WASHINGTON ― The U.S. and Japan are close to signing a new five-year pact for Japan to support U.S. military forces in the country and a new agreement to research and develop new defense technologies, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday.
Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met virtually with their Japanese counterparts — Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa and Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo — on Thursday amid rising tensions between the allies and China. Austin participated from home as he recovers from COVID-19.
“We’re launching a new research and development agreement that will make it easier for our scientists, for engineers and program managers, to collaborate on emerging defense-related issues: countering hypersonic threats, advancing space capabilities,” Blinken said ahead of the meeting. “When Japanese and American researchers bring their complementary strengths to bear, we can out-compete and out-innovate anyone.”
Austin reaffirmed the importance of the alliance and said the two countries are taking “bold steps” to strengthen its readiness and deterrent power. Thursday’s meeting was to set a framework for future action, he added.
“This framework will include: enhancing alliance capabilities across all domains; evolving our roles and missions to reflect Japan’s growing ability to contribute to regional peace and stability; and optimizing our alliance force posture to strengthen deterrence,” Austin said.
Under the terms of the hosting deal reached in principle two weeks ago, Japan will spend approximately $1.82 billion annually to support the U.S. military presence. The United States has about 55,000 troops in Japan, including a naval contingent, which makes it the largest forward-deployed U.S. force in the world.
That emerging agreement ends a Trump-era row over the the costs of deployments of U.S. forces abroad by agreeing in principle to a new formula for paying for the American military presence in Japan. Blinken said the alliance “will invest greater resources to deepen our military readiness and interoperability.”
Though it went unmentioned publicly on Thursday, the two sides have reportedly drafted plans for a joint operation amid fears China is gaining the ability to invade and hold Taiwan. At the initial stage of a Taiwan emergency, the U.S. Marine Corps would set up temporary bases on the Nansei (or Ryukyu) island chain, which stretches southwest toward Taiwan.
Japan’s armed forces would reportedly provide logistical support in areas such as fuel and ammunition, according to the Kyodo news agency.
Japan is also reportedly deploying more than 500 Self-Defense Force personnel, as well as surface-to-ship and ground-to-air missile batteries, on one island in the Nansei chain, Ishigaki. The westernmost island, Yonaguni, hosts a radar and surveillance station, and is reportedly adding an electronic warfare unit by 2023.
The operational plans were expected to draw a backlash from China, which considers democratically-governed Taiwan part of Chinese territory.
“No one should underestimate the strong resolution, determination and capability of the Chinese people to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a Dec. 24 news conference.
Japanese civilian officials have been issuing public warnings about China’s pressure on Taiwan and the need to protect the island as a democratic country, marking a major political shift from just a few years ago, said Eric Sayers, an Asia-Pacific defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Since we’ve seen Japanese civilian military leaders talking about this, that really opened up possibilities for thinking about the problem and more joint planning,” Sayers said, adding: “Japan’s recognition of the importance of Taiwan is also recognition that their geography just doesn’t allow them to avoid this problem.”
Blinken also said the two countries militaries “are improving their capacity to conduct complex joint operations,” as evidenced by a November’s naval exercise in the Philippine Sea, which saw forces from Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan and the U.S. conduct complex exercises with multiple aircraft carriers.
The pact comes less than a year after Blinken and Austin visited Tokyo, and the countries joined forces to criticize China’s “coercion and destabilizing behavior.” in Asia. The leaders, at that time, also stressed “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
On Wednesday, Japan’s new Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison signed a reciprocal access agreement to make it easier for their respective militaries to visit each other’s countries for exercises.
Amid stepped up tensions with China, Japan’s parliament has approved a record extra budget of nearly 36 trillion yen (U.S. $317 billion), with additional military spending to speed up deployment of missile defense systems and other military preparedness measures. Kishida said in November he was open to acquiring enemy-base strike capabilities.
With reporting by the Associated Press.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.