The US and Japan are poised to announce a major strengthening of their military relationship and an upgrade to the US military’s posture in the country this week, including the deployment of newly reassigned Marines with advanced intelligence, surveillance and the ability to fire anti-ship missiles, according to two US officials briefed on the matter.
The announcement sends a strong signal to China and will come as part of a series of initiatives designed to highlight the rapid acceleration of security and intelligence ties between the countries.
The news is expected to be announced on Wednesday when US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken meet their Japanese counterparts in Washington. The officials are gathering as part of the annual meeting of the US-Japan Security Advisory Committee, days before President Joe Biden plans to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the White House.
The newly revamped Marine Corps will be based in Okinawa and aims to bolster deterrence against Chinese aggression in a volatile region and provide a reserve force capable of defending Japan and responding quickly to contingencies, officials said. Okinawa is considered key to US military operations in the Pacific, in part because of its proximity to Taiwan. It houses more than 25,000 US military personnel and more than two dozen military installations. Approximately 70% of US military bases in Japan are on Okinawa; one island within Okinawa Prefecture, Yonaguni, is less than 70 miles from Taiwan, according to the Council on International Relations.
It is one of the most significant adjustments to the posture of US military forces in the region in years, one official said, underscoring the Pentagon’s desire to shift from the wars of the past in the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region of the future. The change comes after simulated war games by a prominent Washington think tank found that Japan, and Okinawa in particular, would play a critical role in a military conflict with China, providing the United States with forward deployment and basing options.
“I think it’s fair to say that, in my view, 2023 is probably going to be the most transformative year in the US force posture in the region in a generation,” said Eli Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Security – the Pacific region. affairs, at the American Enterprise Institute last month.
The news follows the standing-up of the first Marine Coastal Regiment in Hawaii last year, in which the 3rd Marine Coastal Regiment in Hawaii became the 3rd Marine Coastal Regiment — a key part of the Marine Corps’ modernization effort outlined in the 2030 Force Design report from gen. David Berger.
As the service describes them, the Marine Coastal Regiments are a “low-characteristic mobile unit” capable of conducting strikes, coordinating air and missile defenses, and supporting surface combat operations.
The Washington Post first reported the soon-to-be-announced changes.
In addition to restructuring the country’s Marine Corps, the US and Japan will announce on Wednesday that they are expanding their defense treaty to include attacks to or from space, US officials said, amid growing concern about the rapid progress of China’s space program and developing hypersonic weapons.
In November, China launched three astronauts to its nearly completed space station as Beijing looked to establish a long-term presence in space. China has also explored the far side of the Moon and Mars.
The two allies will declare that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, first signed in 1951, applies to attacks from or in space, officials said. In 2019, the US and Japan made it clear that the defense treaty applies to cyberspace and that a cyber attack can constitute an armed attack under certain circumstances.
The US has watched closely as China rapidly develops its hypersonic weapons systems, including one missile in 2021 that circled the globe before launching a hypersonic glider that hit its target. It was a wake-up call for the United States, which has fallen behind China and Russia in advanced hypersonic technology.
The two countries will also upgrade their joint use of facilities in Japan and conduct more exercises in Japan’s southwestern islands, a move sure to draw Beijing’s ire given its proximity to Taiwan and even mainland China. US officials added that the US will temporarily deploy MQ-9 Reaper drones to Japan for maritime surveillance of the East China Sea, as well as launch a bilateral group to analyze and share the information.
The announcement comes less than a month after Japan unveiled a new national security plan that signals the country’s biggest military build-up since World War II, a doubling of defense spending and a departure from its pacifist constitution in the face of growing threats from regional rivals including China.
China is increasing its naval and air forces in areas near Japan as it claims the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited chain controlled by Japan in the East China Sea, as its sovereign territory.
In late December, Japan said Chinese government ships had been sighted in the contiguous area around the Senkakus, known as the Diaoyus in China, for 334 days in 2022, the most since 2012, when Tokyo acquired some of the islands from a private Japanese landowner, public broadcaster NHK reported. From December 22 to 25, Chinese government ships spent almost 73 consecutive hours in Japanese territorial waters off the islands, the longest such incursion since 2012, the NHK report said.
China has also increased its military pressure on Taiwan, the self-governing island whose security Japanese leaders say is vital to Japan’s own security. In August, that pressure included Beijing firing five missiles that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone near Taiwan in response to a visit by then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei.
Before the announcement of the enhanced US-Japan partnership was even made public, Chinese government officials reacted to reports in the Japanese media.
“Military cooperation between the US and Japan must not harm the interests of any third country or undermine peace and stability in the region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing on Tuesday in Beijing.
A State Department official explained that the war in Ukraine and strengthening China-Russia relations have prompted the US and Japan to reach a series of new agreements that have been under consideration for some time.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine kind of set things off on a warp basis,” the official said. “The relationship between Putin and Xi Jinping that we saw in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics showed this kind of, wait a minute, the Russians and the Chinese are working in new ways. We are facing new challenges.”
And it’s not just the US – Japan and Britain also announced on Wednesday that the two countries will sign a “historic defense agreement” that will allow them to deploy forces in each other’s countries.
The reciprocal access agreement will allow the two forces to plan military exercises and deployments on a larger and more complex scale, making it “the most significant defense agreement between the two countries for more than a century,” according to a statement from Downing Street in Wednesday.
The agreement still needs to be ratified by the respective parliaments before it can enter into force. It will be presented to Japan’s parliament and the UK parliament in the coming weeks, according to the statement.