Japan, already Washington’s most important ally in the Indo-Pacific, is deepening its strategic partnership with the United States in an effort to counter China — a development that will be showcased this week with a shake-up of U.S. Marine Corps units in Okinawa and a White House embrace of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Kishida’s visit to Washington comes as his political standing is wavering, his poll approval ratings often below 40 percent, and with President Biden wanting to give a stalwart partner a boost. It comes, too, on the heels of Japan announcing a major hike in defense spending, and a new national security strategy that calls for “counterstrike” or long-range strike capability — enabling it to reach targets in mainland China.
“The meeting between President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida will highlight the pivotal moment we are in for the US-Japan alliance,” White House officials said in a statement to The Post.
Japan, which occupies the presidency of the Group of Seven industrial democracies this year, has also taken significant steps to hold Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine — becoming the first country in Asia to join Western democracies in sanctioning Moscow. Kishida, risking China’s anger, has spoken out publicly about the dangerous potential of a conflict in Asia over Taiwan. Perhaps most noteworthy of all, Tokyo has set aside decades of self-imposed constraints on the military as it confronts increasing security threats and risk of war in the Indo-Pacific.
“This is about Japan essentially aligning with the United States, in many ways like a NATO ally,” said a senior administration official, who like several other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Spokespersons for the State and Defense departments declined to comment.
This week, the two allies will announce the repurposing of a Marine Corps regiment based in Okinawa to be able by 2025 to rapidly disperse to fight in austere, remote islands, according to several U.S. officials. The Marine Corps plans to equip the regiment with advanced capabilities, such as anti-ship missiles that could be fired at Chinese ships in the event of a Taiwan conflict.
This is one of the most significant advances in U.S. force posture in the region in at least a decade, said the officials. “Japan is substantially improving its capacity, but also providing more capacity for the United States,” said the administration official. “This reflects a Japan that is much less ambivalent, a Japan that is prepared to play a more substantial role in its own defense.”
In the past, the administration official said, Japan would have resorted to “a kind of checkbook diplomacy, and basically asked the United States to take care of” security in the region. “What they’re doing now is something quite different and quite substantial, which is essentially to say, ‘Count us in.’ And that’s a big deal.”
Kishida last May promised Biden that Tokyo would embark on a substantial increase in defense spending, which Japan announced last month, officials said. Tokyo specifically asked Washington to reserve the announcement of the Marine regiment for the “Two-plus-Two” meeting of the two countries’ defense and foreign secretaries this week so that it would come after Japan’s rollout of its budget and national security and defense strategies — in synchronized fashion, they said.
“Japan is stepping up big-time and doing so in lockstep with the United States,” the White House officials said.
But the Kishida-Biden meeting is about “more than specific deliverables or topics,” it said. “It is a chance to take stock of the last year and how we have taken this alliance to unprecedented heights and what’s next.”
Some policymakers, such as Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chairman of the new Select Committee on China, are supportive but want to see more action. Neither this administration nor the previous one, he said, seems to have moved with the requisite “sense of urgency” to build a credible deterrent to China.
“I shall praise it when it becomes a reality,” Gallagher said, when told of the coming announcement.
But administration officials say the changes Japan has pledged to make are meaningful. Its planned increase in defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product over 5 years would make its defense budget the world’s third-largest. Its decision to build its own long-range missiles and in the meantime to buy U.S. Tomahawks as an interim step is a major advance in counterstrike capability and a signal to China that aggressive moves in the region will not go unanswered, they said.
Japan’s endorsement of the Marine Corps restructuring comes as China continues a sweeping military buildup, including expansion of its Navy — already the world’s largest — and its nuclear program, all part of Beijing’s goal of becoming the world’s preeminent military by 2049.
Japan and China also have been engaged in a long-running territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea northeast of Taiwan, where an escalation could draw the United States — which has pledged to defend Japan under a security treaty — into a conflict with China.
When it comes to the security partnership, Japan stands out, a second U.S. official said. “The British, the Australians, are very, very important to us, but none of them provide the capabilities to us that Japan offers. None of them host the forces that they host. None of them have the economy the size that Japan has,” he said.
Senior U.S. military officials in both Washington and the Pacific have been discussing for several years a restructuring of the U.S. military — and the Marine Corps, in particular — to counter rising concerns about the Chinese military’s growth and unpredictable actions.
The heavy concentration of the U.S. military on Okinawa — about half of American troops in Japan are stationed there — and a number of criminal incidents over the years have long been a sore point with the Japanese, and the Okinawans in particular. “The fact that they’re doing this anyway shows how much the relationship has changed and that support for the alliance extends to Okinawa as well,” said Christopher Johnstone, Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former White House director for East Asia. “It speaks to political evolution in Okinawa and the urgency of the threat.”
Though the overall number of personnel assigned to Marine units on Okinawa will generally hold steady, at about 18,000, “it’s not just about the bodies, it’s about the capabilities,” the second official said. “They’ll move quicker. With more firepower.”
Over the next several years, the goal is to provide the regiment with ground-launched anti-ship missiles, part of the military’s plan to be able to target adversaries from multiple “domains” simultaneously — air-to-air, air-to-ground, ground-to-sea, sea-to-ground, and so on, the official said.
The Pentagon additionally wants to be able to rotate Marines to some of the more remote islands southwest of Okinawa, where they will train and perhaps position equipment there, to develop the ability to rapidly deploy should China attack Taiwan, officials said. Some of the southwestern islands, known collectively with Okinawa as the Ryukyus, are only about 100 miles from Taiwan — roughly the same distance that separates the self-governed island from mainland China.
The Marine regiment “reinforces Japan’s status as by far the most important ally in preparing for a Taiwan crisis,” Johnstone said. “That really is the center of what we’re doing here.”
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin warned that “U.S.-Japan military cooperation should not harm the interests of any third party or undermine peace and stability in the region.”
The shake-up on Okinawa follows the establishment of a similar unit in Hawaii. There, the Marine Corps took an existing infantry headquarters — the 3rd Marine Regiment — and turned it into the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment. In Okinawa, the Marine Corps will repurpose the 12th Marine Regiment, an artillery headquarters, to create the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment. The service also plans to transfer an infantry headquarters now on Okinawa, the 4th Marine Regiment, to Guam, where it could serve as the basis of the third littoral regiment beginning in 2027, a third U.S. official said. That unit will be called the 4th Marine Littoral Regiment.
The units include up to about 2,200 military personnel each and are designed to rely on amphibious ships and other naval vessels to carry out strikes using long-range missiles, coordinate air and missile defense, and support other ground troops in the region. Among the weapons they are expected to use is an anti-ship weapon known as the Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, or NMESIS, which is launched from the back of combat vehicles.