U.S., Japan to expand military cooperation amid rising tensions with China

The leaders of the United States and Japan this week will commit to modernizing their military alliance, with the aim of eventually creating a truly operational hub for the most consequential defense partnership in the Pacific.
The U.S.-Japan Security Alliance | Council on Foreign Relations
They will also outline a vision for an integrated air defense network that links Japanese, Australian and U.S. sensors, so each country can have a full picture of airborne threats in the region.
And they will announce that a Japanese astronaut will become the first non-American on a NASA mission to the moon.
These are among the raft of announcements expected this week when President Biden welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for a state visit on Wednesday, to be followed a day later by a first-ever summit among the leaders of Japan, the United States and the Philippines.
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The summits are the latest display of the Biden administration’s efforts to deepen what it calls a “latticework” of alliances and partnerships in the region — a clear signal to China. Underscoring the point, Japan and the United States on Sunday joined Australia and the Philippines in military drills in the South China Sea, an area that China claims as part of its maritime dominion.
The relationship with Japan in particular has significantly deepened, with Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell recently calling it “the cornerstone of our engagement in the Indo-Pacific.”
The gains, however, have not been without some economic strains. Most recently, Japanese officials were frustrated by Biden’s public opposition to Nippon Steel’s $14.9 billion bid to acquire U.S. Steel, with the president saying it was “vital” that the faded industrial giant remained in American hands.
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But Tokyo, officials there say, understands the election-year necessity of Biden’s opposition to the takeover and has remained outwardly placid. The two governments, stressing that the matter is for the companies to work out, are determined that it not mar this week’s visit.
China’s growing aggressiveness in the region has brought Japan and the Philippines closer to the United States as their security interests converge. In the past year and a half, Japan has made significant reforms to its national security and defense strategies and has committed to buying U.S. Tomahawk missiles and building its own counterstrike capability. The Philippines has granted the U.S. military access to more bases on its islands.
Biden administration officials say the U.S.-Japan relationship is in the strongest shape it has ever been. “There should be a permanent level of mutual trust,” said one Japanese official, who like other senior officials in both capitals spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss planning for the summit.
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Kishida, who will deliver a speech Thursday to a joint meeting of Congress, will also highlight Japan’s aspirations to be a global leader. At last year’s Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Kishida rallied support for Ukraine, expanded Global South participation in the meeting of advanced democracies, and he called for collective action against economic coercion — a veiled swipe at China.
Japan, said one senior Biden administration official, is aligning with the United States “in many ways like a NATO ally.”
Though Biden will express intent to enhance the U.S. joint military command structure in Japan, he will not unveil a specific plan, said a senior administration official. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has yet to approve a plan, in consultation with the president and the incoming commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Samuel Paparo, the official said.
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Meanwhile, Tokyo has announced plans to establish a Joint Operations Command by 2025 to direct all Japanese military operations, a move the United States has long sought. In return, Tokyo would like Washington to set up an operational command in Japan. Joint operations of U.S. personnel in Japan are currently directed by Indo-Pacom, which is headquartered in Hawaii.
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“Today, if China attacked Taiwan, the United States and Japan would struggle to forge a combined response,” said Christopher Johnstone, a former senior Biden White House aide on East Asia who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “With truly operational commands in Japan, we would have a much better ability to coordinate military operations in real time.”
Kishida and Biden will also discuss expanding co-production of defense equipment. The Japanese already produce Patriot missiles under license from Raytheon and have committed to exporting several dozen to the United States to refill depleted stocks sent to Ukraine and other allies. Though Biden and Kishida will not name specific weapon systems in their joint statement, an expansion of Patriot production could be discussed privately, along with the possibility of establishing other new manufacturing lines in coming years, U.S. officials said.
Japan, US to increase defense ties ...
The two countries will also highlight economic investments, notably in electric-vehicle battery manufacturing, where Washington needs Tokyo’s assistance to jump-start production and fend off Beijing’s dominance.
“The preference is to rely on countries or governments that have values that are more in line with ours,” said Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School professor.
Japanese battery companies have announced more than $20 billion of investments in the United States in recent years. Toyota has said it will spend nearly $14 billion on a giant battery plant in Liberty, N.C., which Kishida will visit this week. Panasonic, which already operates a battery factory with Tesla in Nevada, is investing up to $4 billion in another plant in Kansas. Honda and joint-venture partner LG Energy Solution of South Korea are spending more than $4 billion on a battery factory in Ohio.
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There remain tensions over what are seen as the Biden administration’s protectionist tax breaks on U.S.-made electric vehicles, but that “seems less significant,” said the Japanese official, than the “the issue of over-dependency on China” for key goods such as solar panels and critical minerals.
But, the official added, there is a deeper geostrategic issue that remains, in Tokyo’s view, unresolved: Washington’s resistance to joining a trans-Pacific trade pact whose 11 members include Canada, Australia Japan, Mexico and Chile. Though the Obama administration supported the trade agreement and led the negotiations, negative voter sentiment in the lead-up to the 2016 election made it clear that congressional approval would be extremely difficult.
Given protectionist impulses in both parties, the Biden administration has not seriously considered seeking to join. China and Taiwan, meanwhile, have asked to do so.
“The presence of the United States in the most advanced free trade agreement in the world would be significant,” the official said, referring to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, better known as the CP-TPP.
“We will continue to raise the strategic importance,” the official said.
The United States has its frustrations with Japan, too, particularly in the area of cybersecurity. Japan’s national security systems have been breached by Chinese government hackers, and Washington has told Tokyo that it needs to continue to strengthen its network security, including in the intelligence realm.
U.S. officials have encouraged Tokyo to “hold government officials accountable for the secrets they’re trusted with,” Campbell said last week at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s fair to say that Japan has taken some of those steps, but not all of them.”
Though the administration’s foreign policy focus has been on wars in Europe and the Middle East, it has lavished diplomatic attention on Asian and Pacific allies and partners. With the Kishida visit on Wednesday, four of Biden’s five state dinners will have been held for leaders of Indo-Pacific countries, including India, South Korea and Australia. French President Emmanuel Macron also was accorded the honor.
Christian Davenport contributed to this report.

Ellen Nakashima is a national security reporter with The Washington Post. She was a member of three Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, in 2022 for an investigation of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, in 2018 for coverage of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and in 2014 and for reporting on the hidden scope of government surveillance.  

Jeanne Whalen is a reporter covering business around the world. She previously reported for the Wall Street Journal from New York, London and Moscow.

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