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What’s Next for the U.S.–Japan ‘Special Relationship’
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, left, and Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba, right, prior to their bilateral meeting at Iikura Guest House, July 9, 2020, in Tokyo, Japan.
Eugene Hoshiko/Reuters

What’s Next for the U.S.–Japan ‘Special Relationship’

Arthur Herman

The term “special relationship” is usually reserved for the alliance between the United States and Great Britain. Yet that term applies almost as well the United States and our oldest democratic ally in Asia, Japan.

Japanese and American security interests have never been more closely aligned. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe see the world in very similar ways, including the looming threat of China; and both have been forthright about making the alliance stronger and more proactive.

Later this week Defense Secretary Mike Esper and his Japanese counterpart, Defense Minister Taro Kono, will be meeting in Guam to discuss strengthening U.S.–Japan strategic cooperation. Their discussions offer the opportunity to lay down the concrete foundations of a “special relationship” almost as close as the one between the U.S. and Britain — one that will be a permanent strategic anchor in the Indo-Pacific region.

One of those foundations is ballistic-missile defense against North Korea. It’s significant that their meeting is taking place in Guam — once the scene of savage fighting between American and Japanese forces in World War II. Just three years ago before Trump took office, Guam was one of the likely targets of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s rogue missile launches, which had become an almost bimonthly occurrence, including one over Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.

Anxiety about North Korea prompted Japan to purchase the advanced U.S. ballistic-missile-defense system known as Aegis Ashore. Faced by Aegis Ashore’s enormous cost ($4.2 billion) and huge infrastructure that will take years to build, Defense Minister Kono decided in June to cancel the order. The question is what to do next.

One possible answer the Esper–Kono dialogue should consider is an airborne kinetic boost-phase-intercept (BPI) system, using drones mounting a two-stage inceptor missile to kill missile launches shortly after they’ve left the launch pad. Already familiar to Japanese policy-makers (full disclosure: Hudson Institute and I hosted a two-day conference in San Diego in 2017 to discuss the merits of airborne BPI with leading Japanese politicians and experts), and deemed feasible by our own Ballistic Missile Agency and the U.S. Air Force (conventional fighter aircraft have successfully done BPI tests using missiles of this type), this system would involve interceptor-armed, American-built, unmanned vehicles stationed hundreds of miles off the North Korean coast, in international air space at an altitude of 45,000 feet, which will be capable of detecting a North Korean missile in boost phase and then allowing time to decide to destroy it — all at a cost of less than $100 million.

This kind of rotating drone patrol off the North Korean coast would provide a vital front-line layer of security against missile attack — while also providing invaluable intelligence on hostile activities in North Korea and neighboring territories.

Indeed, strengthening information-sharing through regular intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) drone flights needs to be a cornerstone of the alliance — and not just for keeping watch on North Korea. There are already unmanned ISR assets available to Japan, including American-built Global Hawk and Reaper UAV’s. There have been rumors that Japan is thinking of canceling its current Global Hawk order. This would be a mistake, and a serious setback for the alliance. That purchase was proof that Japan was ready to act as an equal partner in intelligence-gathering in the region. Instead, Kono and Esper should make it clear that sticking with high-altitude (up to 50,000 feet), long-endurance assets such as Global Hawk can only strengthen the alliance, for keeping tabs not just on North Korea, but on China as well.

In fact, Kono’s worries about the growing threat from China match those of the Trump administration. He has publicly voiced “very grave concern” about China’s naval operations in the South and East China Seas as a threat to international order. Dealing with that threat must include joint freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South as well as the East China Seas — and could include other allies in the region, such as India, Australia, and Taiwan.

Finally, it’s time to get Japan ready to join the Five Eyes intel-sharing network, alongside the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Again with full disclosure: I’ve been urging this step for some time in print and in dialogue with Japan and American officials, while Defense Minister Kono has expressed the same desire in an interview with Nikkei. Japan has been our Sixth Eye informally for decades. Esper and Kono can draw up a timeline for removing the final obstacles (for example, concerns about cybersecurity) to making Japan a formal part of the greatest and most successful intelligence-sharing network in the world.

All these steps can lead to a new era in U.S.–Japan cooperation on land, air, and sea. This Esper–Kono dialogue can help put to rest the ghosts of a war that ended 75 years ago while making all of us safer and more secure.

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