelerate certain defense decisions.
Among those changes is an increased focus on missile defense capabilities. In his opening comments, Onodera, speaking through a translator, said “we will continue to promote cooperation in ballistic missile defense, including acquisition of new assets,” a signal that the Japanese government would consider adding to its defensive capabilities.
While nothing official was announced during the 2+2, the Japan Times newspaperreported shortly before the event that officials expect to procure an Aegis Ashore missile defense system. The same report, citing government sources, said the Ministry of Defense is pushing to speed up planned procurement of another Aegis destroyed.
Japan currently has missile defense systems aboard its Aegis class ships, along with Patriot systems on the ground. If Japan sought the Aegis Ashore system, it would join Romania and, by 2018, Poland as partner nations using that design.
An increase in missile defense spending would be in line with calls made earlier this yearfrom members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party for more military assets, including missile defense capabilities. That same proposal called for Japan to develop a first-strike capability that could hold China or North Korea at threat, something the island nation has eschewed since the end of World War II.
Both Onodera and Mattis said they were seeking to speed up the implementation of a 2015 defense agreementbetween the two nations. As part of that agreement, Japan changed its military posture to one that allows its missile defense systems to protect allies in the region, including adding the right to intercept any missile launched at the United States.
That agreement also led to the creation of a coordination cell, made up of U.S. and Japanese military officials, which officials then hoped would speed up the sharing of information and lead to shared use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. On Thursday, Onodera pledged to “expand peacetime cooperation such as surveillance and joint training.”
Another area of the 2015 agreement touched upon Thursday was a focus on joint cyber and space capabilities. Both defense ministers emphasized cooperation on cyber issues, with Kono adding that “in area of cyberspace and space, we would steadily promote Japan-U.S. cooperation in new areas. We were able to achieve agreement on this.”
Tillerson, for his part, pledged that the two sides “will explore new and expanded activities in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance training and exercises, research and development, capacity building, and joint or shared use of facilities.”
Notably, Tillerson also reiterated that the U.S. views the Senkaku Islands fall under Japanese administration, and that any military movement from another nation into those islands would fall under Article V of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which specifies that the U.S. would act to aid Japan if need be.
That is important given China’s longstanding interest in the Senkaku Islands, which it also claims. The Trump administration has made working with China a pillar of its strategy for North Korea, but Tillerson’s affirmation on Thursday appears to close the door to any idea that the U.S. would trade protection of the Senkaku’s for aid against Pyongyang.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.